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Insurtech ’17 Hackathon @ Hartford, CT

Let me just start by saying that I am still in awe of the whole experience, a full week later. Upward Hartford was an excellent host, and the sponsors and organizers put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into the weekend. I think it’s safe to say that it was a great time for all that attended. Before going to this event I really had absolutely no idea what to expect, so I’m writing this blog to share my experience so others may have some idea what to expect at a 48 hour hackathon weekend.

When I arrived Friday night there was such incredible anticipation in the air. It was so interesting to meet all of the competitors and hear about their backgrounds. There were so many college students! There were an overwhelming amount of data analyst students as well as computer science majors, but also a great deal of business majors, and tech professionals -like myself. I was really surprised how few programmers and developers were present, actually. I estimate it was probably only 50-65{5e24fea1332bc560952b53c9e8c06b9b33a29e675faab0aa0da8ffddcd9b108f} of the competitors that were actually professional developers, or considered themselves to be a ‘good coder’. At this time I started to realize that this competition would be more about creating a viable product with a solid business plan than actually programming a working application, and I was very thankful that the students and business guys were around to help.

After the meet and greet, there was a great talk given by the event’s coordinator/founder Stacey Brown who is clearly a talented developer, a charming human being, and the only dude I’ve ever met named Stacey. Pretty unforgettable. I really enjoyed talking to him during the meet and greet and I am really thankful that he founded the event. Afterwards the event crew broke the ice with the most ridiculous game I’ve ever participated in – a rock paper scissors tournament! What a ridiculous thing for well-educated intellectuals like ourselves to participate in. It was epic.

It was time for pitches and team selection. People each pitched their idea in hopes of gaining a supporting team and a chance to build their product. There were so many great pitches that it was hard to decide who to join up with and vote for. We were each given three votes to place on the poster of whomever’s idea that we liked best. The top ten ideas were announced as winners and we were given some time to rally up our teams.
It was at this point that I had the pleasure of talking to some developers from Traveler’s insurance [one of the sponsors] as well as several very bright business students and analysts. I was very impressed not only by the expertise of everyone present but also the instant camaraderie of the group as a whole.

Some time passed and I still hadn’t settled on a team yet because there were several teams that were without any programmers, and I felt it best to join up with one of those. Eventually I made it around the room to the group with the pitch that I liked best and had voted for and thankfully they were a team in need of developers, so I was happy to settle in with them.

Our team leader or CEO (if you will) was an independent insurance agent that had pitched a solution for a specific issue that he’s experienced in serving high net worth individuals. His pitch was flawless in execution, his problem/solution fit seemed entirely viable, and the technical needs for this project seemed somewhat plausible to build or at least prototype in one weekend. Other members of my team included an analyst and IT professional with web developer skills, a Recent CS graduate with ontological experience and web development skills, and three international data analyst students that have a knack for solving tough problems. I felt both confident in my team, and intimidated by the level of talent and expertise throughout the whole competition.

Beer and snacks were served, we had a few laughs, some time to start planning our projects and before you know it… it was midnight and I was driving home to get some rest. Let me just say that- getting rest, especially on Friday night, is crucial to the survival during a hackathon. There were some teams that stayed up all night working Friday night and by the end of the day and the evening on Saturday they seemed to be really running out of steam, literally asleep at their keyboards.

Saturday morning. It’s on now. We’ve planned our project, breakfast and coffee were being served, we’re getting down to the thick of it now. It was time to build our project. The room was completely charged with positive energy and excitement. We were ready to dig in. We got started and by lunchtime we were up and running getting some things built. The business guys were working on the pitch and the landing page, the analysts were working on solving the main problem, and my partner and I were building a web backend for the product. YES. This was the cool part. The day was full of pleasant interruptions by the event crew reminding us to take breaks and music played and fun was had throughout the hardworking day.

We worked incredibly hard all day. Had a great break for lunch with a short talk, and a meditation break, and got back to work for a few hours. Dinner was served, some groups were breaking off to blow off steam playing billiards and table tennis. Other teams were deeply involved in their project. Intently standing around computer screens looking determined to win and make their product the best it could be. Around 9pm it was time to switch to beer and the band was on, we all went downstairs to check it out, it was great. The band played some great rock covers, and some (I think) original tunes. I’m not sure if it was too loud, or if I’m too old, but my teammates and I had to pop outside for air. It was a beautiful night the air was crisp and cool, we could hear the band in the background. We took a few minutes to get a little more personal with our discussion and shared some life experiences and philosophical moments, and created a memory of the hackathon that we will remember for years to come.

Then… It was back to business. We went back inside and the event crew had put street fighter up on the big multiplex screen, people were taking turns playing and competing on it. It was crazy and the perfect time to blow off some steam before getting back to work. Within a couple hours we had grown near to the end of our work for the night, had a plan to finish things up in the morning before the presentation. Many other teams were obviously planning to stay up all night working and were still pounding away on their keyboards well past midnight.

Sunday morning came. I was exhausted. Had a tough time waking up, but nonetheless I got myself back to the hackathon to finish up our project. We slammed away at the final details for our presentation, trying hard to ignore any interruptions right up to the final moments before the presentation. Every team in the building was nervous. There were SO many fantastic presentations before ours, I knew we had a great chance to win anyway, but the competition was fierce! Some of the projects presented were not only technically impressive but also very disruptive to the industry, real game-changers. We saw both well-tailored software and rock-solid business strategies.

My team didn’t win first or runner-up but the teams that did thoroughly deserved it! The winning team created an entirely new type of product for the industry, and the runner-ups created some innovative software that involves drones. Our project was very viable and a great product, but I don’t think we were quite at the level of the winners and runner ups. The judgement of the competition was very fair.

Throughout the weekend the judges and mentors were always present giving insight and helpful advice at every step. The teams each had to participate in periodic ‘gut checks’ throughout the weekend to check in on progress of the project. The eventual judging of the event was scored on progress, viability, and disruption of the industry among other key factors. Overall the event was very well organized, enjoyable, informative, and a great learning experience. I will definitely plan to attend other Insurtech Hackathons, and Upward Hartford events. It’s a beautiful co-work space, and the crew there was delightful.

My final thought about the hackathon is that – I have never experienced so much human kindness under one roof before. Every person that I talked to at the event was respectful and chipper and just overall happy to be there. I expected to have a good time and be inspired there but I was totally blown away by the level of professionalism and spirit of the competitors, and the thoughtfulness and comedic nature of the event crew. There were no sore-losers, just an incredible group of talented individuals all cheering on each other’s success.