HackITOut – A Manulife co-op story

by Kristen Shiozaki  |  November 18, 2019

Hello. We are Jiada Liang (developer co-op) and Kristen Shiozaki (UXE designer co-op) and the two of us are completing our Fall 2019 co-op terms at Manulife in Waterloo. Jiada will be entering his 4A term in Computer Science and Kristen will be entering her 2A term in Systems Design Engineering, at the University of Waterloo.

We are both a part of the Engineering Practices & Transformation team and last week, we had an out-of-this-world experience at the HackITOut internal hackathon, held in Montreal. Here’s a closer look at our 3-day trip to Montreal!

Co-ops at HackITOut (left to right - Kristen Shiozaki, Sarah Stock, Jiada Liang)

Co-ops at HackITOut (left to right: Kristen Shiozaki, Sarah Stock, Jiada Liang)

Day 1

Kristen here! The following blog will be written from my perspective and will cover both Jiada’s and my experiences at HackITOut.

Our day started at 6:00 am in a taxi on the way to Toronto Pearson Airport to catch a 9 am flight to Montréal. The Hackathon would not officially start until the next day but there was a social gathering in the afternoon at the North Star arcade for all HackITOut attendees.

At the social gathering, we found our team members for HackITOut, where the majority were based in the Montréal office (and sure enough, French is spoken more often than English so I had a feeling I’d be revisiting my high school French skills, over the next couple days). We met almost all 30+ hackathon participants and also picked up some pinball skills. Did I forget to mention the sandwiches from Schwartz’s Deli? If you like smoked meat, you’re in for a treat!

Our day didn’t stop there as the employees from the Waterloo location headed out for poutine. Since we had only started a few weeks ago, we were not familiar with many employees outside of our immediate team, so this was a great opportunity to get to know them.

Dinner with the Kitchener-Waterloo CET team

KW Team Selfie

While it might seem typical to say that it was great to get to know co-workers, you don’t realize how much of a difference it can make in a workplace. Now, we can say hello to more people in the morning when we arrive at the office, ask for help anytime and crack jokes.

Day 2

It’s the first day of the Hackathon! Before we dive deeper, let us tell you about what a hackathon is and what it means at Manulife. First of all, this is not your typical student hackathon that has workshops, API challenges and all-nighters. These hackathons usually run over a period of 1–3 days with a variety of events to keep students engaged but here at HackITOut, hacking will start at 10am and finish at 8pm. There are 5 teams, each made up of 5–7 people, where each member has a different skillset. My team was composed of 2 QA engineers, an iOS developer, an Android developer, 2 UX designers, and an IT Associate back-end developer. The other UX designer, Sarah, was a co-op just like me and works at the RedLab in Montreal.

My team decided to build-out a live-chat customer support service in the Manulife mobile application. Available under Contact Us, the user can enter a live-chat session where a chatbot would start the conversation and answer basic questions (e.g. what are my current benefits?). If the question is too complex for the chatbot (e.g. How can I make a deposit?), a customer service employee would be invited to the chat room and continue assisting the user.

Kristen with her HackITOut team

Greetings from my team at HackITOut

We divided the roles by skillset and if someone wanted to learn something new, they were free to do so as well. In my case, I worked with the other designer co-op to break down the user’s journey, create edge cases and design the UI of the live-chat feature. Both of us were not familiar with the app so planning out the user journey was difficult at first but were able to figure it out with the help of team members who had first-hand experience with the app. We proceeded with designing personas, drawing out basic task flows and then finally designing the UI. We replicated and altered the original screens of the mobile app and created new ones for the chat rooms and feedback.

Our team worked until about 5pm as many had to catch public transit to return home to their families but I stayed behind to continue working on our app’s ‘next step’ features. While we had a prototype of the iOS application, Sarah and I created an interactive prototype in Figma to showcase the ‘next steps,’ of our project.

Jiada was on a separate team and this was his first time partaking in a Hackathon event. His team consisted of four other members — a platform architect, a solution designer from Technology Business Operations (TBO), a member from the first cohort of Manulife University (MU) in Montreal and a Quality Engineer. Their idea was to build a speedometer, which measures the performance of a web page as well as an automation program that regularly evaluates Manulife’s websites and logs data in a timely basis. Due to time constraints, they started with a web page assessment engine (Google Lighthouse) and proceeded to create a user-friendly UI and add to existing API functions. The whole purpose of the project was to let everyone have fun and learn something new.

Jiada with his HackITOut team

Jiada’s team in action

The solution designer would handle the database instantiation, set up the initial database data and migrate the project into the cloud once live. Their quality engineer and the platform architect would research potential software they could use, document the development process and prepare material for the demo. The MU student would work on the front-end while Jiada was responsible for developing the back-end API.

Being the sole back-end developer meant he shouldered a huge responsibility, but he worked hard from morning until night. He said that developing of the back-end API went well for the most part, but he had trouble accessing the database once because of a proxy issue. With help from his team and coaches, they were able to resolve it and by the end of the day, the API was implemented and ready. However, developing of the front-end was not going as smoothly and once he finished his part, Jiada started working on the front-end, even back at his hotel. He is one of the most motivated and dedicated people I have ever met and it was amazing to hear that he worked past midnight to finish the front-end in addition to his assigned tasks.

Jiada whiteboarding for his team's project

Jiada whiteboarding for his team's project

With the rest of the night free, the Waterloo Manulife Employees, along with a couple of HackITOut coaches from the Montreal Office, headed out for dinner. Now, this was the real team bonding moment. This might sound cheesy but hey, if you’re sitting with your manager and co-workers for over 2 hours, you’re bound to learn something cool from them and vice versa. I learned that one of my co-workers was a huge fan of Formula One races, while another was reading about embedded systems. The majority of my colleagues have families and so it was exciting to hear about their day to day lives outside the office.

Day 3

Before we departed on our late-night flight back to Toronto, we had demos to get ready for!

This was where the stress started building up as teams ran into bugs while testing. Our team had a few issues calling the bot in the prototype of the live-chat, which left our iOS developer to debug it right up until the demo. Jiada’s team discovered a bug that prevented key data from being persisted into the database. He also ended up debugging until the last minute and finished just in time. Both of our teams were unable to implement some functionalities and in Jiada’s case, they did not have enough time to migrate the project to a cloud server. However, we were proud of what we had accomplished in this short period of time and had fun learning new technologies.

At 1 pm sharp, we kicked off demos. I participated in our team’s pitch, talking about the feedback feature of our app. I am thankful to have been given an opportunity to showcase our team’s work in front of Manulife executives. It was pretty nerve-wracking at first but it was an experience I can look back on and say ‘Wow!, I really pitched to Hugh Cumming.’ We would like to extend a special thank you to our panelists Mike Pettersen, Chloe Latailleur Benarya, Josée Desjeans, Louis Jacob, and Hugh Cumming.

Kristen and Sarah pitching their teams project

Sarah Stock & I pitching our team’s Live Chat feature

After everyone had pitched their work, we had an AMA with Hugh Cumming. Hugh is the Chief Information Officer of Manulife Canada and he flew to Montreal from Toronto just for HackITOut. Employees asked him questions ranging from general advice to Manulife’s next steps. Personally, it was a bit overwhelming to be hit with all this information about Manulife before I joined but it was important to understand this as the company and its practices influence the products I help create here.

Closing ceremonies sent all the participants home, except the panelists, coaches and Waterloo employees. We headed out for a celebratory drink to thank everyone for their hard work. It was sad to say goodbye to our teammates and friends – although we had only met a couple of days ago, it felt as if we had known each other and worked together for ages. Even if we are in different provinces, we hope that some of the Montreal Manulife employees will come and visit us in Waterloo before our co-op term ends!

HackITOut 2019 Montreal opening ceremonies

HackITOut 2019 Montreal opening ceremonies

We would like to give a special thank you to the Engineering Practices & Transformation Team for making this experience for us possible. We would also like to extend a big thank you to Kristin Flannigan and Gennifer Berton for organizing this event, Julie Fisher for handling communications, and the coaches Hai Hua, Junting Guo, Yamen Alsamman, Arun Sridharan, Janaki Dhivakar, Thierry Leroux-Demers, Shandon Miller and Gary Feierabend. You have all made our trip to Montreal one to remember.

À la prochaine, Montréal!

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