What’s the secret to a successful hackathon? Problem-solving and teamwork


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Creative problem solving is a boon in every industry, but for developers, it can mean the difference between a successful product and a dud. You would be hard-pressed to find a course called “Problem-Solving 101” in your school’s course catalog, so how can you strengthen your problem-solving skills?

Kendall Weistroffer from the University of Denver did so by becoming a Microsoft Student Partner (MSP) – student leaders who help build and support Microsoft communities on-campus. As an MSP, Kendall gets hands-on time with cutting-edge technology like Microsoft Azure and Microsoft HoloLens.

In early November 2016, Kendall and 12 other MSPs traveled from 13 different countries to Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVP) Global Summit in Seattle. MVPs are passionate about technology, too, and strive to share that passion within their communities.

Over the course of four days, the 13 MSPs talked with MVPs and Microsoft employees, met with recruiters, attended lectures and experimented with cutting-edge cloud and data science tools. One such experiment presented them with the Dorm Room Security Monitor hack.

Challenge accepted

The MSPs were eager to jump into the challenge. As soon as the facilitators finished setting up the second-floor conference room at Microsoft’s Living Well Center, the 13 students piled around a long table and started plugging in their various devices. MSP Program Manager Gavin Gear explained the objective of the hack as he and the facilitators passed out components: a Raspberry Pi 3, an infrared sensor, a webcam and Windows 10 IoT Core on a thumb drive. The MSPs had about two hours to assemble their components into a security system. Configured correctly, the webcam would capture a still of whoever entered the room and run it through facial recognition services within Microsoft Azure. If the person didn’t have authorization to be in the room, an alarm would sound.

The MSPs split into teams – five two-person teams and one three-person team –  and as soon as they got their hands on the hardware, their excited chatter tapered into intense concentration. All 13 developers shifted into the universal study position: shoulders hunched, head down, eyes narrowed. The occasional soft question punctuated the near-silence as they assembled their experimental dorm-room security systems.

One of the Microsoft facilitators, Justin Garrett, remarked, “MSP events always take way less time than others because the MSPs all work together and delegate tasks depending on who specializes in what.”

Sure enough, as the teams began encountering issues, they turned to one another for help.

Collaboration counts as problem-solving

One of the challenges of the hack was getting the Raspberry Pi to connect to the Internet. As the facilitators discovered during setup, the conference room didn't have live Ethernet jacks because Microsoft employees largely rely on Wi-Fi – but connecting to Wi-Fi proved challenging too, due to corporate security measures. While the other teams worked to connect to Wi-Fi or relocated to another conference room with working Ethernet jacks, Rishav Jalan from BITS Pilani in Dubai found a faster workaround, leading him and his partner, Dawid Chróścielski from Poland, to complete the challenge first.

Rishav said, “We tried connecting to the Wi-Fi with a couple different devices, but ended up having to use the mobile hotspot to get it to work.” Once they confirmed that the system worked, Dawid worked to code in extras while Rishav helped others troubleshoot their Internet connection.

Rishav said with their system, the room owner could enter and, “say, ‘Hello.’ Then the webcam captured a picture and analyzed the image through APIs in Azure. For a person who was supposed to be in the room, music would play. If someone was in the room, but didn’t say ‘hello,’ the API would have Azure send an email to the owner, alerting them to the intrusion.”

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Miriam (left) and Ivan (right)

As is the case with many hackathons, the MSPs had to make do with the components they had – every second counted, so for Miriam Elgabry of the Imperial College of London, that meant using Visual Studio on Mexican MSP Ivan Cortez’s Surface Pro 3, even though it was in Spanish. You can read more about Miriam’s experience at the MVP Summit in her guest post on the Microsoft Imagine Blog.

While Miriam overcame that particular language barrier by looking up translations online, Kentaro Yamazaki of Japan drew a quick diagram on a whiteboard to tell a facilitator what kind of cable he needed.

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Terry (left) and Kim (right)

Kim Noel of Canada said, “I usually have no problem getting hardware to work, even stuff I’ve never worked with before,” but she and her partner, Terry Nguyen Luong of Singapore, seemed to encounter every issue that could be encountered.

That didn’t get Terry down, though. “My favorite thing about the MVP Summit so far? Seeing how everyone works together, how they help each other. I love how MSPs are a community, not competitors.”

You don’t need to be an MSP to play with the latest Microsoft tech

Get hands-on time with Microsoft technology by going to hackathons in your area, by connecting with the MSPs at your school or by checking out these online student developer tools. Be sure to check out what our 2016 MSP of the Year, Lisa Wong, has to say about successful on-campus student evangelism.

 

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