Intense, 48-hour “hackathon” events give tech teams the freedom to find innovative solutions to real-world problems
Intense, 48-hour “hackathon” events give tech teams the freedom to find innovative solutions to real-world problems
November 7, 2016

Clear the ground, plant the seed — and innovation can thrive

Intense, 48-hour “hackathon” events give tech teams the freedom to find innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Anatoliy Neymark’s 7-year-old son beams when he gets extra screen time on his tablet for every chore he finishes, but frowns when he loses a minute for any task left undone. It’s a great lesson on hard work at an early age, Neymark said — but keeping track of everything can be tough for parents.

This concept inspired him to help develop an “allowance management app” as part of a creative brainstorming event for Wells Fargo team members: “Adults have access to many tools that help them manage their finances,” said the analytics manager for Global Banking. “But we have limited options for teaching financial responsibility, especially tools that parents and kids can use together.”

Neymark is among hundreds of technology and business professionals who have participated in such events in recent years. Called hackathons for their fast-paced, technology-focused sprints, the problem-solving competitions are modeled on events that became popular on college campuses in the late 1990s.

Wells Fargo hosted its third hackathon during the first week of November. It challenged teams to improve the accessibility of a product, service, or platform for people with disabilities, in conjunction with National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

In the past two years, hackathon teams have developed nearly 90 digital prototypes since the program’s inception.

“Our goal is to nurture innovative thinking and creative problem solving across all job titles and business lines,” said Bipin Sahni, head of the company’s Innovation and R&D team. “We present a challenge and then give team members the space and tools to fully explore their ideas.”

Blank slate of possibilities

Earlier this year, Brandon Dresch said he huddled in a conference room with Neymark and four other teammates to ruminate on a central question: What new product or service could they create that would benefit customers the most?

“We started with a completely blank slate,” said Dresch, a Global Banking strategy planning manager, “and looked beyond our respective roles at the company to focus on what benefits our customers.”

Intense, 48-hour “hackathon” events give tech teams the freedom to find innovative solutions to real-world problems.
Hackathon winners in action: (clockwise from left) Derek Lindgren, Brian Hwang, Brandon Dresch, Minh Dang, and Manoj Gautam.

The team settled on a “digital piggy bank” mobile app concept that aims to teach children about earning and managing money. Parents can set a list of chores, as well as allowance amounts for completing each item. Their children can check off completed tasks and track how much they’ve earned toward a target goal.

“Kids are surprisingly proficient at picking up new technology,” said Neymark, who has two kids, ages 3 and 7. “So the user interface for the mobile app has to be both intuitive and exciting.”

Armed with their ideas, 50 teams then congregated in seven cities for a two-day challenge, where they refined concepts, built functioning prototypes, and prepared closing pitches to a panel of Wells Fargo technology leaders. Coffee stations and toothbrush kits were available for those who worked through the night.

“We’re not programmers in our day jobs,” said teammate Minh Dang, a Global Banking business initiatives consultant. “We hit a wall with coding a working prototype and almost considered quitting at one point that first afternoon.”

But by “breaking down the puzzle pieces,” Dang said, the team was able to build a stable demo by 4 a.m. Their perseverance paid off, earning top honors from the judging panel.

Innovating into the future

The hackathon is one of several internal initiatives designed to spark new ways of generating ideas and working together at Wells Fargo. Throughout the year, team members are encouraged to submit ideas to improve efficiency and the customer experience, attend innovation webinars, and contribute to the patenting process.

Team members submit about 700 ideas a month on average through a company-designed online portal, said Sherrie Littlejohn, head of Wells Fargo Internal Innovation Strategies.

“The financial services landscape is rapidly evolving, so the status quo is no longer viable,” she said. “We’re establishing new ways to inspire team members, foster transformative ideas, and ultimately, drive lasting value for both our customers and team members.”

The hackathons foster confidence as well as creativity, Dresch said of the allowance management app team.

“I learned that there is no problem we can’t solve if we bring together diverse perspectives with the right skill sets and lock ourselves in a conference room,” he said.