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Hackathon? It’s code for entrepreneurial thinking

December 04, 2015
As startup business development manager for Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Australia and New Zealand, Ian Gardiner is an expert at leading technology companies to high-growth success. He recently facilitated the AWShine hackathon, in collaboration with Amazon Women Shine, which was designed to bring diversity to the development table and succeeded in achieving a 50:50 female:male participation. Young women graduates from GE joined the hack, and Mark Sheppard, CIO of GE Australia and New Zealand, was a judge at the event. Now Gardiner returns the favour, heading over to GE to help mentor teams of entrepreneurial thinkers in developing successful software products—and assess their efforts for the industrial world.
Gardiner’s discussion of startup thinking is peppered with references to Australian ventures Atlassian, the now multi-billion-dollar enterprise group of companies that develops products geared towards software developers and project managers; and Canva, the online design platform that lets everyone create professional graphic designs. They are among global players such as Netflix, Dropbox, Spotify and Pinterest—which have all upscaled their businesses in the Amazon Web Services cloud. Gardiner cites them as yardsticks of what can be achieved with passion and talent on cloud street.

Read about the Sydney GE Industrial Hackathon, or register here for the Melbourne GE Industrial Hackathon on on December 12-13, 2015. Then let Gardiner kickstart your creative thinking...

GEreports: Why throw yourself into a hackathon?

Ian: At a hackathon you’ve basically got less than 48 hours to build a team around an idea, get your hands dirty, code the idea and actually build the product. On the Sunday afternoon, you pitch the idea and demonstrate what you’ve built. It’s a really compressed way to churn through an innovation cycle.

Fun, adventure and passion are the three words I think of in relation to hackathons.

GEreports: What is the potential for software to change how we work with machines?

Ian:  Well, by 2020 there are going to be 50 billion devices connected to the internet—almost ten devices per human being! What is the implication for that? It’s a fairly new area and we want to see what kinds of problems can be solved using the data that is generated.

GEreports:  At the Industrial Hackathons, you’re hoping to engage entrepreneurial coders, people with a start-up mentality. What defines these kinds of thinkers?

Ian: The number-one thing is passion. Being a startup or launching a startup is really hard and we want to encourage the innovators and the thinkers.

In many ways hackathons are a blank canvas. People come at it with a strong passion for an area that they know something about. You might be an expert in big data, you might be an expert in coal transportation, or you might be an expert in the way the impeller in a pump operates. And if you feel that you’ve got a way of introducing sensors or analysing data that can make something better or more effective, a hackathon is a good way of sticking your toe in the water—building something in a short amount of time that could have a valid use in the wider world.

GEreports:  What makes a great hackathon team?

Ian: The first thing that usually happens at a hackathon is that you get people standing up and saying: “Hey, this is my idea. If you want to join me come and grab me”—it’s the ideation phase where people try to build a team around them. Generally you need different areas of talent within a software development team. One person might be the designer who makes the user interface seamless and sensible. One person might be the hard-core developer who can get into the code console and actually work out how the database links to the computer engine and links to the storage environment for all the data. And one person might be the more commercial person who pulls it together, explains what problem they’re trying to solve, and how they’re going to make money from it. You’ve got to build a product, but you’ve also got to articulate what a product does and how it’s going to work.
People come at it with a strong passion for an area that they know something about.

GEreports: So you don’t have to be a programmer to join a hackathon?

Ian: Programming is certainly a fundamental skill for a hackathon—it’s hard to build something without a programmer. A hackathon is an innovation crucible, so you want to see people coming in and trying things that they might not otherwise do. You might get a commercial guy or girl who’s prepared to get their hands dirty and build some code because they haven’t done it for a while, or you might get hard-core coder who’s sick of the console and wants to go out on the pitch with the marketing ideas.

GEreports: How do you see your role as a mentor? What will you be doing over the course of the weekend?

Ian: We’re there to guide, to make sure teams don’t go down a rabbit hole, that they’re keeping their eye on the clock, or to make sure that their pitch is properly pulled together.

There are different sorts of mentors at the event. Some are very tech focused. And then you’ll get commercial, customer-focused guys like me who might say, “You need to be able to articulate how you’re going to make money from this.” Or, if it’s not about making money, “How will you articulate the customer benefit? How are you going to prove that, and how are you going to pull all that together into a presentation?”

The crux of any hackathon is at around 4pm on Sunday when you’ve got to stand up in front of the crowd and the judges and present your idea. A lot of developers just haven’t done those sort of things before, so mentoring them is keeping them focused around the end goal.

GEreports: How can participants know whether there’s a market for their software product?

Ian: Validation is an important concept within the hackathon. It’s all very well coming up with a product that you think is solving the problem, but if you can demonstrate that you know it’s solving the problem and that you have customers or potential customers prepared to use it …

To gauge that, you can go out onto the street and ask potential customers whether they’d use this product and what they think. This might be hard to do when your product involves the Industrial Internet for coal mines or MRI scanners. Instead, you could call or email two or three potential customers on the weekend to get their thoughts.

GEreports: How important is the cloud in developing software applications?

Ian: It’s pretty critical and our customers validate that. With the AWS cloud, our customers, which of course include startups, don’t need to worry about going out and buying servers and installing them in the data centre and provisioning them with all the networking and power. Basically a startup is born in the cloud. You have access to significant computing power that you only pay for when you use it.

It’s totally changed the dynamic of just about every startup. What would have taken two months and cost you a hundred grand plus, you can now do in ten minutes and it’ll cost you significantly less. If it doesn’t work, you switch it off and you’ve lost very little. If it does work, you double down on it and you build it in a way that can immediately scale.

GEreports: What is the overall benefit to the programming industry in running events such as the Hackathons?

Ian: Running things like hackathons is good for the ecosystem, because it gets people inventing, innovating and thinking about different ways to solve hard problems and ultimately, for companies like AWS and GE, it’s about helping our customers. The more activity you get around solving industry problems, the more good ideas you’ll get coming out of it and the greater chance that one of those ideas will get picked up.

Where you’ve got talent, a great platform to build on and people supporting it around the side—whether it’s with mentoring or funding—they’re really good conditions to foster innovation.

Take his enthusiastic lead: Ian Gardiner, business-development manager for startups on Amazon Web Services is one of the mentors at GE’s Industrial Hackathons in Melbourne.