Hackathon – New Ideas Born of Creative Chaos


Working at ZEISS

Hack… huh? It’s not just start-ups that are quickly finding favor with this unusual format, a rising number of established companies are also jumping on the bandwagon. So what is it about organized chaos that companies and hackers find so appealing? We talked to Florian Mezger, Head of Key Recruiting & Strategic Workforce Planning at Corporate Human Resources, and Devran “Cosmo” Ünal, Senior Product Engineer at Digital Innovation Partners, to find out just that. Cosmo, who has already taken part in a fair few hackathons, is helping out with the preparations for the hackathon in Munich. Find out more about his work as a Senior Product Engineer in the first part of the interview (link).

What’s a hackathon all about?

A hackathon is pretty much a “hacker marathon,” if you will. Cross-divisional teams work on a particular project dedicated to a particular theme and come up with ideas. This is done against the clock and normally over a weekend. The theme and the task are set by ZEISS. At the end, the results are presented and the best teams receive prizes. It’s not your typical competition, more a social gathering of kindred spirits. The only real rule is the choice of topic. It’s about trying things out, far away from hierarchical constraints and in close contact with people from other disciplines. There’s no dress code, and no set office hours – here, pretty much anything goes. The fantastic thing about hackathons is that a prototype is created out of thin air. Some people also come up with approaches that will probably never get to market – but then that’s not the aim of the game. The main thing is to work together and get your creative juices flowing.

Why does ZEISS run hackathons?

Florian: Hackathons are very popular among the IT and developer crowd. It gives companies the chance to develop fresh ideas and new products with ambitious young talents, thus exploring whole new avenues. At big companies like ZEISS, a lot of time is spent thinking about what aspects could afford to see a change. Hackathons, however, are ideal places for trying out several new ideas. We think it’s really exciting to see how initial ideas can be transformed into innovative approaches in a very short space of time. The teams are made of up of experts like programmers, designers and product developers. Often, that fact alone is enough to break new ground. We want to use this format to ally our innovative strength with talented young people from the outside while offering them the chance to network with people at the company and experience firsthand how Zeissians work together in fantastic teams. This will allow us to show them the topics and technology we’re working on at ZEISS. This affords them deep insights into our world.

What happens to the applications developed at the hackathon once the event ends?

Cosmo: If you’re asking whether a hackathon delivers meaningful results, that all depends on the quality of the preparation. Ideally a brainstorming session will be held before each hackathon, and will involve people who know what’s best, i.e. what the market needs. Contact between ZEISS employees and hackers is therefore essential. After the event, some applications are good to go, while others still need a few finishing touches. Often, the code developed is open source, meaning developers can also work on it after the event, adding any missing functions. At the same time, the open source code also helps other hackers see how problems were solved.

Looking back on a successful ZEISS hackathon at the beginning of 2017 in Jena

Exciting topics, great prizes, major industry partners and half-empty pizza boxes, spilled fizzy drinks and dark circles – around 70 developers, designers and interested individuals from all over Europe came together at the ZEISS hackathon held at the beginning of the year in Jena, where 11 teams spent 24 hours programming software in line with the theme “Optical Intelligence goes AI.” The main focus was on data acquisition and processing, and on visualization in the field of microscopy. Participants were armed with ZEISS microscopes, smartphones, data streaming and machine learning processing, as well as visualization with virtual reality and augmented reality systems, and looked after by around ten mentors from ZEISS. The first prize – a choice between a ZEISS VR ONE, a GoPro camera or an Anki Overdrive system – was awarded to an app designed for biology class. Its aim? To help visualize data that is generated when performing experiments.

“Optics Go Digital” in Munich

From 28 to 30 April, the hackers from the software and hardware developer scene will come together, this time at Digital Innovation Partners in Munich. The theme will be “Optics go Digital” – and the hackers will tackle a whole new problem during the “coding weekend” together with ZEISS employees and other motivated hackers before presenting their results to an all-new jury. Attractive prizes are once again up for grabs, and are sponsored by partners such as Microsoft, Bosch and FlixBus.

For more information on the hackathon in Munich and to register, please click here.

More information on the Digital Innovation Partners and insights into the day-to-day work of the team will be made available here in the next few weeks, and on the website.

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