Ideas float around the business, but not everybody gets a chance to build on them. That is the opportunity we get in these hackathons.
Jennifer Cherrington-Mowat is the first to dispel notions hackathons are primarily the domain of technical people.
A successful hackathon doesn’t have to be technical to be truly effective, says Cherrington-Mowat, head of technology and digital at Genesis Energy.
As proof, she cites the latest hackathon focusing on the company’s generation assets - its portfolio of thermal generation and renewable generation assets in this country.
It is the second hackathon for the organisation in six months.
In March, the first hackathon, or ‘internal innovation competition’ focused on the retail side of the business - its energy and gas brands Genesis and Energy Online.
The participants were given the challenge to ‘reimagine the customer experience through the use of mobile and/or digital technologies'.
The winner of the first event came from customer services. The team had pitched a chatbot to help customer queries. The chatbot is now on the company's website, while six ideas pitched during the debut hackathon are in development.
In the latest event, there were 10 teams. Of the 120 people who participated, around 90 were from the generation business of Genesis Energy.
“They produce a lot of data every single day,” Cherrington-Mowat says.
The two-day hackathon was held at Huntly Power Station in Waikato.
She says some of the people who joined the hackathon have been working at Genesis Energy for 30 years.
“This is not about designing a new app, or game or a different way to pay,” says Cherrington-Mowat.
“This is big, fundamental stuff. “When you think about IoT and big data, and how we have access to so much of it, the potential for having safer, more efficient and more effective generation assets means this hackathon had far bigger potential.”
“It has been interesting getting our energy generation engineers talking to our data scientists,” she says, as the company focused on the opportunities around big data during the recent hackathon.
“They were quite excited to have the chance to be the brains behind it all,” she says.
All of the people are empowered to make a difference.
Brainathon, generation brainstorm, thinkathon
She says some people called it a ‘brainathon’ ‘generation brainstorm’ and a ‘thinkathon’.
“It could be anything,” she says. “Ideas float around the business, but not everybody gets a chance to build on them. That is the opportunity we get in these hackathons.”
“It is part of our reinvention of the Genesis culture,” says Cherrington-Mowat.
'We make sure we mix up the teams. These events are a great way to have people in the [energy] generation business think of the end customer as well.
First place went to The Dream Team, which developed a mobile app prototype allowing a field worker access to information held about an asset, by scanning the asset while out on the field. The app offers operational improvements, health and safety improvements, and accessibility to key information in the right context.
The Birdseye Team was second with a prototype application of Hololens and augmented reality. The team's scenario allows an engineer on site and a remote engineer overseas, to provide real time support to the on-site engineer.
Third place went to the Future LPG4ME team which developed a prototype to digitise the end to end process for bulk/wholesale LPG distribution. This aims to improve experiences for customers, schedulers and operations teams.
“The potential for improving what we do or making it safer is phenomenal,” she says, on these and other projects pitched at the hackathon.
Cherrington-Mowat says Genesis Energy is already planning its next hackathon, but the majority of the team members will come from outside the company.
The company has a panel of 10,000 customers and the plan is to get volunteers to join the next hackathon.
“I am sure if we put something on the website, 'would you like to come and help us design our next couple of products', I imagine there will be lots of people who would like to get involved.”
She says the first hackathon provided them with lessons for the succeeding event.
This time around they made sure there were enough developers so all the teams got support. The developers come from Genesis and also vendor partners like Datacom, Microsoft, Theta and ABB.
They also noted that the hackathons need not run overnight or as a ‘'24-hour kind of thing”.
She says some of the teams stayed until 9pm, but working overnight was not a requirement. “It is more family friendly as well,” she says.
Getting aside cash to fund the top projects make a difference, she adds.
Cherrington-Mowat has been involved in hackathons before, having worked with technology companies.
She highlights the importance of getting insights into customers.
"Asking customers, without a doubt, works every single time, especially if they see your products and services because they are going to be the ones that will use them."
At a previous company she worked with, she used to go to the chat room on Fridays, where customers phoned in their suggestions. “I just stayed there to listen, go away, make a list and make the changes that will have the biggest impact on customers.”
Age of the customer and big data
She says the use of digitalisation allows a lot of companies to make a difference with their data.
“If you look at the cost of data storage, processing the tools that are out there … the ability for non-technology people to take data and introduce insights is the key difference,” she says.
“Really, none of these tools existed even five years ago and certainly if they did, we couldn't afford them. Now you can almost buy them off the shelf. You just have to fill it up and have clever people to look at it and see what they can get out of it."
She says Genesis Energy CEO Marc England had stated staff should think of the business 'as a startup with some heritage'.
“That is an interesting way of looking at a utility company,” she says. “All of the people are empowered to make a difference.”
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