Technology 5 min read

AI Crushes the 2017 Microsoft Hackathon

Microsoft | Katherine Welles |

Microsoft | Katherine Welles |

Artificial intelligence fully dominated this year’s Microsoft Hackathon event, one that highlights a cultural shift in the company’s business. 

What is the Microsoft Hackathon?

//oneweek is and has been Microsoft‘s CEO Satya Nadella‘s movement to reinvent Microsoft’s business process and encourage innovative ideas no matter where they come from.

Beginning in 2014, the Microsoft Hackathon has been the main feature of this effort.

It is a multi-day event within //oneweek for Microsoft employees to form teams, embark on ambitious projects, and stretch their creative muscles.

microsoft hackathon 2017
“The opening day of the 2017 Microsoft Hackathon on July 24, 2017.” | Scott Eklund | Red Box Pictures |

We wanted to have a week-long celebration that was global in nature, as opposed to a single, Redmond-based activity that was streamed globally. We wanted to make sure that we combined the Product Fair in with the rest of the activities. And more importantly, we wanted to have a hackathon that the entire company could participate in,” explained Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Communications, when speaking about that first event.

Putting the “Hack” in “Hackathon”

These days, “hacking” is a term used in many contexts. And, some might argue that “cracking” would be the more precise term.

On one hand, you have malicious cyber attackers who stop at nothing to leverage your own data against you. Then, you have growth hacking, which is a concept based on manipulating the tools and environment available to you to drive desired results.

On the other, you have a term that refers to shortcuts that make something easier or get something done more efficiently (like growth hacking, which is a concept based on manipulating the tools and environment available to you to drive desired results).

In a blog post by Matthew Shaffer, the Software Engineer for Manageability Services Group at Microsoft  writes, “The hacking mentality is about using something in a way it’s not necessarily meant to be used in order to solve a problem users didn’t know they had.

The first Hackathon in 2014 was comprised of some 2,200 employee teams from across Microsoft and all over the world. Each team worked on a unique project geared towards leveraging various technologies to provide a useful solution for a problem that, as we mentioned, the user might not be aware of.

Suzanne Choney wrote for Microsoft News of that first Hackathon, “The projects focus on everything from digital graffiti art to an add-in for Outlook that checks the validity of hyperlinks in an email before it’s sent.

Collaboration and a new Employee Focus

bottom up
The Microsoft Hackathon signifies a shift in the company’s idea generation process from top-down to bottom-up. | Photo by Braeden Petruk |

In the past, large corporations have resisted ideas from employees in lower positions than those actually tasked with research and development.

Yet, as collaboration continues to produce the best, most timely research and developments in our new Industry 4.0 economy, Microsoft is one company that realized that ideas should be valued no matter where in the company they come from.

As Shaffer wrote, “The Hackathon shows a culture shift within Microsoft.
I think it shows we’re open to change. We want to enable developers to make a better experience for customers and cultivate innovation.

Shadowy Artificial Intelligence Project Wins 2017

The 2017 Microsoft Hackathon was the biggest private hackathon event in the world thus far with some 18,000 participants. It continued to bring the company insights into what is trending and important both internally and within the larger technology industry.

The 2017 Hackathon more than doubled the number of team projects from the 2014 event with 4,760 total team projects throughout the event.

48% of the 2017 Hackathon projects were centered around artificial intelligenceClick To Tweet

What’s even more impressive is that 48% of the 2017 Hackathon projects were centered around artificial intelligence, a startling increase from 35% at last year’s hackathon.

The employee-participants of the Microsoft Hackathons are allowed to create their own projects and recruit whomever they wish to help develop them.

This means that the move toward AI technologies is a natural evolution and one that shows Microsoft and us that AI is quickly becoming the hottest field in technology.

This year’s winning team was comprised of team members aged 25 to 52 and incorporated employees from fields as varied as mobile apps, deep neural networks, cloud systems, and human-computer interaction.

hackathon winners 2017
2017 Microsoft Hackathon winning team comprised of Matthai Philipose, Lenin Sivalingam, Yifan Wu, Peter Bodik and Victor Bahl | Photo by Elizabeth Ong |

We’ll update you as soon as we know something, but apparently, this team’s project was such a compelling application of artificial intelligence technologies that judges didn’t want to talk about it publicly. 

That’s right. This team’s project was so good that Microsoft isn’t letting anyone outside the company see it.

So, here’s some things that the Hackathon has produced in the past.

Some Success Stories From Past Hackathons

steve gleason
“Former pro football player Steve Gleason worked closely with the Eye Gaze Hackathon team to develop a way to move his wheelchair using just his eyes.” |

The winner from the first hackathon in 2014 was Ability EyeGaze. This team developed the EyeGaze Wheelchair which allowed former NFL player Steve Gleason to operate his wheelchair via eye tracking software on a Surface tablet.

The project was so successful that Microsoft engineers took the idea and incorporated it into a new eye-tracking feature for Windows 10 called Eye Control.

Eye Control makes Windows 10 more accessible by empowering people with disabilities to operate an onscreen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech experience using only their eyes,” Microsoft said in a statement.

If your company had a collaborative event like Microsoft’s Hackathon, would you participate? 

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