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Our First Hackathon

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Introduction

Hackathons are becoming a fairly common method to stimulate innovation at companies, software or otherwise. We recently held our first Hackathon here with the Sage 300 ERP development team. We are adding Hackathons to our Sage Innovation Process as an idea generator and a concept tester.

Probably the most famous recent Hackathons are those held at Facebook which resulted in the Like button, Facebook Chat and the Timeline feature. If you Google Facebook Hackatons on YouTube, you can find all sorts of videos showing these. In fact Hackathons are being conducted in industries outside of software development in things like government and food production.

The key goal of Hackathons is to stimulate the creative juices in the organization. To get ideas flowing, to provide a platform to quickly develop them, to show them off and then possibly productize them. In some sense you would like to have everyone creative and innovative all the time, but the pressures of day to day tasks usually damper such things.

Hackathons also give programmers a chance to do projects they’ve always wanted to do and felt were important, but couldn’t convince Product Management to prioritize high enough to get done.

Logistics

We decided to have a two day Hackathon. We had a kick-off meeting just before lunch on Wednesday and then the teams had two days to hack. We then had a results presentation just after lunch on Friday. Some people formed small teams, others worked solo. Basically the two days were up to them. We then provided snacks and lunch on Thursday.

Facebook runs their Hackathons for 24 hours and people don’t sleep. We thought that too extreme. Although some people worked quite long hours getting their hacks to work, no one missed a night’s sleep. Our feeling is that sleep deprivation doesn’t help and is in fact quite destructive. Often a good night’s sleep is what you need to solve difficult problems.

Idea Generation

When we were initially planning the Hackathon, we were worried that people wouldn’t participate because they would have trouble coming up with ideas of what to do. So to try to alleviate this, we came up with a list of suggestions for people.

What we found instead was that this wasn’t a problem at all. We had really good participation and none of our original ideas were used. All teams either had a brain storming session to start with, or had their own ideas that they had been thinking about and just needed an opportunity to explore them.

One key is to give plenty of warning of an upcoming Hackathon, so people can have plenty of time to come up with ideas, and to network with their peers to develop teams.

Results

The results of the Hackathon greatly exceeded our expectations. All the teams, except for one that had to deal with an emergency issue, were able to demonstrate useful and exciting results.

The projects were very diverse including:

  • testing out a new automated test tool
  • evaluating running static code analysis tools on our code
  • developing a new customer information connected service
  • created a better tool to create knowledge base articles
  • created a direct to customer advertising feature
  • added a key CRM integration feature
  • adding Skype and Google Maps integration
  •  fixing some long standing annoyances that never made the priority list.

Below is a picture of the winning team, that hacked in a number of useful social media integrations to the Sage 300 ERP product, including a rating system for things like customers (similar to Amazon ratings), integrations to Skype, Google Maps and a number of other things.

Write Up

We insisted that each group write up their results. We wanted to document all learning’s. We want to know things tried that didn’t work out as well as successes. We did this via a page on our internal development Wiki. This is a very important part of Hackathons since you want to build on everything accomplished.

Learning’s

Our summary presentations went a bit long because everyone was so excited to show so much; however, we decided that next time we will limit each presentation to 5 minutes, since the whole presentation went quite long.

The idea of giving awards turned out to be quite controversial. We had a best project award and a better luck next time award. Everyone felt we should get rid of the better luck next time award. Some people like the idea of having a “winner”, others felt that it corrupted the hackathon process by motivating people to produce visual fluff over perhaps more technical work.

The idea of the “better luck necessary” award was to celebrate failure, since we want to motivate people to take risks and not be too conservative. However people seemed to think this wasn’t a great idea since a couple of “failures” were actually considered successes since they provided proof that a couple of popular technologies weren’t really ready for prime time.

The two day time frame seemed to work quite well for our staff. No one wanted to switch to the 24 hour no sleep method. Then the consensus was that we should try to repeat the Hackathon every 2 to 3 months. It makes no sense to only do a Hackathon once, you really need to keep doing them regularly to exercise your innovation muscles or they will just atrophy again.

Summary

Hackathons are a great way to stimulate innovation in an organization. Not only do you generate a lot of ideas, but you often pick off some low hanging fruit. Or you have a POC (proof of concept) to prove out an idea to productize. Hackathons have been used successfully at many companies in many industries and our own experience was very positive.

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Written by smist08

October 20, 2012 at 10:44 am

ERP and Social Media

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There is a lot of discussion about the influence of Social Media on our industry and products. I use Social Media applications quite a bit. I enjoy keeping up with friends and family on FaceBook. Staying connected to the many people I meet in business on LinkedIn. We’ve been experimenting with social collaboration tools like ManyMoon and Streamwork. I occasionally tweet on twitter. Many new applications are appearing all the time like Plaxo and Naymz. FaceBook now accounts for more Internet traffic than Google.

What does all this mean for ERP? Besides a customer’s email address and website, should we keep a list of Social Media ids? If we have them what can we do with these? Here are a few things I’ve seen companies do with Social Media:

  • Have a personal or company Twitter feed.
  • Follow your customers on Twitter. If you follow someone Twitter will send them an email telling them you are following them, perhaps they will click on the link and see your Twitter page and perhaps follow up on some advertising there. Perhaps they will think of you whenever they look at their list of followers.
  • Create a FaceBook fan page for your company and then invite all your customers to “become a fan”. Then they will see your posts in their feed. Don’t post too much and keep them useful, or they will remove you.
  • Become connected with your customers on LinkedIn. Everyone wants more contacts. Then they will see what you are up to in your status, perhaps generating some interest.
  • Post useful information on your Social Media sites so that people will read what you post. Only post advertising or special offers off to the side, so you aren’t just perceived as spam.
  • Use Social Media to build community around your company and products. Encourage your customers to network and communicate via your Social Media sites. The more activity the better. Fostering a sense of community is a great way to foster customer loyalty.
  • Consider using the new sites like ManyMoon and Streamwork to collaborate on jobs. Use it to encourage communications and feedback from your customers on projects you are working on for them.
  • Use Social Media sites to manage project workflow, especially when several vendors are working together to make a project successful.
  • Have a company or personal blog. Amazing how many people will read these. Reference it from your other Social Media sites.
  • Google searches will show up your Social Media sites, giving you far greater reach in getting found by customers.

Within ERP we will be looking to provide convenient links to pursue these sorts of activities. Can we do a marketing campaign from CRM based on an ERP sales history to your Facebook and LinkedIn contacts that meet a certain criteria? In places where we allow email, can we also allow contact via FaceBook? I would certainly welcome any comments or suggestions on ERP – Social Media integration. We are still in an investigative phase and are very interested to know what people think.

The world of Social Media is growing fast and changing fast. It’s been immensely successful for people’s personal life. I don’t think Social Media for the workplace has been fully solved yet. I think we are seeing a start, but I think the company that will be the true FaceBook of corporate Social Media has still to appear on the scene. I suspect there is a startup somewhere that will emerge like a rocket to fill this space with a new innovative approach.

Not everyone is on the Social Media bandwagon. There are a lot of questions about whether it will die under the weight of spam like email marketing largely has. Some people question the value of the relationships you build in LinkedIn or Facebook calling it relationship inflation: http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2010/03/the_social_media_bubble.html. Certainly privacy concerns are paramount. People are getting tired of FaceBook applications that do one quick thing like offer a survey, and then spam you until you remove them. There has been a lot of abuse, and a lot of cleanup needs to happen, but I think these will be solved in due course.

Personally I think Social Media has a lot of growing to do. Growth has been explosive, and a lot of catch-up needs to happen. But think of how much time people now spend in programs like FaceBook. If you want to connect to me:

Written by smist08

March 27, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Posted in sage 300

Tagged with , , , ,

Frenzy in the WWW

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Seems to be a lot happening in the web these days. Microsoft Bing goes live, Google goes into a frenzy of upgrades to their search engine. Microsoft makes a deal with Yahoo. Facebook buys FriendFeed. Twitter downed by a denial of service attack. Everyone frantically trying to be the ultimate search/social networking/communications service.

I received by test account for Google Wave today. The first thing that struck me, was that I would love it to be connected to FaceBook or LinkedIn, so I actually have someone to communicate with. Great tool, but the trick would be adoption. I think if any social networking site had developed this, it could really take off. Not sure how Google will manage alone. Maybe they’ll make a deal with Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn or someone. Someway to really spiff up the communications features of these sites, which tend to be a bit lacking.

It seems Microsoft unveiled Bing to much fanfare and have been running a massive number of TV commercials promoting it. But it seems that it is already standing still as everyone surpasses it. Google has already upgraded their search a couple of times, adding features Bing promises, but doesn’t deliver yet. Not sure if Microsoft understands how to compete in the Internet world. Still running on quite long software development life cycles, rather than operating in Internet time where product updates can be quickly rolled out.

Meanwhile Microsoft is playing Pepsi to Apple’s Coke in the music player category with Zune trying to compete with the iPod. I think they are starting from so far behind that they really don’t have a chance. Combine that with the power of the iPod/iPhone application store and they don’t seem to have much chance.

It seems online office productivity tools like word processing  and spreadsheets are quickly moving to the web. Probably much quicker than anyone anticipated. Meanwhile laptop prices continue to fall through the floor. Can now get good Linux based laptops for $200. Not much room in that price for the Microsoft Windows tax. With no real demand for office, these make a lot of sense now. The newer laptops can’t even run Windows since they are based on ARM CPUs.

Anyway all these developments, competitions and change make life interesting. Good time to be in the computer industry.

Written by smist08

August 18, 2009 at 2:51 am