In the middle of #InsumHack19 on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with hackathon teams feverishly working around us and a Monday noon deadline drawing closer, we sat down with Martin D’Souza, Oracle ACE Director and Director of Innovation at Insum. We talked about Insum’s hackathon evolution and the reasons behind this annual event.
Martin, InsumHack is now in its fourth year and still going strong. What evolution or differences do you see between this year and previous years?
From a technical standpoint, most of the projects are now hosted on the Oracle Cloud, with very little infrastructure to set up. In the past, we had to go through the process of making sure we set up a server only to take it down after 3 days. This year we’ve hosted everything on the Oracle Cloud as we’ve been investing in Cloud-based architecture. We created several pre-built Docker containers, so we’ve been able to bring up servers quickly on demand. Because of our teams’ knowledge and expertise, they’ve managed to have our instances up within a few minutes. In the past, teams struggled for a few hours at the start of the Hackathon just getting their infrastructure set up. That was a nice change compared to the last 3 years.
How about technology in the teams’ projects?
It’s evolving. This year, some of the teams are using IoT devices. Last year we used Alexa, which, although challenging to work with, is still off the shelf technology that many are familiar with. This year, we are seeing teams leverage devices using breadboards and 10-dollar technology components! And they are talking about integrating these with RESTful services and using Node.js. The nice thing to see is that the drive to integrate these devices is coming from them. I think some of these developers hadn’t even heard about Node.js four years ago. It is prevalent in other industries but seeing it in an Oracle environment shows that it is becoming a very big standard. I think the developers’ more natural ability to include these technologies in their projects has opened up a lot of opportunities for innovation.
Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
Because I’m here in Montreal, I’m going around and listening to each group and I’m finding that the team building is just awesome. Team members are working with people that don’t get to work with on a daily basis. Some people have never even worked together before. This also crosses boundaries. I was in a room minutes ago that had a top senior Oracle ACE working with someone from HR, and a junior developer. I’m sure they’ve never worked together before. But they are in there taking notes and actively participating. Also, this year just like the previous ones, is a great opportunity to share the tools and features you use in your work. Several times already today I’ve heard things like “Oh, didn’t know you could do that” or “how do you do this?”.
So, they are sharing things they may have never leaned working on their usual work teams
Yes. Think of it as something like a quick cross-pollination activity. I really think that is one of the great constant aspects of the Insum Hackathon. They are not just learning technologies but people’s personalities as well.
Can you tell me about the theme?
The theme this year was packaged apps (not to be confused with Oracle APEX packaged apps). Basically, it means to create a product or service in order to solve a small business’s problem. Perhaps Packaged Apps wasn’t exactly the right title, but it was about addressing a small business’s pain point while using APEX and being innovative at the same time. We framed the business problems in a fairly open way. We did it a bit like the Iron Chef where people show up on Friday and they are given a scenario to work with (“this is your business problem”). Some teams liked the idea of doing it this way, but other teams preferred coming up with their own scenario. There weren’t detailed requirements, rather short overall descriptions. Consequently, the teams had to think hard and put themselves in the small business’ shoes to better define the problem and come up with a solution.
How are the teams doing so far?
I’ve discovered some really interesting projects and two things have stood out to me so far. One is some of the creativity that I’ve seen. One of the projects actually seems to have a viable product. They found a really big problem with a lot of dollars involved and they’ve come up with what seems to be a $15 solution! The live demo the team showed me was just phenomenal. Had I been an investor I would have said “Yeah, we can actually do that. With some more money we could actually build it out”.
Sounds really compelling…
Yes, it was quite innovative and interesting to see. I visited another team and saw they were using some standard APEX functionalities. I asked one of them what the innovation was. She responded that it was in the solution they were providing. Their goal was to solve the business problem regardless of the technology level. It’s a fact that most developers see hackathons as “how much nerdier can we make this” (laughs). But in this case, it was a business problem that she had personally experienced and they were coming up with a seemingly easy and frictionless solution for both vendor and consumer.
Without sophisticated tech…
Right. They had realized that it is not always about the code but about making someone else’s life easier…Her answer impressed me. I’d hadn’t heard anything like that in a long time.
Last years winners used Alexa to come up with an interactive version of flash cards for studying. Simple, but impressive.
Exactly. Innovation doesn’t always have to be defined as a technical solution. It’s not always about IoT, Alexa, or programming a Tesla. People could discard some solutions as “that’s just simple”; if it’s that simple, why hasn’t anyone thought about it yet?
It is good to see our developers thinking from the business perspective because programming is one thing but efficiently and simply solving a business problem is the critical part for us. Developers can often lose themselves in the code. They can forget that people have to use it, and want to use it in a simple and easy manner.
And would you say the Hackathon is sharpening our developers’ and other employees’ sense of client-focused problem-solving?
Yes, and I think it is important for non-developers in the company to see the kind of problems developers experience on a daily basis. You can read about it, but to sit there on a team see the speed at which some people work, what tools they use, hopefully, brings about a better understand and respect. Vice-versa too. Like what HR has to go through.
Sometimes, people think all we do is sit in front of a computer and just type. But we have to first understand the business problem. We are sometimes the leading experts in certain business problems because we know more about it than the company using apps we build for them. For example, if it’s an accounting problem, I have to talk to accountants all day and understand just as well as they do, what their issue is. I get to acquire all that knowledge and have to create a solution. Even if we work with business analysts, we still have to know every single path of their processes, and what the solution is.
Using HR as an example, seeing that in action is good for HR because they are not just out there looking for technical talent but also, they need to find people who can understand business problems.
I get the feeling that the results from all this meshed creativity will be really cool to take in on Monday, during the team presentations.
I know it will.
Martin, D’Souza, Director of Innovation and host of InsumHack for four consecutive years now, thanks again for your time.