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Artificial intelligence eclipses cloud and mobile projects to win the day at Microsoft 2017 Hackathon

What started in 2014 as an experiment to engage employees has turned into a strategic tradition to help Microsoft establish itself at the leading edge of innovation. And this year, the hottest player at the Microsoft Hackathon was artificial intelligence.

Organizers say the weeklong event, which has become the world’s biggest private hackathon with more than 18,000 participants, provides the company with valuable insights into emerging trends and interests. The projects are representative of what’s happening both internally and within the industry as a whole. And the event has come to showcase bold new ideas, many of which make it into the marketplace by influencing company products and sometimes even leading to entirely new services.

Case in point: Hackathon judges are so excited about this year’s winning project, chosen last week, that they won’t even talk about it publicly yet.

“The project is a compelling and practical use of artificial intelligence that we think our customers will love,” said Jeff Ramos, who leads the Microsoft Garage, the team that runs the Hackathon. “It’s so compelling that we’ve decided to be discreet in the amount of details we want to share.”

Taken as a whole, this year’s group of hackers showed how quickly AI is becoming the fabric of how a new generation of technology services is delivered, with projects submitted for everything from self-driving wheelchairs to the prediction of traffic signal times.

A group of Hackathon participants sit at long tables, staring at laptop screens or talking to each other in small groups.
Opening day in July of the 2017 Microsoft Hackathon, the world’s biggest private hackathon, with more than 18,000 participants. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Three years ago, a small group of top Microsoft executives, including Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, was contemplating ways to make the company’s climate more bottom-up rather than top-down — in other words, to encourage employees to innovate and lead more. Nadella often describes Microsoft cultural ambitions as a “growth mindset.”

They landed on the idea of a hackathon, a type of event that had been gaining popularity in recent years. Participants leave their regular duties behind and submit to a tight deadline — one week, in Microsoft’s case — to team up and take a new project from idea to prototype.

“In the early days, the Hackathon was really a grand experiment, with the hope of giving our employees an opportunity to share their ideas and passions,” Ramos said. “We wanted to send a signal that we were serious about this culture change. Frankly, we weren’t even sure if people would come. But we had 11,550 people that first year. So we were like, whoa, we’re on to something here.”

This year, there were 18,304 registrants who initiated 4,760 projects.

“The Hackathon is a great opportunity for all of our employees, no matter their tenure at Microsoft or their seniority, to experiment in new technologies and get exposure to them in a very safe environment where it’s OK to try and fail,” said Susie Kandzor, a program manager and event team leader for the Hackathon. “That’s how you learn and ultimately have success.”

As the Hackathon matures, it’s aligning better with the company’s priorities. Each executive vice president now issues a challenge, declaring an area of priority for the event. The executives then naturally take a keen interest in those projects, which boosts their prominence.

The three that garnered the most entries this year were President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith’s challenge to demonstrate new ways for Microsoft talent and technology to help solve the world’s greatest societal problems, AI & Research Executive Vice President Harry Shum’s appeal for solutions that infuse AI into Microsoft products and services, and Office Product Group Executive Vice President Rajesh Jha’s request for projects that show how Microsoft products and services can work together seamlessly in service of end-to-end customer scenarios.

“The Hackathon is a great opportunity for all of our employees, no matter their tenure at Microsoft or their seniority, to experiment in new technologies and get exposure to them in a very safe environment where it’s OK to try and fail,” said Susie Kandzor, a program manager and event team leader for the Hackathon. “That’s how you learn and ultimately have success.”

The Hackathon began as a way to make the company’s climate more bottom-up rather than top-down — in other words, to encourage employees to innovate and lead more. (Photo by Braeden Petruk)

The biggest chunk of projects — 2,268, or 48 percent — was focused on AI. That’s up from 1,355 AI-related entries last year, or 35 percent, when the cloud got the most attention, and just 911, or 27 percent, the year before, when mobile apps were all the rage.

“That shows how employees are collaborating across organizations to fuel innovation in the AI domain,” said Rolly Seth, a program manager and leader of the robotics challenge at the Hackathon. “AI is providing opportunities to make machine interactions with humans more personal, and that’s attracting employees to integrate AI as a core to their hack projects.

“The technology is catching up with people’s imaginations,” Seth added. “The ‘wow-ness’ of things that can be created with AI is appealing to people.”

This was the first Hackathon for all five members of this year’s winning team.

“I felt before like I just didn’t have time, because we have deliverables that we have to do, and this is not one of those,” said Victor Bahl, a distinguished scientist who runs the mobility and networking research team that recently gained attention for successfully revamping the Azure data center networks. “But now I regret that I didn’t participate in the Hackathon before. This is a damn good opportunity to make something happen.”

We’re aiming to have people not think of hacking as an event we do for one week each year, but really as a new way to work.
— Jeff Ramos

The Hackathon can provide big breaks for employees’ careers, with the opportunity to present their ideas and work to Nadella and other top executives, Bahl said.

“The culture of the company has changed in recent years, and every year I feel it’s more legitimate and more valued to do the Hackathon,” added team member Matthai Philipose.

Philipose and Lenin Sivalingam, who both work for Bahl and sit near each other, had discussed various ideas in recent months related to what ended up being their project, but the Hackathon was what created the right environment for the winning combination, they said.

“The Hackathon was the forcing function, literally a deadline for us,” Sivalingam said. It also provided a low barrier with a friendly atmosphere that helped encourage the group’s creativity, Philipose added. The parameters of the competition helped crystallize the project, Bahl said.

Sivalingam recruited a team of five people ranging in age from 25 to 52. Four hold doctorates, and the fifth is a doctoral candidate. Each has a different specialty: mobile applications, deep neural networks, the cloud, systems and human-computer interaction.

“Projects like this take a diverse range of concerns and ideas,” said research intern Yifan Wu. “At first, I was like, this is not relevant to my work, but in the end, it was clearly valuable. A lot of good research happened. And by getting it out of our heads and into practical knowledge, we got to learn a lot of different ways of applying the technology.”

The five members of the winning Hackathon 2017 team (four men and one woman) stand in a semi-circle holding the trophy aloft.
Matthai Philipose, Lenin Sivalingam, Yifan Wu, Peter Bodik and Victor Bahl won this year’s Hackathon with an artificial intelligence-focused project the judges said was so compelling, they didn’t want to talk about it publicly yet. (Photo by Elizabeth Ong)

The project took the members beyond their comfort level, especially since it’s targeted toward individual consumers rather than the enterprise customers they usually have in mind for their daily work, said team member Peter Bodik. The group also had to think holistically, contemplating not just the idea itself but how to present it well and get the right message across, as well as how best to distribute it and to reduce costs to make it commercially viable for price-conscious consumers.

“It’s new territory and kind of scary,” Philipose said.

Their project was ultimately chosen because of its application of emerging technologies and its enormous potential impact to new businesses, the judges said.

In an industry that changes so rapidly, Hackathon ideas have become invaluable leading indicators that show what’s “hot and interesting” to people, Kandzor said. And that underscores the cultural shift underway toward a quick-moving growth mindset.

“We’re aiming to have people not think of hacking as an event we do for one week each year, but really as a new way to work,” Ramos said. “It’s about having passion, solving a problem, giving customers new opportunities with your ideas, building a team of diverse people with different perspectives, building something your customer loves — this is how we want to run our company all 52 weeks.”

Read more about the Microsoft Garage and follow the group on Twitter at @msftgarage.