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One winning team's recipe for Hackathon success

One winning team's recipe for Hackathon success

by JASON REECE, Balfour Beatty Construction

This article first appeared earlier this month in Engineering News-Record.

Architecture, engineering and construction hackathons bring AEC professionals together with technology developers to turn ideas into proofs-of-concept. All this happens in a weekend of focused collaborative effort. This “hacking” philosophy and approach is a powerful tool to enable the AEC industry to learn how to innovate, by focusing limited resources to quickly develop ideas and solutions. To maximize our hacker approach to innovation, Balfour Beatty tested the concept through several internal and external hackathon-style events and initiatives.

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Externally, our teams compete at AEC Hackathons, including the most recent 'AEC Hackathon 1.2' in Seattle, where we collaborated with fellow hackers from Microsoft, Newforma and IrisVR to create apps leveraging virtual reality, 3D modeling, and productivity technologies. Internally, we continuously refined our virtual Idea & Innovation Management process-driven methodology to make innovation a sustainable part of our company’s path forward.

Winning top overall honors at Seattle's AEC Hackathon, Balfour Beatty's Team BuildTrak came together with hackers from Newforma and Microsoft to develop a mobile production reporting and tracking app built on Newforma project information management (PIM) software. 

Winning top overall honors at Seattle's AEC Hackathon, Balfour Beatty's Team BuildTrak came together with hackers from Newforma and Microsoft to develop a mobile production reporting and tracking app built on Newforma project information management (PIM) software. 

In our early hacks, team member performance was inconsistent, primarily due to the new, high-pressure format. Detrimental team performance is magnified during a hackaton, which by design is time- and resource-constrained. These hackathon experiences helped our team develop a proven process to maximize the team’s effort and produce results. The following is an overview of our team’s approach: 

Hacking Methodology

  1. Clearly define the problem and expected outcomes
  2. Identify necessary perspectives, roles and participants
  3. Organize / schedule the event 
  4. Prepare for compressed timeframe
  5. Execute
  6. Follow-through / Closure

The first four steps are all about preparation prior to the event. Our initial efforts produced only marginal success because the team spent the first eight hours of the session trying to define the problem and agree on expected outcomes. We got so bogged down by these discussions that it was nearly impossible to perform any work on the challenge at hand. 

Clearly defining the problem and expected outcomes involves massive research into the current state of the process and technology being hacked. It’s important to speak with subject-matter experts to gain an understanding of the “ideal state”. The leader of the hack must understand the problem and the end state. The hacking team and the event itself become the path that connects the two states.

Finding the right mix

Identifying roles and participants is critical because of the diverse team member mix required to fully develop a solution. Successful teams require strong technologists and non-technical, real-world, boots-on-the-ground experts who fully understand the process and challenges.   

The most critical position on the team is the facilitator. During the hack, the facilitator must keep the group focused on the right tasks and be in a position to absorb the collective thoughts of the group. In session, the lead facilitator may call “audibles” to re-focus the hack as solutions start to take shape. This person ensures that no time is spent on activities that are not critical to the outcome. 

Preparation consists of the following:

  • Define the expected outcomes—three or less statements that are achievable in a short time period. These become focus points for the hack team.  
  • Make a detailed plan of the process. This includes a detailed agenda allotting specific amounts of time for the completion of each activity. Though it should be flexible, the plan helps the facilitator gauge the team’s performance at each stage.
  • Make a list of potential roadblocks. Identify the variables that could prevent the team from making progress, allowing the hack leader to avoid these roadblocks.
  • Schedule a pre-hack meeting. This meeting helps ensure the team is aligned, knows the problem at hand and has necessary tools and information.
  • Develop a pre-hack, one-page summary. This summarizes all the preparation work, outcomes, problem statements, roles, challenges, and expected hack process.

Execution is little more than following the path set forth by the plan and allowing participants to develop tangible solutions. If the prep work and due diligence are comprehensive, expected outcomes are appropriate and a good process and agenda are developed, then execution should be highly fluid and productive. 

  BuiltWorlds will be hosting the Midwest's first AEC Hackathon. Interested in being a part of it?  Click here.

  BuiltWorlds will be hosting the Midwest's first AEC Hackathon. Interested in being a part of it?  Click here.

The final step is to capture, summarize and communicate hack results. This is where many hacks fall short. Creating this report is critical for the innovation team to effectively engage the company’s leadership and convey the real-world business applications of the hack’s problem and solution. Making the business case for a more expansive development and scaling of the team’s hacked solution is where the ultimate value of the hacker experience is realized.

This is one way we can leverage the “hacking” philosophy to drive innovation in the AEC industry on our path to continuously driving increased value and performance for our customers. 

The author is technology innovation & improvement lead for Balfour Beatty Construction Services U.S. Based in Fairfax VA, he can be reached directly at jasonareece@gmail.com.

NOTE: The AEC Hackathon will also be stopping in NYC later this month. 

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