109 postsecondary students, 24 teams, 32 hours of work, 30 minutes of sleep, five judges and two presentations – a ‘by the numbers’ breakdown of third-year Sheridan Software Development and Network Engineering student Alan Simon’s experience alongside his three teammates at Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) Next Great Innovator Prototyping Challenge in the fall of 2015. Their hackathon experience, at times stressful and arduous, added up to a big win as they were declared co-champions and took home a $10,000 grand prize.
Simon’s team consisted of fellow Sheridan students Craig Colpitts (Systems Analyst), Tyler Pierog (Software Development and Network Engineering) and McMaster DeGroote MBA student John Lang. Together, as team RedBullOP, they decided to undertake RBC’s challenge: Build an innovative prototype for a mobile, tablet, or online application that would be a differentiator for RBC Wealth Management within the North American (CAD & US) marketplace. “It was very open-ended,” says Simon of the challenge. “Luckily each of us brought different strengths to the table providing a range of perspectives from which to approach it.” Each group was given one week to prepare ideas and to start coding before the on-site competition at RBC’s Waterpark Place office in Toronto.
Simon and Lang had previously worked together on Hackernest’s DementiaHack in 2015 and learned an important lesson there about narrowing the scope of an idea going into this type of event. “We hadn’t calculated how much time certain components would take to build,” explains Simon. “If you keep your scope small then you can grow from there during the competition rather than trying to reconfigure your plan while the clock is ticking.” With that in mind, they met the evening before the challenge started having realized that their original idea wasn’t going to work as planned and sat in a room with a whiteboard until they felt they had a clear vision forward.
“If you keep your scope small then you can grow from there during the competition rather than trying to reconfigure your plan while the clock is ticking” – Alan Simon
Entering the competition already somewhat fatigued from the last-minute brainstorming session, they decided as a group to try their best to relax and enjoy the experience. “The key is to remember that you’re all friends and to maintain a positive attitude throughout,” says Simon. “We played games to keep each other awake and really just focused on the fact that we were all working towards the same goal.” With this approach, RedBullOP was able to conquer challenges that many hackathon groups face when it comes to dividing up work fairly and effectively based on individuals’ strengths, and being open to constructive criticism. Simon took the role as the technical lead, Lang brought his business sense, and Colpitts and Pierog played essential roles as developers.
Having worked as a co-op student at RBC, Simon brought both practical knowledge and cultural understanding of the institution to the team’s work. “RBC puts a lot of emphasis on connecting with young people through its financial tools. Not all big establishments prioritize that,” he explains. “I also thought a lot about the processes they used and how those could be reflected in our idea.”
Plenty of caffeine, music and walking around got the group through the almost sleepless night of work as adrenaline from the start of the competition wore thin. At 11:30 a.m. the following morning they presented their application to a panel of judges made up of RBC executives and responded to their questions. By the time lunch came around, the prospect of sleeping was appealing but the group found out they made it to the top five and had 30 minutes to add to their presentation before speaking to the judges again. Then came the announcement that team RedBullOP were co-champions and were taking home the big prize. “We were all in disbelief,” says Simon.
“Hackathons are great team-building experiences and translate well to the workplace. Building software from the ground up is something I want to be involved in throughout my career” – Alan Simon
Although the team is not able to speak publicly about specific details of the application ideas developed, being able to note on his resume that he is the winner of RBC’s 2015 Next Great Innovator Challenge is a big deal for Simon. “Hackathons are great team-building experiences and translate well to the workplace,” he says. “Building software from the ground up is something I want to be involved in throughout my career.”
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Written by: Keiko Kataoka, Digital Communications Officer at Sheridan.