Internal Company Hackathon June 2019

 Working for a software company in the Healthcare industry is super motivating in that we get to create solutions that help medical professionals deliver better health outcomes.  Sometimes we can get so caught up in product delivery that we don’t take enough time to learn new things.  One way we make sure we are learning new things is by doing “hack days” or “hackathons”.

I am writing this blog post to give a brief overview of what we did with our most recent hackathon, how it went and what I learnt from it.  If you have any feedback or thoughts please share them in the comments because I would love to get new ideas on what we could iterate on and do better in future, plus I am also happy to share my experience if you are looking at organising hackathons yourself – just get in touch.

Over time a few different formats have been attempted from single team events, through to all company events.  In June 2019 a new format was introduced where we went all out involving both external partners, and more importantly customers.  We also wanted to make sure we involved the whole company, and given we have interstate staff the whole event was a remote-friendly experience.  We decided to try a different approach to forming teams to previous events, where we allocated all staff to a team about a week before the event.  This was initially done by random selection based on skills, then further refined to ensure each team had a good wide range of skills and would be able to both come up with useful solutions, but also actually deliver them in a short period of time.

For our June 2019 hackathon, we had some amazing partners involved and supporting us.  AWS helped us through their “Future Press Release” process in order to come up with a theme that would help us come up with innovative ideas.  Using this process, we landed on the theme “how to maximise doctors’ consult time through transcription and AI”.  As we are an AWS Partner, they also provided some training to a large number of our staff on AI tools available in AWS leading up to the event so we were well versed in which tools we could use to solve which problems.  Since AI was part of the theme, we engaged the amazing team at Max Kelsen, who made some of their staff available as mentors to work with teams bringing their AI experience.

In terms of involving customers, we wanted to get perspectives from a clinical customer and an administrative customer to make sure we had a broad understanding of the entire problem space.  Dr Sivananthan, a General Surgeon from St Stephens Harvey Bay made himself available during the opening morning to explain the problems he experiences around transcription.  We also invited Pene Marsh from Practice Companion in to get the perspective from the people who generally deal with the process before and after actual transcription.  We are also lucking enough to have a clinical advisor on staff who we call on frequently for clinical expertise in problems and strategies who was available to teams to answer any questions and ensure we were solving useful problems.

After teams had formed, they used the week leading up to get to know each other and come up with an idea to pitch.  My team decided to create a meeting in our board room around lunch time (Brisbane time) on the day teams were announced and everyone remotely joined in via video conference.  We did an ice breaker activity to get to know each other better and gauge what we could all bring to the table.  Then it was brainstorming time!  We left that meeting with a few really good possible ideas that we could go off and research to decide what we would pitch.  Over the days that ensued (in between doing our day jobs) a lot of us spent time picking apart the ideas and trying to come up with the one main problem we wanted to solve to be able to pitch our solution.

The pitch format was for a small subset of the team to present to a small panel of experts and stream the pitch to the whole company remotely so that anyone could just join in and hear them whether they were in the office or interstate.  The panel was responsible for asking all the tough questions to make sure the problem was well defined and the solution outcome was clear.

The next morning was the kick off.  This is where Dr Sivananthan and Pene presented the problem overview from their customer perspective and the whole company had the opportunity to ask questions and clarify anything.

The teams then self-organised and got cracking!  My team took the approach of pulling Pene aside to a whiteboard (with a camera pointing at it for remote staff) to take us through the full transcription workflow so that we could get a better idea of the pain points, how long things take and see if we could get any atomic data around actual time taken and accuracy in the process.  Once we had our baseline data, our plan was at the final presentation to explain how we believed our solution make improvements (and how we would measure the improvement).

Fast forward through amazing brainstorming, teamwork, creativity and hacking over the next day and a half, we had a working live demo!  It was then time to prepare the presentation.  This was again remote-friendly with a judging panel and the whole team able to fit in a room to present but the whole presentation streamed for everyone else to see.  The outcome for us?  We took out the Innovation Award for most innovative idea!

We are now investigating ways to be able to use what we learnt from building these solutions and deliver real value for our customers.

The key learning and takeaways from this new format were:
  • Involving remote staff was fairly successful, but we can try do better, some of the actual smaller team meetings were challenging, but I think we did the main events well
  • Some participants were not happy with having a specific theme – because historically the ideas had been more open ended some people suggested this did not work as well as previous events
  • Pre-arranging teams I think was really well received because people got to work with together that they might not normally, and each team was really set up for success with a wide range of skills
  • Involving customers was amazing – our customers really matter to us so having them there really made us feel like we were delivering our purpose as they saw the incredible solutions we delivered

I am really looking forward to the next internal company hackathon, but also we are sponsoring HealthHack2019 and encouraging all our staff to go, so I will write up about that once it’s done!