It all started with an e-mail, an idea, a simple “what if?” during our day start. Little did we know that we would end up in Munich, having the most amazing and innovative time together with our international colleagues at the German headquarters of Microsoft! In this article we will take you on a little trip down memory lane to our international hackathon adventure in Germany.
Once upon a time at Essent IT…
A few months ago, all our colleagues at the Essent IT office received an unexpected notification in their mailbox, the announcement of the E.ON Microsoft Hackathon 2022 in Munich, Germany. A seemingly fun event however we didn’t give it much thought since we just had a successful and fun hackathon at Essent. Fast forward to Friday a week after the announcement, Hannah, one of our TechLab members, suggested it would be a fun and interesting event to participate in. Certainly, while still reminiscing the previous hackathon at Essent, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build even more team spirit within the TechLab team, and of course gain even more new knowledge after the previous hackathon at Essent. Since everybody in the team was enthusiastic about the idea, the idea was proposed to the IT Leadership Team not much later. Lucky for us, the plan was approved in no time, and before we knew it, we could start planning our trip to Germany!
Preparing for our trip
Bryan, one of the original Techlab members, decided to join us as well. With our team of six enthusiastic colleagues, we subscribed to the Hackathon via Teams. So, what did we sign up for? Let’s take a few steps back and explain what exactly this Hackathon entailed.
The hackathon was a collaboration between E.ON and Microsoft. Everyone who is part of an E.ON company could subscribe with a maximum of 200 participants that were able to join. The event took place from 20 June until 22 June 2022 at the Microsoft headquarters in Munich. During these three days, the participants worked in teams on different E.ON use cases, using Microsoft technologies, hence their collaboration. Moreover, all teams participating in the hackathon were supported by Microsoft topic experts during the event. Not only were you able to partake in the hackathon, but participants were also invited to join side activities and win prizes for their impressive solutions.
Now, let’s get back to our story. When our team signed up for the hackathon, it was still possible to submit your own use case ideas that you would be working on during the event. Not only did this spark our creativity, but it also gave our team the opportunity to come up with a use case that could be relevant for Essent. After some brainstorming, our team ended up with two ideas for a use case. After submitting the two ideas, we were contacted by E.ON to have a call with them and a Microsoft expert to discuss our ideas in more detail. During our call, we were surprised but mostly happy to hear that both E.ON and Microsoft were very enthusiastic about the ideas we proposed to them. A fruitful discussion about our use cases followed. After the discussion and some more brainstorming, our team decided to move on with only one of the two ideas we submitted: a semi-automated skill matrix. One of our Techlab members Ekta was appointed Topic Lead, and a few weeks later the final use cases that would be worked on during the hackathon were announced, including ours! Seeing our use case listed on the event program already felt like the first success we booked as Techlab. The picture below describes our use case in more detail.
After the final use case list was presented, the hackathon participants had a few days to sign up for the topic of their choice. This meant there was the possibility of participants outside our group joining the project as well. However, no new subscribers signed up to our use case, probably since all participants were very proud of their self-invented use cases. That said we continued further preparations with the six of us.
Apart from preparing for the hackathon, some travel and accommodation arrangements were made as well. We decided to leave for Munich a day early to take a chance to explore the city and calm our nerves in anticipation of the hackathon. Flights were booked, hotel rooms reserved, and we were ready to go!
On Sunday morning it was finally time for our departure to Munich. Clearly, no one felt the need to adjust their Saturday evening plans to our early flight since everybody showed up at Schiphol Airport with sleepy eyes and in desperate need of a coffee. After getting some sleep during the flight, we arrived at tropical and exotic Munich; temperatures this day were around 35 degrees Celsius. We decided to take it easy and had a lovely day watching surfers in the park, hopping from terrace to terrace, and enjoying some good German Schnitzel in the evening. It was great to have such a day together outside the office and relax a bit before the hackathon craziness began.
Hacking like crazy!
After a good night sleep, it was Techlab’s time to shine: competing in the hackathon! We grabbed some breakfast from a “familien backerei” and made our way to the Microsoft headquarters in Germany. Here we were greeted with a hackathon t-shirt, coffee and pretzels.
At 12:00 the official opening of the hackathon took place. We found out that over 200 people were taking part in the event. In total more than 20 teams would be working together on the selected use cases, very impressive. After the welcome ceremony, it was time to start the work!
To start off our project we were joined by Alex and Julian, two Microsoft experts that already had a lot of experience working with chatbots. Alex took the lead in the project and helped us to draw up a plan for the different components we would like to build. Before we knew it, the first day of the hackathon came to an end and we decided to take a break and continue working on the project the next morning. After the first intense and fun day of the hackathon we were rewarded with dinner and drinks at Microsoft together with all other participants. Just before going to bed to recharge for the next day, we figured it would be a good idea to have some drinks and snacks on the panoramic rooftop bar of our hotel. Most other teams stayed here as well, so it was great to have a last toast together with everyone before going to bed.
After all the preparation made on day one of the hackathon, it was our time to shine on day two: hacking like crazy! After not too much sleep and an early breakfast it was time to fire-up and build our actual solution. To work as efficiently possible, we decided to divide the tasks among our team members. The tasks were divided as follows: Niels and Eva focused on the database, Hannah, Ekta and Panos worked on the chatbot, and Bryan tried to set up a connector between these two.
Thanks to the help of our experts Alex and Julian, building the chatbot and database was not much of a challenge for our team. The connector between the chatbot and database however seemed to be a slightly bigger challenge than expected. While figuring out the best way to tackle this problem, time was not on our side since day two of the hackathon was already coming to an end. After we had dinner Alex gave us a private tour through the building. During the tour we got some great insights of the way Microsoft arranges different areas in their office including the famous Microsoft coloring. We also encountered some vintage Office installation CD-ROMs and an actual beehive balcony. After a little photoshoot on one of the terraces our tour through the Microsoft office came to an end, and it was time to hack a little more. Just like the night before, our team could be found on the panoramic roof terrace of our hotel to finish off the day for a little toast with the other participants.
Finally, we arrived at the third and last day of the hackathon. As the third day started, so did our stress. We knew there was still a lot of work to do to connect our chatbot with the database we created. Also, we did not even have a working demo yet! While trying to keep our heads cool during this intense day of the hackathon, a light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. Halfway through the day our team managed to connect our chatbot to our database, and we were a step closer to completing our solution. Due to our great minds and extreme willpower, we managed to create a working demo not much later. And with the final presentations approaching, some final adjustments and optimizations were made to blow the jury away (for our fellow IT nerds, more technical details will follow in a future blog post!). After some more blood, sweat and tears, the final day of the hackathon came to an end, and it was time to present our project.
Niels and Panos shined on the stage and presented our awesome demo to the audience in only five minutes. We really enjoyed seeing the presentations of the other teams as well: innovative VR solutions, improved personal promotion and impressive data science projects are some examples of the projects that had been worked on by other teams. After the last nerve-wrecking minutes waiting for the votes to come in, finally the winners to the hackathon were announced: it wasn’t us. But we managed to make it to the 17th place! Let’s just say participating is more important than winning right?
Time to say goodbye
As all things come to an end, so did our hackathon adventure in Munich. After some chats with other participants and celebrating the end of the hackathon, it was time to say goodbye to our German neighbors and travel back home. We had an amazing time and really enjoyed our time together as a team. We learned and laughed a lot and would not have wanted to miss this exciting opportunity. But now it is time to go back to Den Bosch to share our experience and fresh new ideas with the other Essenters. As we say in Brabant: “Houdoe en bedankt!”.