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Our cheminformatics hackathon experience

8 min read
Dec. 03, 2020
Karol Pokomeda
Karol Pokomeda
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Karol Pokomeda
Karol Pokomeda
Developer
8 min read
Dec. 03, 2020

If I was to compare hackathons to anything, the first thought in my head would be the Olympics. Too grand…? Probably. But the fact is, hackathons are a very important part of a developer's (and software house’s) life. 

Let’s start from the beginning though.

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is essentially an event (usually a several-hours or -days “marathon”) during which professionals from the IT industry (mostly developers, but also project managers, graphic designers etc.) work on solving a given problem in the best possible way. 

Hackathons became fairly common in recent years and serve a few purposes. First of all, bigger-scale companies looking for new businesses partners often organize them as a sort of sped-up recruitment process. Then there are “after-hours” hackathons meant as an outlet for some friendly competition among individual specialists, giving them an opportunity to test their skills out, network and simply have fun.

City- or nation-wide hackathons usually take place in person, becoming a whole fun and interactive event. The bigger ones, due to obvious logistic aspects, happen most often online, so that people and companies from all over the world get a chance to stand in the race. How lucky were we to have this remote experience — thanks to that, when the coronavirus outbreak stopped the world in its tracks, hackathons almost haven’t noticed, moving altogether to the online space.

Why should you take part in a hackathon?

Looking at the participation in hackathons from a software house’s (or our :)) perspective, it is crucial for many reasons. Firstly and obviously, it lets us get to know our potential clients’ problems in a way that’s hard to repeat in any other conditions. A hackathon serves as an insider look into the nooks and crannies of the enterprise. You get to know the team members, have a peek into their culture and the way they communicate and, most importantly, learn about the issue in a detailed manner. This advantage stays valid even if you don’t end up working with that particular company. Its problems are very often the same issues other businesses within that industry face, so you gain a deeper understanding that’ll help you serve any other potential customers you might have in the future.

A hackathon is also a great opportunity to practice working under quite an extreme time pressure. It’s an essential skill for developers who should be fluent in the art of setting priorities, deciding what is needed for creating an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and what can wait for later. Taking part in such a race, even if you do it just for fun, will help you prepare for that time when you have to ship the solution in a few hours and there’s no way to move the deadline. It’s also a great way to add a little spice to a developer’s work day which can otherwise become a bit monotonous from time to time. Testing your skills against other professionals in your field might be just what you need to regain the love you had for your job when you started it.

Finally, hackathons are a great way for the team members to have some fun together and get to know each other more. After all, nothing is more bonding than shared experiences, especially the somewhat extreme ones. It’ll help you learn about your colleagues strengths and weaknesses which is great for improving your cooperation as well as making HR decisions (e.g. selecting specialists for a newly created project team). Branding-wise, it’s also a great opportunity to present your company to a selected audience and broaden your network a little bit while you’re at it.

Our experience in Sandoz Hackathon

The Hackathon organized by Sandoz (a well known and respected pharmaceutical company and a division of the Novartis group) together with Hacking Health Berlin took place at the end of June and was a fully remote experience. And an experience it was — a three-day long event full of workshops, discussions with the organizers and, most importantly, good old coding. The objective was creating an application that lets you share information easily throughout the whole company.

...but what exactly does it mean? 

Big corporations usually have an information flow problem. Once you exceed a certain number of employees, it’s hard not to form separate camps with a vertical structure, which hinders creativity and innovation. That’s why Sandoz needed a solution that would help them coordinate the work done by people separated geographically and make sure the same problem wasn’t being dealt with by more teams than necessary because of information blockages.

Our three-person team (Andrzej, Gracjan and myself) started on Friday. First we had some coaching sessions with the School of Design Thinking during which we’ve learned about the tools that we can use in order to solve problems using this methodology. Then we were ready to move on to coding. In the meantime, there were also two mentoring sessions with Sandoz’s top-level executives — we’ve found them vital to understanding the big-picture vision of the issue we were meant to work on. During all this time, specialists working at Sandoz were ready to answer any questions we might have had, and boy, did we have a lot of them. Thankfully, we didn’t wear them out completely (or maybe they were too polite to show it). 

The funny thing was, all three of us were working on a slightly different part of the application, so when the time came on Sunday to put it all together we had a small surprise and not one of the good kind. :) Fortunately, we were able to quickly put it together. Lesson learned: check in with your teammates frequently in order to avoid any mishaps, especially at the end of the marathon, when the stakes and tension are the highest.

We’ve found it very refreshing how much energy was directed towards cooperating with the Client during the entire hackathon. Communication was perhaps even more important than coding itself. In fact, our team was joined by an equal number of the organizer’s specialists, which is quite unusual — in most cases, you get the problem and are left to do with it what you think is right. This time we’ve had a strong support system that helped us be in line with the project’s requirements.

All in all, we’ve managed to create a web application that utilized NLP (natural language processing) to analyze documentation and alert the user to any similarities. There was a strong emphasis on creating not only the prototype, but also a bigger vision of what the software’s supposed to look like and do in e.g. a year’s time. We’ve also made sure to include a draft of the project’s documentation. 

The three days of intense work paid off — we’ve provided the client with the most convincing solution. :)

Conclusions

Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that taking part in a hackathon — no matter the result — is a great idea. Here are some of the things we’ve learned from that particular experience:

Once again, we got a confirmation that our strategy of focusing on the client’s business goals instead of just writing good code is right. This time, the organizers realized it as well. We’re pretty sure that this is going to be the new normal for IT pretty soon and that the cooperation between development and business will only strengthen.

Secondly, hackathons are an incredible way to gain a much deeper understanding of a given industry. Pharma is a pretty tight-knit community and you can’t really learn much about it from a Google search. This event, as well as all the specialists and high-level executives from the company who have invested their time in us left us with some very useful knowledge of e.g. the process of implementing new drugs to the market. We’ve also strengthened our belief that it’s worth extending the knowledge we have about our fields of expertise (cheminformatics and blockchain), as it facilitates smoother communication with the clients and ensures them that we won’t need as much of their time as we would if we had nothing to do with their industry. 

Finally, getting to know (and trying out) the design thinking model has been a horizon-broadening experience that taught us a lot about obtaining the right approach to solving a problem. But that’s a topic for a different article. :)

If you’d like to learn more about our experience in the pharmaceutical industry, challenge us to another hackathon or simply get to know us better — we’re waiting for you to reach out. Till next time!