Hackathon events are a regular occurrence at many technology companies, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft. But the software development cram sessions, also known as codefests or hackfests, are relatively new to the financial services technology space.
The hackathons are popular with enterprises, as well as developers. For developers, they get a chance to work on new tools or fun ideas that may not necessarily fit into their day-to-day responsibilities. For the companies that run them, they often receive working apps or software that the company can use to enhance products for customers. A win-win, so to speak.
PayPal ran a hackathon last May that drew 2,000 competitors and last month, SunGard held a global hackathon, spanning 17 cities with 425 developers joining in. Steven Silberstein, SunGard's first ever enterprise CTO who joined the company in 2012, devised the event to "to drive liftstyle," he says. "The idea was to bring innovation and creativity, and untether from the old, and build the new. Most importantly, take some risk. Those are all attributes around innovation that we should encourage and facilitate."
First SunGard Hackathon"These are creative times for FinTech and the key to success is to have the brightest and most enthusiastic minds who understand the impact of the work they do," Silberstein adds. "We did not say anything about the prizes when we first sent out the invitation and 425 employees signed up. They did this for the love of exploring and developing, and because they know their work has the potential to significantly improve the user experience for our customers."
The results of the hackathon were impressive, Silberstein says. In addition to many useful tools and ideas, "I was wowed by the positive impact on the employees -- both those in the development community, as well as people in the entire company," he says. "They saw we are committed to innovation and change. People really felt good about it."
Silberstein admits his observation about the impact on morale is qualitative, based on conversations and feedback from SunGard employees. "I expected creativity, and some wild ideas, but the excitement before, during and after [the hackathon] was the most surprising."
I expected creativity, and some wild ideas, but the excitement before, during and after [the hackathon] was the most surprising."
-- Steven Silberstein, SunGard
Moreover, SunGard's clients reacted positively to the event. "Even our clients thought it was very cool," Silberstein says. "I ended up with some interesting discussions with twp capital market CTOs. We were talking about how to inspire innovation. It makes SunGard a more attractive place to work."
Silberstein and SunGard were able to run the hackathon with mostly existing technology. "Over 10 percent of development staff participated," he says. "We unleashed them from any paradigms. We virtualized the development environments and we used internal infrastructure and Microsoft Azure. The cost of creating sophisticated infrastructure was minimal."
[For more info on how Wall Street firms are developing and nurturing IT talent, read:
Financial Firms Are Investing In Their No. 1 Asset: IT Talent.]
SunGard's hackathon involved 103 teams from New York, Miami, Paris, Cambridge, Belgrade, Stockholm, Tunis, Shanghai, Manila and Pune. Each team spent 48 hours developing their ideas. SunGard's developers chose from a list of themes that ranged from new visualization models to the next breakthrough in predictive analytics. "Our vision is to empower our customers by delivering smarter information faster," Silberstein says. "We want to do this across platforms that are as intuitive as apps, as visually stunning as tablets, and so powerful that they can handle the most complex transactions in a nano-second."
Winners: Visualization, Security, Algorithmic TradingThe competitions produced first and second place winners in five different regions. In Oxford, the winners developed a new visualization for credit risk data. "This was pretty cool. It looked at a specific risk and looked at it over time, with added complexity and dollar exposure," Silberstein says. "It looks across the 3 separate planes at one time."
SunGard hackathon participants in the Tunis office.
"This visualization offers the potential for greater intuitive understanding by the credit risk officer," said Alan Knapman, a member of the winning team, 'Smells Like Team Didcot.' "We are able to visualize our data and relations all at once, in a holistic and beautiful way. Plus, the program runs a thousand times faster than relational databases." The winning team from Tunis, named "Hackuna Matata," won with a simple and relevant idea perfectly tied to their "no worries" name: a system that locks a computer whenever the user moves three meters away from it. "One of the things people worry about the most is security," Silberstein says. "Most systems lock based on time," such as when a computer has been idle for a certain number of minutes. "Being able to lock it based on distance is unique."
Meanwhile, the team from Bangalore developed an intelligent algorithmic trading tool. "The two trends in finance are behavioral finance and intelligent Algorithmic Trading systems, which means the world of finance is moving from a 'race to zero' of making the fastest trades to making the most profitable and least risky trades," said Aditya Yadav, the member of the winning team, in a press release. "We decided to develop Algo Trading, an intelligent trading tool using computational and data intensive processing and analysis of high volume streaming data from numerous sources to generate real-time actionable signals."
Lastly, "The Meteorites" from the U.S. developed a corporate action risk app which allows users to quickly visualize events based on their risk, enabling them to take action faster, according to a SunGard press release.
Overall, Silberstein says the hackathon was successful. "We have committed to doing hackathons in the future," he adds. "There are people who didn't participate who want to join the next one. People outside of SunGard on linkedIn asked if they could participate. We are even considering opening it up to partners and client developers."