Updated: Mar 13
As we close in on GlobalHack VII later this week, I’ve been reflecting on my amazing experience at GlobalHack VI. If you aren’t familiar with GlobalHack, it’s a 36 hour, day-and-night redeye marathon to solve a real-world problem through the use of technology. This particular hackathon had the bonus of being for a genuinely good cause: combatting homelessness. I joined a team of brilliant technologists from 1904labs in an effort that would net us second place in the competition, and a $100,000 prize.
Our team had a no shortage of great ideas but we ultimately narrowed in on a social platform that could help to prevent at-risk families from becoming homeless. We would achieve this primarily through utility companies, landlords, etc. -- those that need to collect overdue payments, but would rather not shut off the power on, or evict a family. At the end of the hack we had developed a platform that could help at-risk families find public and private sector support to prevent a potential homelessness situation.
To say that we didn’t anticipate such success would be a massive understatement. The odds were pretty long; our competition was made up of a crowded field of 156 teams from all across the United States as well as seven teams from elsewhere around the globe. What made this victory even more improbable was how unfamiliar our team was with not only the Hackathon process, but with each other, as team members who would have to deeply collaborate in an extremely tight timeframe to build an actual working system. 1904labs itself had been founded less than a year earlier so it’s safe to say they hadn’t been touring the globe practicing their Hackathon techniques together. I personally was a late substitute for a colleague who had to scratch last minute. I had no idea what I was getting into.
In a field of very talented teams from around the world, how did we rise above? Some of the obvious answers are an extremely talented group of developers, and the insane amount of hard work they put in. I can’t understate either of those points. The following four points are my thoughts on what made our Global Hack team unique:
GlobalHack participants are motivated to join the competition for a variety of reasons. For many, the primary motivation is to win the cash prizes. For others the goal is to have a positive learning experience. Still others use the event for team building, or to support a social cause. For our team we determined that winning was not the primary objective -- gaining valuable experience was. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it was the core guiding principle by which we governed work and conflict. We were there to learn and grow from an experience, if our actions weren’t contributing to that core objective then it was easy enough for us to redirect behaviors to something more productive.
Ideation & Alignment
With the need to produce a working product in fewer than two days, the temptation is to rush to a solution as quickly as possible. We knew going in that if we immediately went heads-down on solutions it would lead to limited ideas, and a lack of thoughtful execution in our work. That’s why we started our design effort with a mini Design Studio: an iterative multi-round method for creating divergent thinking before converging on the strongest concepts. This helped us as a team to see the breadth of possible outcomes, and provided us the opportunity to hone in on the areas we felt had the greatest potential.
"Design Studio: an iterative multi-round method for creating divergent thinking before converging on the strongest concepts."
If I were to travel back in time to give advice to our GlobalHack VI team, it would have been to spend even more time in ideation, and furthermore prioritization. We had great divergence in concepts, but were a bit eager to get building and didn’t fully achieve convergence on a product vision. As a result much of what was built was left on the cutting room floor by our final presentation. There were a lot of brilliant ideas that we followed until we realized we couldn’t do everything. I can only imagine what we could have achieved if we had been able to utilize more of that time towards our core concept.
Even though I believe we could have ideated further, I’d argue that we had one major behavior that prevented individuals from running too far down any particular rabbit hole. That behavior was a set cadence of team check-ins. These brief touch-points served the same purpose as a daily stand-up often used in Agile projects, except at a much more rapid pace. By having these regular touch-points we were able to continue to improve our alignment across concepts, and make key decisions in a timely fashion before the implications of a divergence became too great. These meetings not only enabled us to head off problems, but to find beautiful connections between our varied concepts that we couldn’t have previously considered. At the end of the day this aligned our team and provided us an opportunity to consider an ecosystem of ideas rather than a single siloed concept.
Human-Centricity & Storytelling
The most exciting learning for me in this entire experience is that Human-Centered Design will prove value even in the tightest of time frames. If you don’t think you have the budget or timeline necessary to use a human-centered approach, consider this: with 36 hours to build a coded, working system, one quarter of our team had no ability to contribute directly to the final product in code. These folks instead focused on approach and human-centricity in our outcomes. I personally considered it my charge to provide insight on the humans involved, and help weave a narrative that would interlock the various people, processes, and technologies in play. Even though this competition was by definition technology-focused, understanding the human interactions had a huge impact on our outcome.
"Human-Centered Design will prove value even in the tightest of time frames."
Understand Your Users
One easy opportunity for human insight was through a panel offered at the beginning of the event, which included leaders from various shelters as well as a homelessness expert from a local college. These individuals would be available for questions for the remainder of the competition. From these interactions we were able to gain several key insights. The first of which is that “the homeless” might not be exactly who you think they are.
I personally had a perception of “the homeless” as the guy with a disability sleeping on a park bench, or the panhandler at the intersection with his cardboard sign. As it turns out, there’s much greater diversity in homelessness than what you see on street corners. One huge audience that was clearly missing were the homeless families, who made up half of all homelessness in St. Louis. This drastically changed the way we thought about homelessness, and the solution for it. I noted many teams who carried forward with a false or incomplete understanding of who the homeless were to the end of the competition. These teams effectively threw away all the effort they went through by trying to solve a false or incomplete puzzle.
"One huge audience that was clearly missing were the homeless families, who made up half of all homelessness in St. Louis."
Goals, Pain-points, Needs
The second key insight that we gained is that “there are never enough beds.” For those working at homeless shelters it’s a never ending cycle of helping serve the needy, which despite some technology troubles, they do more or less effectively. It’s not as if one shelter sits on empty beds unaware that another is overflowing. This insight helped us rebalance our emphasis towards the prevention of homelessness, rather than focusing quite as heavily on improving the systems in place for managing bed inventory. This insight fueled a huge amount of creative thinking in a direction that we would not have arrived at otherwise.
Moments of Truth
The final insight that is one that became heavily woven into our solution. That insight is that there is often a pinpointable moment where a family is at highest risk of becoming homeless: the moment they can’t pay their utility bills. This moment has unique significance in that the customer, the utility company, and those who seek to prevent homelessness all have the same goals. In a field where we often have to hunt for shared value amidst dissimilar customer and business interests, this was significant. As a result of this insight our solution began to take on an ecosystem of value that took into consideration the at-risk homeless, shelter workers and leaders, businesses, and philanthropically minded individuals.
I could continue with reasons why we performed beyond our expectations, but to me these sum up the differentiators in our approach. I was surprised as we moved deeper into the competition to see so many teams had run headlong into a solution that had no chance of success.
The points I make here are also interesting parallels to what makes an effective organization. A well defined vision with intentionally crafted cultural underpinnings will influence every aspect of an organization’s delivery. Design Thinking and rapid iteration pushes businesses to be inclusive, innovative, and drive momentum, and human-centricity has become the new quality movement. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the CEO at a fortune 500 company setting your organization as a whole up for success, or a Project Manager pushing forward the tiniest of initiatives, the same principles of team building and quality are going to apply.
If you would like to learn more about our solution you can read our submission brief at: https://devpost.com/software/1904-globalhack-vi
To learn more about GlobalHack VII, visit:
For more information on combating homelessness, visit:
Interested in learning more? Reach out to Shift to schedule a conversation, we’re always happy to chat.