Training the next generation of developers
Microsoft’s biggest global hackathon has recently taken place (between 9-11 November), with more than 16,500 student developers registered to attend events across more than 112 locations in 53 countries. Two of Europe’s largest events took place in Athens and Helsinki with hundreds of students taking part in the hackathons, which attracted 820 and 560 registrations respectively. We asked the organisers why WOWZAPP is so special. Drazen Dodik, from the Microsoft Finland DPE team, and George Kanellopoulos, from the Microsoft Greek DPE team, shared their thoughts.
Q: You both work with students and young developers every day. Why are hackathons so popular with these groups?
Drazen: Hackathons are a great way for the next generation of developers to get a head-start in app development, especially if we introduce a new technology platform like Windows 8. They are also a great way for students to connect with the local developer community and learn from each other.
George: Definitely – and maybe score some awards and become famous at the same time!
Q: How would you describe the reaction to your local WOWZAPP event?
George: Pure excitement! Even at 11pm on the third day of the event, people in Athens were still shouting: “WaaaZaaaaaaaapp!!”. At the end of the event, 32 apps were ready for submission, and 15 more will be finalized in the coming days.
Drazen: We experienced the same in Finland and saw tremendous support from partners: Many universities we closely collaborate with supported the event by providing bus transportation for the students and offering “study credits” for taking part. It’s a pretty good incentive to offer – come and create an app in a hackathon AND speed up your graduation. In the end, we saw over 100 apps being developed at the hackathon. Pretty impressive!
Q: Why do you think engagement with young developers was so high for this hackathon in your country? What makes it so compelling?
Drazen: The international speakers were a big draw, and students always want to be part of something cool. Hackathons have changed, it isn’t just about sitting on your own in a basement, it’s about connecting with people, having fun and explore if their app idea could become the foundation of building their own business.
George: I would say there were three factors influencing engagement in Greece. First, the economic crisis and high unemployment - it’s typical of the Greek developer spirit to aim to conquer the world even under the worst economic conditions. Second, Windows 8 offers developers their best platform opportunity yet. Finally, I have to give kudos to my academic peers for the great job they did in drumming up university excitement.
Q: Is there anything that surprised you about your event?
Drazen: The momentum is amazing - even at 5:21 in the morning, most people were still up and working hard on their apps! I was also impressed by the amount of female developers - the girls were rocking everything from business apps to fashion apps, and mentoring in between.
George: Some students came along to just watch sessions in Athens and then ended up creating apps in the competition!
Q: You chose to hold your event in your capital city (Athens and Helsinki). How did you encourage young people who live in other areas of the country to get involved?
Drazen: We decided to organize the event in the capital region (Espoo) and worked with the faculties around Finland to get students from different universities to the event by bus. Students from Kuopio started driving before 3am to arrive on time by 9am - now that’s what I call dedication! There were also students from Turku University of Applied Sciences, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences or Lappeenranta University of Technology. And I should add that it wasn’t just people from Finland – we had participants from over 13 different countries, such as Canada, China, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Mexico, UK and many more.
George: Our local Microsoft Student Partners did a great job inviting people and putting up posters in every university in the country, plus we are giving away awards totaling 15,000 EUR.
Q: Did you engage any local partners in your event? How?
George: We worked with 123P as a co-organizer and network partner (123P is a collaboration space partner that supports startups and entrepreneurs). Plaisio (the top OEM in Greece) was a sponsor too because they wanted to recruit junior talent for web and Windows 8 app development. I don’t think they are short of candidates now! We also worked closely with several Greek universities, including the Technical University of Larissa and the Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki.
Drazen: We had so many great partners. In addition to the universities we worked with, we also partnered with companies like Avanade, Symbio and Nokia. Many of them came to help us train the attendees and to offer them projects too.
Q: Who else did you engage with from your local communities?
Drazen: AppCampus, the app incubation program we drive jointly with Aalto University and Nokia sits basically in our backyard so we teamed up with them and are offering a 20,000 EUR grant for the best idea that comes out of the hackathon. We also worked with many local startup networks and accelerators.
George: We worked with members of the design community, as well as local startups including Anlock and Bugsense who are great role models for the student developers.
Q: Coding for three days non-stop is exhausting! How did you keep the students motivated (and awake)?
George: We kept them motivated by prizes and presentations by people with great apps on the Windows Store (one Anlock app was featured in the video played after Steve Ballmer’s presentation at the BUILD Conference for example).
Drazen: We designed a lot of fun activities, everything from quizzes and surprise awards to fun competitions like the 7am “Booty Shaker Master 2012”. Plus developers received even more inspiration from some really cool presentations streamed from around the world.
Q: What has been the biggest highlight of your local event?
Drazen: We got the famous tech community Channel9 crew down to report from WOWZAPP which was a pretty big deal for everyone- during the first evening they broadcast their first feature and the crowd went crazy!
George: One of our top female developers was featured by Forbes.com which was great – plus we created some brand new developers over the weekend, which always feels good.
Q: What feedback did you get from the developers who participated?
Drazen: We got a lot of great feedback around interesting sessions, very proactive mentors and for the venue setup. It’s amazing to see over 500 young developers in the same room and sharing experiences with others.
George: Everybody I spoke to asked when the next one will happen - they definitely want more.
Q: Longer term, what do you think the impact of this hackathon will be for the participants and also for Microsoft in your country?
George: WOWZAPP participants learned how they could take their app into the worldwide marketplace, rather than just looking for opportunities in their country. That’s really important for young Greeks right now when they are faced with limited opportunities at home, and it’s good for Microsoft to be seen as a company that facilitates those opportunities.
Draen: We’ve done a lot of these hackathon before as well but this is on a completely different scale – we really gave these students a head start on Windows 8 development, plus their 15 minutes of fame on Channel9 along the way! For Microsoft, this was a great way to show how easy developing for Windows 8 is - I mean, you can learn the basics and build an app in 24 hours for free if you’re a student or startup. For example, one of the developer teams in Helsinki was Magnificent Eight, a talented team that specialize in rapid development and developed ten Windows 8 apps in just one month, including the superb “Fortuna 3000” app (see image on the right
) during the hackathon. I also want to call out Team “KIDE”, a group of 19 year olds that developed their game “TeeDee” (see image below
), which is popular in the Windows Phone Store and has now been adapted for Windows 8.