Explore Oct 30, 2019

How Hackathons Support Lifelong Learning

And Pave the Way for Innovation

When you hear the word 'hackathon' you probably picture a group of college students coding all night in an energy drink fog for the chance to win prizes. But hackathons are also an important tool for enterprises to encourage an internal culture of innovation through learning, building, and sharing.

At Capital One we have long seen the value in internal hackathons. Sure, our hackathons don’t look like those ones from your college days, but that doesn’t mean the end goal is any different - whether we’re building a new mobile app, experimenting with serverless tech, or making our customers’ lives easier, it’s all the same - we’re working together to build the best product. So let’s start at the beginning - how exactly do hackathons help us build better products? 

As an organization, Capital One is committed to keeping our technology stack and our software engineers up to date and ahead of the curve on evolving technology trends. And there are a lot of us. We’ve dramatically expanded our technology staff; hiring hundreds of software engineers, developers and artificial-intelligence experts to help build the software our customers need to manage their money. We never stop learning because there are always new problems to solve. After all, at a basic level engineering can be boiled down to software engineers brainstorming solutions to various technical problems and writing the code to meet the requirements set forth. However, in order to meet the needs of our customers, there are a lot of moving parts to consider, such as:

  • What will the customer experience be like?

  • How should we roll this functionality out to our customers?

  • How can we consistently maintain a resilient and reliable experience?

  • And lastly, what technologies do we use?

That last question, “What technologies do we use?” is one of the most important questions to ask when developing a product. It’s truly where the development team starts their process. But given that technology is always changing, it’s imperative that engineers continue building upon their skills so they can best answer this question. This is the best way to align "what technology we use" with the latest trends in software engineering. 

This is where hackathons shine.

Photo by Tony Burns

Capital One Loves to Hack

It’s one way we continue learning and innovating.

As part of our tech journey we’ve created a culture that supports experimentation and learning. Of course this didn’t happen overnight. If it wasn’t for how we’ve centered this innovative mentality, we likely wouldn’t be where we are today.

Capital One certainly isn’t new to hackathons, but they’re definitely becoming a bigger part of our culture and how we work. Whether we’re learning the intricacies of AWS or containerization and serverless solutions, honing in on our API or mobile development skills, or just kicking off a new project, they’re a great use of time. After all, what better way to explore different solutions and approaches than by placing 50 engineers or other like-minded individuals in the same room to solve a problem? 

When getting into the details of hackathons, the three cornerstones that drive most of these events are learning, building, and sharing.

Learning

Our engineers are no strangers to building great applications, but again, they need time, space, and opportunities to work on maintaining their edge. This is where learning comes into the picture, specifically self-learning, or the act of pursuing knowledge independently. Whether this comes in the form of reading books, completing self-guided tutorials and courses, or even attending more formal classes, it’s all critical to growth. And if this learning directly benefits your role at Capital One, why not work on it during work hours? Not to mention, if that learning time is structured collaboratively then whole teams can grow together. Whether it’s learning about Swift for iOS, TensorFlow, or RPA technologies, self-learning is all valuable and helps us improve our skills. 

Building

Parallel to learning, hackathons provide a venue for building, and what better way to learn and build than with hands-on examples? Whether we’re dreaming up creative ways to solve our problems, or iterating on something already delivered, taking our lessons learned and applying them to building something concrete goes a long way. 

Sharing

Last but not least, there’s the cornerstone of sharing, which is simply what it implies. Sharing what we’ve learned, what solutions we’ve discovered, and what we’ve built is one means to create a community of engineering excellence. Being able to communicate and effectively share ideas and solutions is critical in today’s organizations and teams. All of our hackathons require a demo and presentation at the end; what better way to practice public speaking skills than in this type of low-pressure environment? 

 

Some Recent Capital One Hackathons

Here are some recent examples of hackathons we’ve run:

  • One that brought together an entire location - spanning multiple departments and job families - as a means to build upon our engineering culture and create new opportunities for cross-LOB internal collaboration;

  • Another which focused solely on learning the intricacies of cloud platforms;

  • And lastly, a hackathon for traditional web-based developers to branch out and explore mobile development as we continue our push for mobile-first applications and features.

To briefly focus on the mobile-first hackathon, this event allowed our backend engineers who focus on moving money (i.e. scheduling transfers, bill payments, and wires) to learn about the latest trends in front-end iOS and Android development. Although it was just a one-day event, six backend teams assembled to jump in feet first into the new world of frontend mobile engineering. At the end of the day, they had built six functional concepts ranging from mobile artificial intelligence, new mobile features, and data visualization tools to help our customers manage their money. These teams then presented and shared their ideas with the group and senior leaders for feedback, and won some cool prizes!

 

I love the partnership between all the teams. Such a great learning opportunity for everyone and the ideas are seeds for some major product innovation in money movement over time.
- Aram Ter-Minassian, VP of Product
Photo by Tony Burns

These examples are just a small subset of events that happen inside our walls. As mentioned before, there are also advantages to kicking off new projects and initiatives as we do so quite frequently at Capital One. Looking to solve a long-running customer problem, but not sure which direction to go? Rather than planning a roadmap, trying to figure out every part of application, or performing extensive estimation, why not just start building some prototypes and mockups? From there, you can get a sense of what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.  There’s even a good chance that, if you have ten teams, you’ll get ten different ideas and paths forward. 

So, what will your next hackathon achieve?

 

Sean Miller
Manager, Agile Delivery Lead

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