We won the AWS re:Invent Hackathon!

On the morning of November 28, 2016, in a cavernous ballroom deep within the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, Scott Pletcher of Applexus Technologies met his teammates for the first time at Amazon Web Services re:Invent 2016 Hackathon and Team 38 was born.  Fourteen hours later, Team 38 was crowned Hackathon Winners.

“I signed up for the Hackathon simply because it sounded like fun and would be an opportunity to see some pretty creative AWS inventions.  Never did I expect to be a finalist let alone a winner,” said Scott.  Scott is Practice Director with Applexus Technologies, an AWS Partner, and holds an “AWS Certified Solutions Architect-Professional” certification.

“Many teams there had formed prior to the event, made up of people who all worked at the same company.  There were a few teams composed of ‘solo’ participants like myself.  On my team, Team 38, two guys were from the same company but the remaining four had never met before that morning.”

Forty-two other teams of six people each competed in the 2016 AWS Hackathon with four non-profit Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) providing inspiration against which the teams would focus their creations.  The teams were to come up with unique ways the AWS platform could help accomplish a goal or solve a problem as described by the NGOs. 

“We were partnered with the US Green Building Council—the people behind LEED certification.  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a certification builders can achieve when their buildings, from homes to corporate headquarters, meet certain sustainability criteria.  In listening to our NGO sponsor, their strategy was to go beyond sustainable buildings and extend the concept into whole communities.”

After about an hour of brainstorming, Team 38 had narrowed down to a few options. 

“I knew that we had to have a unique idea to set ourselves apart—something beyond the standard ‘mobile app to do XYZ’.  To create some space for ourselves, we decided to focus on an area that seems to be underserved and generally a topic people don’t like to think about—waste management.”

hackathone-chart.jpgWaste management and sanitation is a significant issue for many communities as populations increase and our consumerism accelerates.  This has led to greater stress on municipalities as they struggle to keep up with demand, contain costs and ensure the least possible environmental impact.

“Although our team members were from all over, we all seemed to identify with one concept.  For my neighborhood, the local garbage and recycling trucks come around every Tuesday and dutifully empty my trash and recycling bins, regardless of how full or empty they happen to be.  What if we could employ the AWS platform to create a sort of ‘pay-per-use’ model for trash collection.”

The concept was that a customer could indicate when their trash or recycling bin was full by using a web application, Alexa or an Amazon Dash button.  In each case, a signal would be sent to a database indicating that customer was ready for pickup.

“We didn’t expect for waste management companies to send a truck out for each button push , but rather use that demand data to better schedule trucks, staff or routes.  Additionally, in high occupancy areas like apartment buildings, when a community recycling or trash dumpsters fill up, items are usually tossed into the wrong dumpster or pilled to the side.   By allowing community members to signal a full container, the waste management company could potentially avoid contaminating recycling bins with normal garbage.”

“This also enables a scenario where customers are charged in relation to the amount of trash they produce, rather than a single flat rate “all you can produce” model most providers use.  The possible side-effect of a pay-per-use model is to create an incentive to reduce.”

By about 6pm, Team 38 had everything working properly and was putting the finishing touches on the “pitch deck”—the presentation they would give during the allotted time.  After winning in their NGO division, Team 38 moved to the big stage to present along with three other teams.

Just after midnight, the winners were announced.

“It was truly a surreal moment.  As the day went on, I knew we had a strong concept.  After seeing some good pitch presentations, I was still confident up until the finals.  All the finalists were very strong both in presentation and in concept.  I think what gave us the edge is that we used a more diverse and deep set of AWS services.  After all, this was an AWS event, so the more AWS services we could incorporate into the solution, the better!”

So, what tips does Scott have for aspiring Hackathon contestants”

“This was my very first hackathon in any form, so I’m certainly not a seasoned pro but there are some things that helped our team.”

“First, manage your time carefully.  There were several teams that had wonderful concepts, but simply ran out of time to fully execute.  We set mini-deadlines with pre-defined action plans in case we ran into dead ends.  There were probably three or four more good features that we wanted to add, but de-prioritized those on the fly.”

“Second, build a concept that’s applicable and practical—something that fixes a problem that you yourself have in a manner that you’d use.  For example, many other teams opted to create mobile apps.  We instead opted for a generic responsive HTML5 screen, but also incorporated voice and IoT methods of interaction.  While I do have my smartphone with me most of the time, it’s a real hassle for me to unlock my phone then locate, launch and log into an app for a relatively minor task that I do rarely.  This ‘app fatigue’ is driving more organic integration modes, including voice, visual recognition, gestures, etc. and that’s what we built.

“Finally, come with the right mindset.  Hackathons are fun and exciting.  If you approach it as such, you’ll never be disappointed.  You will learn something new—guaranteed.  As a by-stander at other hackathons, I’ve seen teams compete with an intensity so fierce it was flatly uncomfortable, awkward and clearly upsetting to team members.  More than a few heated discussions broke out during those twelve hours in that ballroom—but not on Team 38.  We were unified in our desire to simply learn and everything else was bonus.”

Scott Pletcher
Practice Director

Scott Pletcher is Practice Director at Applexus Technologies with responsibility for Innovation, Strategy and Cloud. Scott has been in the IT industry for 25 years, starting at the very entry-level as a PC repair tech while working his way through college. Over the years, he's had the opportunity to work across a variety of IT roles and industry verticals. For the past seven years, Scott has focused on Omni-Channel technologies and Innovation practices in the Retail industry. If Scott ever made it onto Jeopardy, his dream categories would be "80's Metal Bands", "Craft Beers of the Northwest", "Kevin Smith Movies", "Jason Isbell Lyrics" and "American BBQ Styles".