Learning by hacking

Last summer, I was downing a beer on a sunny terrace in Antwerp when my smartphone landed an invitation for an‘SQL Hackaton’. To be held ‘at an external location’ that would be communicated later that week.


There I was. Puzzled, but intrigued. Upping my SQL-skills was high on my wish list.
A few days later, I received the following information:

There I was. Dazed and confused, but ready to rumble. I checked out who else had enrolled for the Hackaton. It turned out that 12 MeInc.®’ers had accepted the challenge (Me inc.® is a TriFinance concept for people taking their careers in their own hands). Apparently, we had all received a set of riddles to find out the hackaton’s location: a binary code and multiple mathematical equations that led to the VAT number of the organization where we had to go. Sounds easy but if there’s a mistake in the mathematical equations, you’re toast.

At the time I received the invite, I was completely ignorant about Hackathons. Good old Wikipedia shed some light on the phenomenon though. ‘Hack Day’ and ‘Hackfest’ proved to be synonyms, as is ‘Codefest’, which made it even more sound like a Pikachu-dressed yearly convention. Hackatons, I learnt, are all about meeting up with other subject-matter experts to collaborate extensively on business cases. Hence the ‘hack-’ or ‘code-’ prefix.

‘Failing to plan, is planning to fail’

After finding out the address connected to the VAT-number, an old fort in Edegem near Antwerp turned out to be our destination. A cool place it was. Totally cool for a 15 hours Hackathon, given the very hot weather that day. After a breakfast and welcome session the wild bunch began their quest to solve their business case using data in SQL.

I remember they told us at the start: ‘Fail to plan is planning to fail’. Despite this warning we looked into the data from the very moment we got them, trying to figure out what we just received. That was not the right approach. Better is to look at what questions add value for the client. For instance: the most important thing a vendor cares about is getting paid for the delivered services. So, it’s important his bank account number is entered correctly. Obviously, a correct VAT number and correct use of payment terms are necessary.

Here’s Erwin Muyshondt, surfing on the day’s wave: ‘All day long we struggled using data in SQL and preparing the final presentations. It was frustrating and educational at the same time. We paused for a walk and a Kubb tournament to improve our creativity, refresh and re-energize. By the end of the day, the coffee supplies decreased, while stress levels and tiredness increased. Lots of cola, cookies, and music got us ready for our final sprint to the evening deadline.’

The Hackathon gave us the opportunity to develop our SQL-skills with real data. Cut off from the world, away from our daily routines, we had a whole day to dive into the data. Though we had 15 hours to solve the problem, we felt short on time. A typical Hackathon lasts between 24 hours and a week. The hours we spent together were nevertheless enough to learn a lot about teamwork, project management, planning… and coffee dispenser limitations.

Looking back, this is what Charlotte De Bie said: “I didn’t know what to do or think the moment we received the data. I was not that familiar with looking and working with raw data. The Hackathon changed that. The most fascinating thing I experienced were the different views the participants had on the same data. Though we were separated in groups, we all shared our thoughts and information with each other. I believe a Hackathon is all about bringing people together, each with his/her background and having the same interests. Working together to solve a problem and having fun in the first place.”

Since learning by doing proved to be essential to the hackaton, let’s recast it as an event where people come together to solve problems and improve their skills by doing and learning from each other. The learning is in the hacking.


Joris Geens Project Consultant CFO Services
+32 3 201 25 60