What is it to “hack” something? How can a “hack” make something better? It wasn’t until the end of my own journey through a “hackathon” that the concept was so perfectly articulated.

The morning of the HackIT finals – the day of judgement for groups like mine participating in the 2018 Cisco HackIT IX hackathon, one of our judges named Bailey Szeto shared a small “hacking” anecdote.

When Bailey explained to his 14-year-old daughter that he was going to judge a hacking competition, she wondered, “Isn’t hacking illegal?”

With the way most people think of hacking, Bailey’s daughter isn’t far off. But Bailey shared with us a definition that he had found: “To hack is to program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets.”

Digital poets! Isn’t that beautiful?

Last year, Lori Paschall eloquently blogged about her experience as a HackIT participant and shared key takeaways on how to develop a quality team dynamic. In this blog, I want to share insights about my experience as a HackIT Finalist and explore the artistry of problem solving.

It was a fine summer day in May, the day of Cisco HackIT – Cisco’s global hackathon. The crowd was an incongruous mix of engineers and non-technical folks. The team members in my HackIT group did not know each other initially, yet we came very well together and were able to trust one another to form strong partnerships. Although diverse in background, we unified under the one goal – simplifying Cisco’s selling process by providing Sales Insights as a service. Rather appropriately, we named our HackIT team, “Team Done Deal.”

Through much discussion, brainstorming, and iterating on ideas, eventually, we came up with some cool machine learning algorithms. After some unique findings and visualizations, our product was conceived. We called it “SalesCloud9.” Data explorations and development carried on late into night. When the next day came and the San Jose Regional HackIT winners were announced, we were thrilled to learn we made it to the semi-finals!

We also did not expect to advance to the finals and to be invited to the HackIT Incubator for further development, training, and refinement of our idea – but we did! Truly, I was surprised. I’d hacked my own expectations! And who could have guessed we’d make it to the finals – and win! We were digital poets writing a new story of innovation.

That’s my team! (From the left: Abhilash Deshmuk, Han Naing, Josh Wong, Manjula Shivanna and me). We are displaying the number 9 for Sales Cloud 9 (and HackIT IX)


Some of the Hack IT finalists with Ash Seddeek (sitting down) along with the wonderful HackIT Incubator Volunteer Program Team

Here are some of my key takeaways in terms of problem solving:

Interviewing Extreme Users:  While we can validate the requirement with regular users, extreme users can help unearth unique insights. Extreme users can be of varied range, and we were able to identify interesting use cases in these discussions.

Run the interviews as a journalist: Go deeper to comprehend the problem – keep asking “Why?” and “Tell me more about that.” Another trick is try not to seek confirmation of the solution, but rather to keep focusing on the problem statement. Probe and ask, spend more time on the problem rather than jumping to the solution.

Suspend all judgment for best idea selection: We took some time to work on our ideas individually. Each one of us then shared their idea. With each presentation, we brainstormed together to strengthen the idea that was shared. Respect for ideas across the board encourages continuous enhancement of idea and innovation.

Innovating may feel like waiting for lightning to strike:  The process felt like writing a bestseller where a writer’s mind has to be invested continuously. We were committed to this process with continuous investments of time, energy, and passion. It required a lot of patience and numerous cycles of redesigning and refinement of the solution.

Pitching and re-pitching multiple times: This was the process of re-telling our story effectively. Start by trying to explain your problem statement and your solution in ten minutes and then try summarizing it elegantly in one minute.  Sounds hard, right?  It took us plenty of practice and multitudes of revisions to get our pitch perfect.

One journey ends, another begins…

As I look back, I recall that I really did not expect the start of this incredible adventure that fine summer day – all the turns it would take. The experience was much like a “hack” itself – shaping and reshaping until you reach that perfect end state.

In our final design, our solution, SalesCloud9, offered key innovative novelties that encompasses the complete Seller Journey, including top seller insights. It is a cloud-based service that can flexibly ingest, analyze, and model data into insights and provide users with the next best action that they should take, at every major phase of Seller’s journey. We were able to look at business data as well as intuition and feelings from Social Metrics. We used WebEx SparkBot, Python, Django, Apache Spark ML/GraphX, and Hadoop as our development framework.

I invite you to join this fun ride – to join these enterprising teams tinkering away, offering solutions, and competing in the various innovation challenges here at Cisco. Amazing things can happen when teams composed of different backgrounds and skill sets come together!

Let us bring on the digital poetry and make a beautiful symphony together for Cisco!

Nothing would be possible without the wonderful team of judges and volunteers, so a big thank you and Kudos goes out to this team!


Meenakshi Narang

Business Systems Analysis Manager

Cisco Commerce - NPI