April 05, 2016

Hackathon: Hacking for fun and ingenuity

by Jeff Nadler, Teladoc Chief Technology Officer

Recently we held the first Teladoc hackathon and I wanted to share our experiences with it. Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the term – don’t worry. It has nothing to do with the conventional mass media use of the word “hack” to describe an unauthorized or unlawful intrusion.

In the technology world, and specifically in software engineering, “hack” has always had a different meaning. Hacking means coming up with something clever and ingenious. Hacking is applied ingenuity. In popular usage today, the term has also come to mean a clever short cut.

A hackathon is an event where programmers and others involved in software development get together and work intensively for a specified period of time on projects that rapidly take an off-the-wall idea from inception to realization. The aim is generally to end up with a proof of concept for something usable, but not a full-featured product. It’s also about the spirit of competition and having fun.

Teladoc’s recent hackathon was a blast. The one-day event was open to all Teladoc IT staff, including web and mobile development, database/reporting, quality assurance, infrastructure and security teams. People across four different Teladoc offices participated—New York City; Purchase, N.Y.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Lewisville, Texas—and we linked up with a live video feed and screen sharing. Zishan Ahmad planned and organized the event.

Everything was considered fair game as long as it concerned a product, process or platform improvement to make Teladoc better. Our range is huge: HIPAA, PHI, PII, security, scalability, resiliency, config management, process, infrastructure, user experience, tech stacks, database optimizations, mobile apps, workflows and user tools, etc. We’re running both Ruby and C# stacks with MySQL and some Mongo for fun. We asked our teams to think about building things that did not seem possible in the scope of a day. We told them to use techniques that are abnormal, maybe impractical and hopefully weirdly elegant. Blow us away with your imagination.

Our goals for the hackathon were:

To foster community. To bring together our geographically diverse development teams.

To learn and teach. We do this all the time but this was a chance to focus on it and talk about it.

To solve problems. We do this all day, every day.

To build, to create something new. Creating is the fun part. Building is rewarding and what we are trained to do.

To gain the respect of peers. We’re a large team, and not everyone has the chance to work with or get to know one another.

To collaboratively push the limits of technology as we know it today. Yeah!

While not a pure competition, we recognized and rewarded awesomeness, with judging (thanks to Keith Weinberg and Nik Nanis) that focused on creativity, cleverness and a sense of “whoaaa.” We had winners in various categories including Brandon Richey, Konstantin Tsoukanov, Mashallah Behbehani and Rana Dutt. And we ended up with several new features we expect to roll out this year.

It’s all in keeping with Teladoc’s “relentless pursuit of better” and establishing a culture of innovation. And we can’t wait to do it again!