Eight winning ways to rock a hackathon

15 January 2019
person playing a guitar

Competing in an international hackathon is a bit like being a rock band on tour
There is the trepidation of going somewhere you have never been before, the excitement and challenge of performing for your audience, and a major lack of sleep. Here’s how thinking like a rock band helped us win the Corporate Prize for our blockchain idea at the 2018 IATA Hackathon.  

Assemble the Band
Hullu Poro Areena, the location of the Finnair-sponsored Hackathon in Finland, is a night club that hosts live acts, besides events like this. To put on our own great show, we knew we needed a solid group of different skillsets. So, we got a strong band together from ATPCO: 

  • Front man Cheikh Fall, singing the business benefits as the lead product developer of NDC Exchange
  • Manager Ryan McGarry, articulating the blockchain idea with her digital marketing experience and helping us make a powerful opening statement
  • Bass player Narendra Patel, driving a strong rhythm with his software engineering expertise 
  • Drummer Karel Alvarez, keeping the beat as a principal software developer
  • Keyboard player Lourdes Ramirez, smoothing things out with her personalization of the user interface 
  • And myself as lead guitarist, synching the melody as the enterprise innovation architect

ATPCO corporate blockchain prize
ATPCO Winning Team of the IATA Air Hackathon Corporate Blockchain Prize (left to right) Cheikh Fall, Ryan McGarry, David Peart, Lourdes Ramirez, Karel Alvarez, Narendra Patel

Know the Lineup 
Greeted by Santa Claus and one of his reindeer, we kicked off the weekend at registration where we networked with the other teams and the judges. Knowing the judges’ background is very important for knowing how to pitch and present your pitch and demo. 

Similarly, it’s important to be aware of what the competition is doing so you can distinguish your idea. At this hackathon, there were nine corporate and nine non-corporate teams. We also got to hear the other teams’ pitches, so we knew the lineup and what we were up against.  You have to admire all these people from all walks of life, traveling from all over the world to come to a place like Lapland in winter to hack on new innovative ideas that could change the airline industry, whether it be in a big or small way.

For our one-minute pitch, Cheikh described a blockchain-secured Traveler Wallet where travelers can store their personal preferences for flights and then receive personalized offers from airlines that match those preferences. 

Plan Your Setlist Carefully 
Because we’ve attended hackathons before, we already had a strongly formed idea on what we wanted to achieve and how we would build, demo, and present it.  Just as a band has a setlist, at the hackathon you want to stick with your plan and execute it unless something totally unforeseen occurs.  

We were bringing a new sound with Traveler Wallet because it combines NDC APIs and blockchain. The idea enables the owner of the data to manage and control it, as well as enable the seller and airline to create a new, personalized shopping experience that doesn’t exist today. We knew exactly what we wanted to do.   

A lot of work happens before a hackathon, not just on the weekend of the hack itself. The perfect example of the planning and preparation before the hack event is the effort Karel put in.  We wanted to create a mobile Traveler Wallet, but none of us had done a mobile app before.  He spent the allotted ideation week learning the IDE (integrated development environment) and language; then he spent the hack event building the demo. Without the prep he put in, our presentation would not have been nearly as compelling.  

Do a Soundcheck 
Judges and coaches are a key resource during a hackathon, where you can bounce your ideas off them and get advice.  They are there to help and can provide critical feedback so you can adjust your idea to appeal to the most judges. Just as a band does a soundcheck, a hackathon team needs to share their idea to make it as polished as possible. 

We explained our idea and presentation to one judge, who suggested we had too many slides in our PowerPoint before the actual demo. The most important thing for judges is the demo, so we moved that to the beginning and trimmed the slides down to three.

Rest Before the Performance
Another thing our hackathon veterans knew is not to code through the whole night, unless it is absolutely necessary.  Take a break. This will allow you to recharge yourself for the all-important presentation. With this Hackathon, we coded until 0300, got some rest, and reassembled at 0800.  

We also stopped hacking one hour before the end of the hackathon. We used this hour to review the demo and practice our presentation. This way we could make sure the demo ran smoothly, have time to focus on the message we’re sending to the judges in our four minutes, and feel less stress from the looming deadline.

Rock Out 
When we finally took the stage, I could tell we had captured the judges’ attention with the 40-second promo video that Ryan had put together. I ran through the demo of the Traveler Wallet Karel had constructed, and then I handed it over to Cheikh to pitch the business benefits—only then realizing that he had just 7 seconds remaining. Being the professional he is, he took it all in his stride and used the 2-minute Q&A to get those business benefits across, while Ryan ran the slides in the background so the judges would have the time to see and read them as well.

Enjoy the Applause 
After the judges deliberated, the winners were announced. Our team from ATPCO won first place for the corporate blockchain award.  We were surprised and thrilled both for ourselves and for ATPCO, as this was the first hackathon a team from ATPCO has won.  We were also excited to win a social media award for the tweet of the photo of Ryan with Santa and his reindeer. Just like a concert encore, the hackathon was over, but the elation stayed with us for a long time after.  

Don’t Forget the Road Crew
Every great band has a road crew, right? Since the hackathon was in Lapland, my wife and I viewed this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity experience for our daughter, Iona, to meet Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and some of the elves.  We also had a reindeer sleigh ride.  While we were hacking away, Iona visited the elves’ village, where she made gingerbread cookies that she later delivered to the team to help sustain us through the long night ahead. Not only was this hackathon a great experience for all the ATPCO team members, but it was also set in an amazing location where memories were created to last a lifetime.  

ATPCO corporate blockchain prize

Special Note: Exclusive Webinar for the Groupies
The ATPCO Team will be sharing their proof of concept during an exclusive webinar on 14 February 2019. The webinar will provide a behind-the-scenes view into this new concept and how it can advance the future of airline retailing with personalized offers and real-time customer input.


Additional Resources