5 Life Lessons from a Tech Jam (from a non-techie)

hackathon

A couple of months ago, I spotted a link on the TD employee intranet home page for a “Tech Jam” – an internal competition to create a mobile app concept, sort of like a hackathon. A few days earlier, I had created and shared my 2017 career development plan with my manager, featuring my goal to lead projects and initiatives with a strong focus on the digital and mobile space.

“I’ll just click and see what it’s all about,” I thought, contemplating the Tech Jam link, vaguely recalling a colleague participating, and earning the top spot in a similar competition last June.

Fast forward to mid-February. My team, including six fellow employees – who a few days earlier had never crossed paths – claimed the third place spot out of 19 teams for a concept we presented science-fair style to TD mentors and Executives. (For more on the event, check out the TD Newsroom).

A month later, the top 3 teams were invited to present our concepts to a larger audience, including senior TD leaders from various areas within the bank.

How did I get here? And what lessons came out of spending 25 hours in a warehouse-style space (boasting exposed brick walls of course!) with 120 other competitive go-getters, some of whom were younger than Justin Bieber?

Here I share my five key takeaways in hopes that they will inspire others, and serve as reminders to myself the next time I’m faced with an opportunity or challenge that may, at first, seem out of reach.

#1: Take the shot

Much of this experience was about me breaking out of my comfort zone and taking Wayne Gretzky’s famous words to heart: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This mantra, featured on the lunch room wall at my kids’ school, gave me the confidence and push I needed to go for it. Plus, there was literally only upside. I could expand my network, try something new, probably have fun doing it, and add new skills to my tool belt. OR, I could have sat this Jam out and (maybe) thrown my hat in for the next one. I’m glad I chose to put on my gear and pick up my stick.

While I had the courage to take the shot (click on the link), first I had to have noticed it. And I must have noticed it because I was looking around with my eyes and ears open. I saw, I clicked, I registered. I talked about the upcoming event with colleagues and friends, secretly using the principle that states we’re more likely to keep a commitment if we publicize it (yes, I was a tad bit nervous). I joined a team with people I didn’t know, and then, finally, I showed up ready to jam.

The next time something crosses my path that might not seem “me” at first, I’ll remind myself: It’s “me” if I decide it is. And I’ll lace up my skates and get on the ice.

#2: Focus on what you can contribute, not on what you can’t

I’m not a coder, I can’t fix your phone, and you won’t find me in the IT department. With a resume highlighting achievements in marketing, product management, and customer experience strategy, where did I fit in at a hackathon? I was officially on board as an “Idea Generator,” one of the five selections available at registration (there were many of us which was reassuring!) But I saw myself as more than that – so I brought more. I came with my ability to bring new people together in a fun way. I compiled ice breaker questions for our first night, and brought a suitcase full of amusing props for our final presentation that helped us stand out, and drew in participants and judges. I helped keep ideas flowing when the well dried up. Three hours into the first night, I quickly grabbed a sharpie and jotted down words like shopping, fitness, travel, and friends to help spark new ideas (and to ensure we had our customer hats on). One of those words ultimately planted the seed for our concept.

While my team members brought their amazing technical skills (there is some serious talent in this organization!), I think I made Dr. Seuss proud by offering my own unique experiences and expertise. As he affirmed: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than you.”

#3: Accept help when it’s offered 

Throughout the event, mentors (fellow TD employees) were on deck to provide guidance to help teams polish their concepts and pitches. At 6:00 p.m. on Friday (the deadline was noon on Saturday) our team was hunkered down at our home-base table after plugging away in different corners of the floor for a few hours. We were joined by one of the mentors. After an hour and half of debating, discussing, and constructive challenging, we arrived at a focused and polished idea – one that was very much embedded within the concept we were already pursuing, but at 7:30 p.m. our approach was laser-focused.

Had we not been open to listening to our mentor’s insights and suggestions, or open to having a productive dialogue as a team, I suspect the final outcome would have been very different….and our bronze medal would have been awarded to another, well-deserving squad.

#4: The roller coaster feeling is part of the process…don’t fret 

One of my teammates and I spent quite a few hours researching statistics about market size and consumer behaviour to help support our concept. In the end, only two numbers were featured in our pitch. Yup, only two. We had a good laugh about that slide, calling it the “five-hour-slide” but at one point, we (or at least I) felt those five hours had been “wasted.” For a few minutes, I felt deflated and frustrated. At the same time, it was an exciting turning point as we had aligned on a crisp concept (see point #3), thus needing only those two powerful numbers.

I quickly reassured myself that the twists, turns, and unexpected dramatic drops, are all part of the process. I was reminded of a quote by Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

We fell and we rose a few times and I see now that each hour spent thinking, researching, and debating was ultimately a necessary step in our journey to our final destination.

#5: Laugh a lot…and pump up those around you

While competition was certainly in the air, my team members and I kept the mood light and fun. Two of us had a serious belly laugh developing a script for our two-minute video. We didn’t even use most of the content we were howling about (see Tip #4…it’s part of the ride) – but it didn’t even matter.

And when more serious junctures arose, like when my teammate felt a moment of insecurity after our final presentation to all the participants and judges, I made sure she knew how stellar her performance was! She smiled and hugged me, and expressed how much she appreciated my kind and sincere words.

So there you have it: five life lessons…or should I say hacks.

Thank you to my awesome teammates for helping make this experience so memorable and inspiring: Mike Brusilovsky, Tommy Lee, Aashish Malhotra, Ryan Song, and Pranati Suri – I hope to have the opportunity to see your talents in action again soon! And a special shout-out to Tae Moon, Mentor extraordinaire!

If you’ve ever taken a shot, what other lessons ‘stick’ with you? I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, perhaps there’s a link out there waiting to be clicked.

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