Recently I made a sentimental return journey to the University of Tasmania for my third stint as Mentor at UHack, their annual hackathon. Along with other business partners, alumni and teaching staff of the university I was herded (I suppose?) into the Mentor Pen to await contestants anxious to benefit from the wisdom born of age (which would make me Socrates and Buddha in one). But what is UHack?
UHack is a fast-paced innovation competition run each year by the University of Tasmania (UTAS). UTAS is a long-standing customer of Insync Technology, having assisted them in various digital transformation efforts, improving staff collaboration environments and reducing complex infrastructure using Microsoft cloud services.
UTAS pitches UHack as a great way to hack together new business ideas and develop skills to fulfil them. The event runs simultaneously across Hobart, Launceston and Burnie campuses, covering most of Tasmania. UHack is run with University and corporate sponsorship, as well as providing in-kind resourcing such as mentoring staff and commercial expertise. Insync has sponsored the event for the last few years, both with in-kind and donations to assist with prizes and organisational effort.
Insync has traditionally helped the university and UHack with videoconferencing services, but this year we decided to challenge the Status Quo – we wanted to run and prepare for UHack with Microsoft Teams. We thought this would be a good challenge, as well as providing a rich virtual workspace for contestants and teams to collaborate, challenge and ultimately develop an idea and pitch worthy to demonstrate impact and receive the accolades.
The Lead Up
As an event, UHack is somewhat on a par with Ben-Hur – apart from the chariots (perhaps because Hobart’s parking challenges are so infamous that not one but two teams came up with solutions to them).
UHack involves a mind-numbing number of partners, organisational staff, vendors, facilities and plant operators, catering, the list goes on. It is if nothing else, a complex exercise in people and logistics management. As Insync was taking a bigger role in assisting the organising committee, Teams was an integral part of the communications between the two organisations, mentors and external contingent staff alike. All meetings were conducted in Teams, enabling a rich communication environment.
Logistics aside, if we break down the technical challenges of a Hack day, or hack event, it usually involves these platforms:
- Eventbrite - used to register for the hackathon itself
- MeetUp - used to register for the meetup that occurs in the 2 weeks prior to help people find a team and get information.
- Register a team of people
- Use as the place to store the work
- Judges access the work to review deliverables for each Team
While DevPost is historically used by hackathons around the globe and is free, UTAS found in previous years that it could be quite restrictive with locked down templates and no abilities to use UTAS branding. Also, the participant and UTAS found that the ownership of the documentation, code, etc, was retained by DevPost, and not the participating teams or UTAS themselves. Again, a challenge. DevPost is also public by default, so each team that registers ideas will do so in full purview of other competing teams. Not ideal.
Insync proposed a solution that would involve the following:
- UHack would retain Eventbrite and Meetup for registration and attendance purposes.
- UTAS and UHack would provide a Microsoft Teams solution per Hack “Team” available globally and to relevant team members, and also a “UHack Wide” team that would facilitate general announcements, broad communications and items pertaining to the event itself.
Each UHack Team would have:
- Planner for ideation and task tracking and management
- Conversations tab if there is a need to communicate broadly with the team across Hobart, Launceston and Burnie – there were a few distributed teams
- File library to upload project documentation, as well as being able to edit and produce documents using Office Web Applications
- Upload video footage using Stream
- Sway tab that would incorporate their presentation to be shared with the judging panel
Each Team would give the judging panel a single lens to review the entry and be able to understand all the project artefacts and deliverables for the team entry.
Insync also facilitated the use of Bookings in Office 365 to organise meetings with a Mentors. Mentors play a key role in helping the team to focus their idea, develop the Business Model Canvas and ultimately sharpen their entry for the competition. The Bookings App in Office 365 allowed teams to conduct easy and efficient meetings and allow them to spend as much time as possible focused on ideation and deliverables for their idea.
- The Insync team setup the UHack tenant and were on hand to enable accounts for mentors and participants when required, along with setting up the Bookings App and Teams with example content ready for people to see and guide usage.
- Insync created quick “User Guide” style content to show how to install and log in to Microsoft Teams, along with how to use the Bookings Apps to book a mentor either in person or over a Teams meeting.
- Having the data stored and secured within a UTAS UHack tenant ensured that data and IP developed retained the ownership of UTAS and the Team participating
- Having Teams separated in Microsoft Teams ensured the ideation and hack process stayed secure and couldn’t be referenced by other teams or the public
As every year at UHack, solutions combining every shade of the ingenious and the ingenuous were dreamt up, staffed out and presented to the judges and participants by each team. Many attendees commented, though, that this year the atmosphere was somehow calmer, though no less purposeful. We like to think we played some small part in that...
Using Teams during UHack was a great test of the platform, and one that possibly Microsoft didn’t have in mind when releasing Teams!
UHack used Mentor Bookings across all locations, ensuring each team could have access to a Mentor when they needed them. This was a great success and a great use of Microsoft 365 Bookings.
The solution and environment were available for all UHack entrants, and Insync supplied roaming staff to help with Teams instantiation and to quickly build the virtual workspace environment in which to collaborate with their team. Mentors also used Teams to communicate with each other, to have persistent conversations across the 3 days of UHack to ensure each team was getting the support needed.
We knew Teams was a versatile solution, and this was a great example of Teams being able to bring people together quickly, demonstrate and provide context, with an engaging virtual workspace available anywhere in the world and benefiting from Microsoft’s secure platforms.