It Continues To Be a Brave New World: First Annual IDT Hackathon April 22nd -April 23rd Newark NJ by Calvin Schwartz May 8, 2017
IDT HACKATHON EVENT
Thinking back over the past few years, I wonder how many times I’ve invoked references to a brave new world. I do know; I’ve been stingy. There has to be extant reasons and perfect celestial alignments. Several months ago, I was invited to attend IDT Corporation’s First Annual Hackathon by IDT Ventures head, Jacob Jonas. I sensed something special, brave, cutting edge(new) and celestial.
So what is a Hackathon? This was my first impulse to discover. A hackathon is like a race (marathon) event where software developers, programmers, graphic designers, interface folks, project managers, all work together in an intensive collaboration over a relatively short period of time. The finish line is the creation of practical applications of software with a specific focus, in this case, the best messaging, payments, or communications related mobile app. There are teams put together, each member bringing an expertise to their cubicle of residence, where they spend those intimate hours competing against the other teams in their own field of dreams (cubicles).
A brief article departure. Watch how I develop this. For the longest time, I’ve worried about our planetary home (earth) with some indigenous problems like climate change, ocean’s rising and running out of fish, 300 million people in Asia without drinking water; all illustrative of things often running through my mind. I am unsure if we, the species, can effectively solve these problems and save our aging planet. Then came my six hours in Newark at IDT headquarters, observing the energy and composition of the competing teams. I haven’t felt this earthly emotional in a while.
At IDT, I saw youth and exuberance. Some were in high school and college, representing wonderful diversity in culture, geography and sociology. All the participants were accomplished and focused. After a few hours, I realized earth does have a better future with the likes of these kids competing here; they were dedicated imaginative thinkers. What I saw was so uplifting and revolutionary; this is a brave new world of knowledge and youth. I was grateful to IDT for investing in youth, promise, tomorrow and for inviting me.
On the fourth floor, around 5:30 PM on Sunday April 23rd, I met with Jacob Jonas who briefed me on the final stages of the Hackathon which would run to 11 PM. My mission as a journalist was to absorb. I looked over my shoulder; there was a large cubicle which served as home for one of the teams. The conference table was strewn with lap-tops, wires, water bottles, soda cans (some with sugar, some not), coffee cups and a vast array of back-packs. On the floor were several sleeping bags, visually depicting the hard reality of the event; the sleeplessness and urgency of the competitors. This was serious business. Teams stayed overnight working diligently to get to the finish line. I just remembered what Adrienne told Rocky Balboa, “Win Rocky Win.”
The commonality of two people wearing hats in a place where most were hatless brought me to Golan Ben Oni. Of course I was wearing my Rutgers hat. Golan was much more fashionable. If he was here on a Sunday evening, it must be for a reason. We leaned on a desk to chat.
Golan is the CIO of IDT Corporation; that’s chief information officer and he’s been at IDT since 1995 when he arrived and planned on staying only a few weeks. His father was a food scientist for Planter’s and Fleishman’s Yeast. The family arrived from Israel and soon settled in California where Golan enrolled at University of California at Berkeley when he was sixteen.
He’s been asked to teach at Rutgers Business School and help with the executive program. He is captivating and actually disarming, leaning on a desk and chatting, wearing a hat; his knowledge, brilliance and depth are on a proverbial other planet. His teenage son, busy on a lap-top, did our photo-op. Golan was thrilled to school me on the mechanics of the Hackathon.
Next, Golan introduced me to Tom Brennan, OWASP(owasp.org) Board of Directors. More brave new world for me. OWASP has 55,000 members in 110 countries and their function is to raise visibility for software security. Who knew this kind of organization exists? Tom was a judge in the first round of Hackathon presentations along with Zev Green, IDT’s Director of Emerging Technologies; Nathaniel Ritholtz, IDT Software Engineer; Jonathan Hyman, CTO of Appboy; Anthony Delgado, CTO of FOWNDERS; Sharon Ptashek, Senior Manager, Mobile & Emerging Platforms at CBS Interactive. Each team had five minutes to present their projects to the judges followed by five minutes of Q&A.
First place was awarded to ‘Chill’ which is an app where you and your friends stream videos over your phones while still being able to talk to each other. The first place prize they received was an iPad Mini 2 for each winner. The winners, Shaoliang Zhong and Xiaohang Su grew up together in China and now attend Stevens and NYU respectively. Second place winners won: Discovery HD+ Drone and third place won 32 GB Rasberry Pi 3.
Winners of the AI competition (team that best incorporated artificial intelligence into their Hackathon project) received an Amazon Echo sponsored by FOWNDERS. And speaking of FOWNDERS, (fownders.com) based in my birth city of Newark, they are doing amazing things to “educate, inspire and empower the next generation of leaders” as a social impact accelerator taking on qualified startups who have proven market fit and display modern innovation; more brave new world applications for me to absorb.
One of the other teams, finishing in third place, developed ‘Man Cave Sharing’ which is like Airbnb for Man Caves. With my own proclivity to special sports Sundays, I was fascinated by their entry; more brave new world and personal visual projections of great places to hangout, shoot pool and watch a professional sport final on a giant TV screen far from the maddening sounds of homeward bound interruptions.
IDT VENTURES SHOWCASE EVENT:
But the Hackathon was not the only tech-friendly event that happened this weekend. Before the final Hackathon presentation and the awards ceremony, IDT also hosted a Ventures Showcase event for six local startup companies that have synergies with IDT Corporation’s core businesses: Payments Tech, Messaging Apps, Communications Tech, and Technology that Serves Unbanked and/or Immigrant Communities. The Ventures Showcase companies (including the three teams in the IDT Ventures incubator program: PeduL, UpChannel, and ImaliMobile) all have strong synergies with IDT’s core businesses and/or target markets.
Last summer, I spent the day at IDT interviewing Chisa Egbelu and Kayla Jackson from PeduL for NJ Discover. PeduL is an online crowdfunding tool that connects students with the resources and support they need to pursue higher education. That article can be seen at: http://bit.ly/2aVGwJb
Each team had ten minutes to present and five minutes for Q & A with the panelist judges consisting of Shmuel Jonas, CEO of IDT; Jacob Jonas, Director of IDT Ventures; Scott Smedresman, Partner at McCarter & English; Aaron Price, Founder and CEO of Propelify. The other companies presenting were Debitize, Stellar Employ and Modern Lend. Listening to all six ingenious presentations continued my yellow brick road journey to that brave new world. I did manage to remark to one of the team members, in keeping with my article theme, that when I grew up in Newark, my world of knowledge came from seven black and white television stations that went off the air at midnight followed by test patterns (remindful of ‘Poltergeist’) until the next morning. “They’re here.”
Before the actual finals began, a splendid buffet of Chinese food was presented to the assembled. I indulged, then explored and pinched myself (which I do only in moments of disbelief) that I was witness to this wondrous display of future think, exuberance, youth, imagination and earth hope. And I hope the decision making folks, if liking this article (expression) invite me back next year (2018) for my brave continuing new observations at IDT’s 2nd Annual Hackathon in my birth city, Newark.