We Built a Thing: the Virtual Design Master 2019 Hackathon Result

There have been a number of times in my life and career where I have decided to share an idea with the world hoping that it may work and entirely willing to ride the results, whether it’s to success or to failure.  And by failure, I really mean to a profound learning experience.  This past Friday (August 9th) proved to be the former.  The Virtual Design Master virtual Hackathon was a success by my measurement. Let’s see what happened

Build Year = Learning Year

Virtual Design Master has been around for 6 full years now in one form or another.  We have seen a growth in the community supporting and participating in the events and we have given out well over 10,000$ in prizes while providing what we hope to be valuable to our community peers.  When this year’s organizing meetings started, I decided to flip the script.

Moving from the traditional architect-focused program was not something I took lightly.  What drove my desire to shift into a hackathon focus came from many interactions I’ve had over the past few years where many of my ops-origin friends and community peers shared that joining a hackathon is not easy to do unless you’re a developer.  I want to change that.  This article gives a good indication of the challenge.

Small Team, Big Result

The hackathon event was designed to change the approach of a hackathon while still ensuring we tested with an actively engaged audience.  This was a broadcasted signup with folks who knew they had to commit to 24 hours of availability, but we were up front in saying that this was not a full-out 24 hour straight coding exercise.

After a 4-part education series on what a hackathon looks like, we had a handful of folks jump in as either participants or volunteers.  It was good enough to test the method. Then the day arrived and we found that life happens to us all and our numbers dropped to four participants.  This is how we learn.

The pitch was to create. product that would allow algorithmic matching of people based on personality and skills in order to better match mentors with potential mentees.  The result, after a lot of testing, site building, and collaboration, was a working system that is able to programmatically match people based on a few criteria and a simple web application to  collect that information.  This was the basic proof-of-concept which will be evolved into an actual product thanks to the testing and work that was done by the team (Joe Houghes, Angelo Luciani, Al Rasheed, and Me).

Lots of Content to Watch and Explore

The lead up to the event included a 4-part educational series presented as live webinars and each of those are available on demand here:

Episode 1 – The Idea

Episode 2 – Building the Team

Episode 3 – Product Management for Hackathons

Episode 4 – Getting Ready and Test Pitching

We live streamed a significant portion of the interactions as well which are all here in sections:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5 – Finale and Demo

The Product and Presentation

All of the code and documentation from the event was created and shared on GitHub under the Virtual Design Master account.  You can check out all the links which will also evolve as more documentation and updates happen beyond the hackathon.

Project page: https://github.com/VirtualDesignMaster/Hackathon-Team-BusOne

Wiki: https://github.com/VirtualDesignMaster/Hackathon-Team-BusOne/wiki

Presentation: https://github.com/VirtualDesignMaster/Hackathon-Team-BusOne/blob/master/rapidmatter.pdf

Virtual Design Master – Episode 1 Recap – “The Idea”

Virtual Design Master Season 6 has begin with a fun twist this year!  We launched the first of four webinars in an educational series that will end up with a super exciting opportunity to be a part of a 24 hour virtual hackathon that is happening in August.


I was joined on the livestream by Virtual Design Master co-creator, Angelo Luciani (https://virtuwise.com) and as always this Hackathon-focused series also features the creative drive of Melissa Wright (https://vmiss.net).  The 2019 event series is aimed at making the hackathon experience more “Ops-friendly” which has been a challenge in many events that I’ve been a part of in the past.

Episode 1 On-Demand Video

Watch the replay of the live webinar below which is all about how to come up with an effective hackathon (or startup) idea, and examples of working ideas that have been effective and fun to build at previous Hackathons.

As always, drop in a comment and make sure to follow my YouTube for Virtual Design Master and much more!  There will also be a Team Virtual Design Master group at VMworld for the hackathon which I’m leading and there are so many opportunities to be a part of the VDM Hackathon as everything from an observer to an active participant or even a volunteer!

The registration is open for Episode 2 (July 11, 2019), Episode 3 (July 18, 2019), and Episode 4 (July 25, 2019) already so jump on in and get set up to see the live sessions.  Each webinar is also streamed to the YouTube channel and available on demand.

Webinar Registration Links

Episode 2 – Building the Team

Episode 3 – Product Management for Hackathons

Episode 4 – Getting Ready and Pitching your Idea

Hackathon for Ops – How Virtual Design Master is Lowering the Barrier to more Inclusive Hackathons


Episode 1 – The Idea: Watch On-Demand

Episode 2 – Building the Team Watch On-Demand

Episode 3 – Product Management for Hackathons Watch On-Demand

Episode 4 – Watch Live 7/25 here: https://www.youtube.com/c/EricWrightDiscoPosse/live

Have you ever thought about joining in on a Hackathon but you didn’t because you don’t know your Foo from your Bar?  The reality is that most hackathons are aimed at developers which can put up a barrier to entry for folks who come from the operations and IT architecture background.  I’ve written about this in the past here and the response was incredibly positive.  So, now it’s time to put that idea into practice!

This is your chance to join in something special that has a lot of excitement building among the technology community.  This is the chance to move from scripting out your simple tasks to participating in the building of a product and project with a team of folks who will bring diverse backgrounds and ideas to the event.  There are few opportunities to do something as meaningful as creating and nurturing both new connections and potentially a product that has an even bigger future!

Hackathon for Ops – The Virtual Design Master 2019 Event

Hosting a hackathon is just one part of the overall experience.  We are featuring a 4-part webinar series leading up to the online (yes…virtual Hackathon from anywhere in the world) event that will be happening in August.   This is where the fun and learning begins.

This is something that we at the Virtual Design Master creative team really feel is needed and the feedback has already been positive.


What can you expect to get out of being a part of the Virtual Design Master Hackathon Event?

  • Learn the skills you need as you join and plan for a hackathon event
  • Get past any worries that you don’t have coding experience
  • Seriously, you don’t need experience to join a properly inclusive hackathon
  • Discover how to find peers and mentors in the tech community to help you through the process
  • Have fun while doing all of these things!

The goal for people attending is to also take the confidence and skills you have built through the Virtual Design Master program to take even further by joining an in-person hackathon event such as those coming up at VMworld, Microsoft Ignite, and AWS re:Invent.

Our Virtual Design Master team will be representing at all of these events and will connect and coach for building or joining a hackathon team.

Virtual Design Master Season 6 – The Webinar Series and Hackathon

Live dates for Season 6 webinars which are also completely open and free for registration and will also be available on-demand from Youtube for further viewing.

  • Episode 1 – June 27, 2019 @ 1PM Eastern Time – REGISTRATION LINK BELOW
  • Episode 2 – July 11, 2019 @ 1PM Eastern Time – REGISTRATION LINK BELOW
  • Episode 3 – July 18, 2019 @ 1PM Eastern Time – REGISTRATION LINK BELOW
  • Episode 4 – July 25, 2019 @ 1PM Eastern Time – REGISTRATION LINK BELOW

The Virtual Design Master Hackathon date is being firmed up to occur in the first half of August.  The event will be 100% online and participation from anywhere in the world means that this will truly be an incredible, and inclusive opportunity for everyone.

EPISODE 1 – The Idea

Watch On-Demand

Before you jump into the hackathon, you need an idea.  This session is going to unpack industry tips on how to come up with an idea and evaluate how you and your potential team can decide what’s the right product approach to build.  This extends beyond a hackathon into every day technology life and will feature some great experiences shared with you and make sure you’re ready to go from idea to product!

EPISODE 2 – Building the Team

Watch On-Demand

Now that you have your idea, it’s time to think about how to recruit and assemble the team.  Team building in and out of the hackathon environment requires some thought of skills matching, evaluating personality traits and strengths, mentoring, and much more.  This episode explores the world of effective team building for your hackathon including the recruitment process which is very unique in the hackathon style.  These ideas also extend to our day-to-day team and personal experiences and will be effective and usable everywhere you go in business.

EPISODE 3 – Product Management and Live Hacking Techniques –

Watch On-Demand

Product management and the art of being ruthlessly pragmatic is important enough on a long-form development project, but critically important during a hackathon.  You and your team will need to make quick decisions and carefully manage your team’s time and capabilities to deliver a working and winning product at the end of the coding window.  Using experience in product management, product marketing, and in hackathon operations and participation, our VDM team will share how you can put core techniques into play to ensure success in your hackathon experiences.

EPISODE 4 – Getting Ready for the Hackathon + Test Pitches

Register for Episode 4 here:  https://discopos.se/vdms6e4

Now that you have followed the three-part webinars you are ready to lean about the hackathon experience and to see and hear your first test pitches.  This session will feature some day-before and day-of logistics, a discussion of how the scheduling and time management go during the live event, and also feature some tea pitches to hear how to do the  product pitch and to do last-minute recruiting or finding a team to collaborate with.






How do we make Hackathons more Inclusive?

One of the things that I do as part of a technology community event organizer and contributor is to try to introduce new things to each community.  Reducing the echo chamber effect is one if the better ways to grow the skills of the members and also increases the ability to bring in new people into the group.  Many of my communities are more Ops-focused.

VMware User Groups (VMUG) is one of the more prominent parts of the last decade of my time building and participating in communities.  The VMUG community is a great example of one traditionally Ops-focused but leaning towards bringing more coding and development as automation and other new skills are brought to the fore.

When I ask about making a hackathon more inclusive, it’s not even in the sense of diversity of cultural, gender, or ethnic backgrounds.  That’s a separate challenge unto itself that isn’t being covered here.  I mean very simply:  how do we get more IT Operations folks to feel welcome at a hackathon?

The Challenge with Adding Development to an Ops Community

There are many books and psychological studies that point to the importance in company and team culture of a sense of belonging.  The safety in being able to fail and learn among your peers is what creates stronger teams.  I’ve seen this become a company-wide culture and it is amazing to watch how well the dynamics work at full-scale.

When it doesn’t work, it is brutally obvious.  We do enjoy watching development activities happening, and as a non-coder myself, I love embracing and welcoming more development activities into the Ops communities.  One thing that does happen a lot of times is the sense that the strong developer showing these nifty processes and code off as apparently easy can create a sense of heroism in the way they do it.  It’s often seen as inaccessible.

The discomfort and disconnection that people feel when a hero and unicorn culture is very real.  To the people who’ve crossed the chasm to take on and learn the development skills (which come from a different part of the brain than many IT operations tasks), it feels natural and is often difficult to “teach”.  It’s like inviting a seasoned guitarist to teach a simple song.  Teaching and playing are very different skills as well.

During the organizing of a big event I posed the idea of a hackathon as an idea.  There were numerous responses from people that they felt put off by the term and the activity.  As non-developers, there is a real sense of not belonging or an anxiety of getting involved.  The reactions were visceral and very strong.

Being a Non-Developer at a Hackathon is Eye (and Mind) Opening

We should all make a point of doing some uncomfortable things.  It helps you to grow your skills.  My foray into this was supporting development teams for a long time as an Ops architect.  I made a point of learning how they interact with the system, what they use, the way the think about and architect their application, and then I learned to better map the infrastructure to what the app needed.  It was like watching a magician and knowing how they did the trick.  I may not be able to do the trick, but I knew what was involved if that makes sense.

Going to a hackathon as a non-developer can feel daunting.  What will I do there?! How do I participate?! I don’t know how to code so I’ll probably feel stupid, right?!  These are genuine concerns (maybe even fears) for a lot of people.  At VMworld 2018 I decided to lead a hackathon team.  That opened my eyes to the challenge of a very short timeframe to both teach, involve, and build for folks who had not come from a development background.  It was fun but it could have definitely gone much better if I had prepared the team more.  I needed to see how it would go.

I attended a company hackathon and became deeply involved.  Not in codiing directly, but in creating a team, sharing an idea, iterating on the prototype design, then on testing and presenting the output.  I was included because as a team, we needed various skills.  The value was immediately felt as the groups almost self-organized into developers, testers, presenters, ops builders, and even just viewers who wanted to be close to it as it happened and see the inner workings.

What made this hackathon successful was that there was a familiarity within many of the people involved so the self-organizing happened very quickly.

Crossing the Hackathon Chasm

This more of a question than a statement I’m making here.  How do we make hackathons more inclusive?  How do we open the activity up more effectively to let non-developers learn and dabble in some of these introductory development skills, and feel safe and a sense of belonging while doing so?   It’s interesting that some of the development communities decry exclusivity, but the very nature of hackathons breeds exclusivity.

Over the course of this year I’m doing more research into how effective community growth works and the science behind it.  That includes getting people to do things they have not done before as a part of involvement in these tech communities.  How can we make it easier to allow for unfamiliar groups of people self-organize into teams to create a development-focused prototype and feel included and comfortable to learn together.

Have you got experience in joining more dev-focused events or activities as a non-developer?  I would love to hear from you on this and learn more.  Please share in the comments below.

My hope is that we can figure out how to introduce more fun activities for folks who need a little boost of confidence to get started.  It’s how we all get better at it together.