When Hackathons Go Virtual: What We Learned In Two Days

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When Hackathons Go Virtual: What We Learned In Two Days

Check out how we ran two hackathons simultaneously and virtually. What did we learn from the experience, and will remote hackathons become the norm?

· Agile Zone ·
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If you’ve ever attended or participated in a hackathon, you’ll have a strong visual recollection of how they work: lots of people working together in a room around a particular problem. They’re fast, intense and usually a lot of fun. Earlier this year the Zing team was invited to attend one for Twilio to demonstrate our capabilities and agile methodologies. 

Then Coronavirus happened and like most businesses, went into a remote set-up. 

We decided to continue anyway and attempt our first virtual hackathon. We were in the early few weeks of the pandemic at that stage, but it was already clear that we would need to create new opportunities and support our customers through some massive changes.

Here’s what we learned from the experience.

A hackathon scenario was created about a company called IPC, a pest control firm that has a contact center with 50-70 people and a team of call-out engineers. Our job was to move IPC from a legacy infrastructure over to a cloud-based contact center, integrating with a CRM, customer contact and engineer workflows systems, and encouraging customers to move to self-service. 

This is just the kind of problem we like to work with: overcoming some challenges with legacy systems and/or an unusual problem that requires some creative thinking. Our challenge was to develop a working solution for IPC in two days. The way we always start is with a discovery phase, which is to understand the requirements in detail and collaborate with the customer to develop a problem statement. 

Our experience shows that this is often the area that is the biggest surprise for the customer: because of the problem they think they have is often quite different in reality. 

We created mock-ups, user flows and IVR flows to map out the customer journey and look for ways we can get new efficiencies and help the agents do their jobs better.

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In this scenario, integration was key. There were no surprises with CRM (Hubspot) or customer support (Zendesk), but the workforce management system (FLS) was one we hadn’t worked with before. 

Our solution to the problem included a build based on Twilio Flex, which is the right tool for handling this kind of scenario. One of the great things about Twilio is the way it works with third-party applications, and we proved it again here with FLS. 

We built the system to enable engineers to get more accurate and timely job information and provide customers with control over the process too. 

The result would mean that contact center agents spend more time resolving complex problems, rather than feeling like they are just processing data. Customers are happier too with a friction-free service and more timely information via SMS updates. 

We built the virtual contact center in two days, providing a fully workable solution built on Twilio Flex, using voice and SMS for customer communications. 

What’s more, it was done working remotely, with three developers, a solutions architect, a project manager, and “customer” (played by the Twilio team). 

Remote Hackathons – They May Become “a Thing”

What was the experience like running the hackathon remotely? Actually, much smoother than we expected (bearing in mind, this was early days of lockdown!)

One of the main reasons for this is the way we set the tech up in the first place. We run the project on Confluence and involve the customer throughout, so they can see everything we can see – and feel part of the process. So, doing this remotely made no material difference. 

Communication was more challenging, that’s for sure. But we created a Google Meet, which we just ran for the day, so we could still speak to each other in the same way we would if we were in the room. 

While we love getting together to solve problems face-to-face, I can see this being another way we work with customers, especially if there are geographical challenges. 

Great Ideas Spread Fast

While we were working on the IPC hackathon, Twilio notified us of another opportunity with Boston Consulting Group. This wasn’t a drill, but a commercial opportunity to build a virtual contact center pilot – again with just two days. 

This was a great opportunity to effectively run two hackathons simultaneously, and I’m pleased to say that we met both briefs – to time, budget, and specification. 

“Zing took us from initial idea to a working virtual contact centre in two days. In a world where speed of delivery really does matter, being able to work fast, while at the same time having an understanding of the problem, is a rare skill. I have seen this first-hand with the Zing team.”

Chris Wicks, Chief IT Architect, BCG Platinion


As the UK’s only Twilio partner 100% dedicated to the cloud communications platform, this exercise was a huge deal for us. 

Not only have we demonstrated our capabilities, but we’ve learned that being virtual in no way impacts our innovation and creativity. 

hackathon, hackathons, remote working, twilio

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