Hackathon teams make dreams happen

Parul Tewari and team(Parul Tewari (left) connecting with her hackathon teammates Astha Gupta (top right) and Surita Coley (bottom right) via Teams) 

Imagine having the world’s best tech minds at your side. What would you do to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today?

This is the question employees ask at Microsoft’s Global Hackathon event, the yearly idea-cultivating hack that this year had more than 70,000 participants, across 71 countries and 19 time zones. It is the largest such private event in the world. As Parul Tewari, who has been with Microsoft since 2016, spent the summer shepherding her idea towards reality, she realized that its incubation environment was like none other.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do this, to feel this freedom to think, if I hadn’t been at Microsoft,” says Tewari, who is based in the Bay Area. “You don’t get that anywhere else.”

A moment of inspiration

By now, you might be thinking Tewari is a machine learning specialist or perhaps an applied scientist. Instead, it’s her job to help find and hire such people as a recruiter. She previously worked as a software developer but craved more one to one interaction with people. Tewari found a place as a part of our recruiting team and now gets joy out of helping others pursue their own passions.

“One day, I was searching through our offerings for candidates,” she recalls of an otherwise ordinary afternoon on the job. “I started thinking, how can I, as a recruiter, connect people directly with this information at the start of their search? How can I make this process accessible to those that haven’t had a job before, or are looking to make a professional switch as I did?”

For many people in Tewari’s shoes, the story would end there. But after she happened across a potential fix, she created a Hackathon project for the “problem” and possible “solution.”

“One of the teams I’m supporting gave me a demo of a product called Language Understanding Intelligent Service, or LUIS,” she says of machine learning-based tech that uses natural language to make information more readily accessible. “It’s a QnA maker that can take FAQs and make a chatbot based on them. That made me think of the frequent questions we get asked by candidates all the time: What should I wear? How long should my resume be? Do you sponsor visas? All these answers are already out there, on our website FAQs or interview prep, so my idea was to create an extra piece of engagement that could provide faster, easier answers.”

Building the team

Like seemingly everything else in 2020, the 7th annual installment of the global Hackathon was already destined to be a bit different, as the novel coronavirus had upended much of the world well before summertime. But as Tewari continued down her road towards idea implementation, the now-fully-virtual experience didn’t interrupt the process.

“I presented my idea to everyone registered for Hackathon via Teams,” she recalls. “It was a group of experts all from different backgrounds.” Soon, she was connected to Microsoft employees who knew how to get her across the finish line. She began scheduling calls across a team that included employees like talent sourcer, Astha Gupta, HR solutions manager Surita Coley, and software engineer Wahed Khan.

“My first sentence to them was: ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’” she laughs, acknowledging her non-technical role. “And they said don’t worry, we have your back, tell us what your roadblocks are, if we can’t solve them we’ll find out who can.”

Tewari found herself filled with newfound confidence. Having been a part of numerous hires over the years, she knew that Microsoft’s best-of-breed culture surrounded her with competent experts in their field. The fact that these people loved her idea and committed to its execution made her doubly confident it was worth pursuing.

“They gave me confidence in myself and my vision,” Tewari remembers. “They gave a resounding yes to everything I proposed. That was humbling, to have people believe in me and encourage me to keep going. At some points, I’ve been unsure that this is all worth it, but at those times I think of this team that has come together, and I know I owe it to them — and myself — to keep going.”

‘I’m not letting this go’

Parul Tewari was able to hone her hack alongside more than 70,000 others and have it seen by participants worldwide. “I was partnering with people in India, in Redmond, and another in Texas,” she says of the team.

She calls her hack LUISA, for Language Understanding Information Service-based Assistant. “With the Hackathon, we constructed a framework for all different kinds of user groups. It could be applicants, visitors to our website, recruiters like myself, or marketing teams looking for answers,” she says with pride. “Hackathon gave me a framework on which to build, which was such a different thing than what I do in my day-to-day job. It was a great experience.”

Tewari’s team remains close, and although they still have not met face-to-face, they continue speaking regularly on video calls to move the LUISA project forward.

“One thing I’ve learned is that to bring people together, you have to be convinced and have a firm idea in your head,” she offers when asked for advice for future Hackathon participants. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to convey what you need with clarity. Others will be willing to help you, but you need to know what kind of help you want from them.’”

Now, with a firm grasp of her project and surrounded by the right people, Tewari is on the verge of making the dream a reality. “The enormity of the whole Hackathon, everyone around the world working on some hack or another, across different time zones and boundaries coming together, that was awesome,” she says. “Now that it’s over, I’m not letting this go. I am determined to figure this out.”

At Microsoft, there are many opportunities for you to use your job to pursue your passion. Each spring, employees worldwide and all look to bring their ideas to fruition. If you’re creative and want to make a positive impact on a global scale, opportunities to join us in the Bay Area can be found here:  https://aka.ms/MicrosoftBayAreaCareers