BCIT Hackathon 2020 – Using Computation Solutions to Get Ahead

Aaron Rempel sat down with Justin Cervantes of the BCIT Student Association to discuss the 2020 BCIT Hackathon and how he organized the event.

A Hackathon is a collaboration of computer developers and all involved in software development to design software that solves a certain problem within a given span of time. Taking place mid-January, this year’s BCIT Hackathon was special, because it was primarily organized by BCITSA Student Council President, Justin Cervantes—from the logistics to the sponsors to the round-up of staff (Caroline Gagnon, Mike Starkey, and Steve Eccles). Cervantes was also heavily involved in picking the judges and finding event funding. Developers who participated in the hackathon had to answer the question: How can we use software development to better applications for a community? One way is to bridge the gap between business leaders and technology leaders.

Aaron Rempel: Firstly, can you give me some background about yourself and what got you into computing?

Justin Cervantes: Sure. Just to give a bit of context: I am an older student; I’ve worked for a bit. I was working for the federal government for Employment and Social Development Canada in the passport offices. Timing of that was during the Phoenix pay crisis, and the government had decided to take on a[n automated] payment system that would replace a lot of the duties of HR personnel. The software did not work the way it was intended. At the time, I was thinking about a career shift; I wanted to be in a space with a lot of growth—that was technology.

AR: You mentioned that there have been previous hackathons. Could you go through some history?

JC: For the School of Computing, they run a co-op program. They run it twice a year for intakes because the School of Computing, for many programs, take students in September as well as January. For the Co-op students who enter, sometimes if they enter in January, that gives them summer months to build their portfolio. The students starting in September had Christmas break, which is not a lot of opportunities. So what the school decided was to host a small student hackathon for the 50 co-op students for the September intake. It was very small; there were only instructors, and there was no industry component.

AR: What is different or unique about this hackathon?

JC: For the challenges, it’s a bit of a unique hackathon compared to most. We’re having it Friday, which is a preamble. The preamble is where the teams meet for the first time; in this hackathon, they’re not allowed to choose their teams. We’re really emphasizing interdisciplinarity and social aspects in the hackathon, so meeting people you wouldn’t normally meet. A designer who usually doesn’t meet with a back-end developer or a business student who never gets exposure to being a project manager. Saturday is when the challenges are announced.

AR: What was the experience of first-timers at the hackathon?

JC: A lot of first-timers go in not knowing what to expect. Sometimes, they get crushed. Maybe a hackathon asks them to use a certain type of technology and they spend their whole 48-hours trying to open the program they need to start the hackathon. Quickly they learn what the industry is looking for, or what skills they need to enhance. Maybe it’s Javascript framework they were not exposed to before and now are expected to use.

AR: Tell me about SAP. You have some industry people from the United States who came to this event.

JC: Yes, we have Flavia Moser. She’s one of the leaders in data analytics, and she was a keynote for what data analytics is, and the trends in the industry; lightly on what industry is looking for in new grads and how you can get a job at SAP. As for who they are: the connection isn’t ours, the sponsor is the Center for Excellence in Analytics, which is powered by SAP. SAP invests in this branch of BCIT, and they are supporting us with the expectation that we are advancing data analytics. 

AR: I see that there are UX and UI designers involved in this event. What’s the difference?

JC: Imagine you’re eating a bowl of cereal, and the spoon is the user interface (UI). It’s how the user interacts with the product. However, the user experience (UX) relates to having that cereal mixed in with the milk; the whole process of enjoying the cereal.

AR: How are business students contributing?

JC: For the business students, a lot of things I’ve been suggesting relate to looking at tools that startups use. One solution I push is Lean Canvas. It helps people make a pitch in a short amount of time, to 5 W’s. All those short snippets that people really care about.

AR: There’s incentive money involved. What have students done with it in past, in your experience?

JC: In 2018, I competed in a hackathon in the city of Vancouver, and my team won $10,000. What our team of four decided to do with that is instead of walking out the door, saying “thank you,” we decided to start a company. We tested the idea we had implemented over the 48-hour hackathon period.

AR: Going into this, I didn’t anticipate the amount of information I would be given, nor did I expect to enjoy this conversation as much as I did. There are still many misconceptions about what goes on in an event like this, and people like Cervantes are working to change that.