The thunderous roar of motor engines, deafening cheers from the crowd, and the thrill of watching race cars zip across the finish line – this was the scene of the Levi9 2021 Hack9 hackathon at the Formula 1 race track Circuit Zandvoort.

Well, that’s mostly true.

In fact, the racing event took place on a miniature version of Zandvoort’s F1 circuit, with the real motorway as a dramatic (and sometimes noisy) backdrop. And rounding the track – the AWS DeepRacer, a 1/18th scale replica of a race car that’s designed to test reinforcement learning models. The grandstand was a bit quieter as the 30 Hack9 teams, with more than 160 total participants, took on the challenge from behind their computers at home. Even so, the excitement was full throttle.

“The immediacy is completely different,” says Orest Borovyi, a Levi9 Python Developer Medior. “It was my first experience with deep learning. Even though I had some knowledge of machine learning from university, it wasn’t something I could touch with my hands. During Hack9, I could see the car being trained in real life.”

Orest’s team, the Handsome Peppers, trained the fastest car and claimed the championship cup. But, his teammate Kilian Canizares Mata explains that winning (and gaining major bragging rights) wasn’t actually their Hack9 highlight.

“It was really about being in touch with the technology, having the opportunity to experience it in a competition and collaborate as a team to reach a common goal.

Kilian is a Middle Software Engineer at Visualfabriq, a Levi9 customer. That means he also works closely with his Handsome Peppers teammates on IT projects. 2021 was the first year that Levi9 customers were able to get in on the Hack9 action and Kilian says he’s glad he joined the crew.

“You can network, meet people, and get new knowledge. It was a great way to get more engaged with Levi9. But, more importantly, we all need to have fun and enjoy our work.”

The pandemic detour

Each year, the Hack9 organizers develop a different IT challenge involving cutting-edge technologies. In 2019, it was all about Cloud and 2018 explored Open Source. Hundreds of levi niners face off in an intense, 24-hour competition held across the different Levi9 offices and countries. But, the COVID-19 pandemic was a major roadblock to the typical Hack9 format.

“You have the struggle of people being apart and we wanted to bring them together, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. Adding to that is everyone is tired of being online, so we knew we needed a component from the physical world,” says Dragan Gajic, a Levi9 Thought Leader and Hack9 creator.

So, the organizers devised a detour. They gave the teams nine days to work remotely and train their reinforcement learning model on a virtual track in the AWS online simulator platform. Then, the teams could upload the trained model artifacts to the AWS DeepRacer vehicle, enabling autonomous driving on a real (miniature) track. The event was live streamed and teams could see what their competitors achieved.

“We did it differently this year, but ultimately we gave people a proper challenge that also brought some new energy and engagement to the teams.”

It’s not the first time that Dragan and his fellow Hack9 organizers have leveled up the event. Last year, they debuted the Hack9 automated scoreboard – a unique IT platform built totally from scratch by Levi9.

“We had a hackathon for the hackathon to develop this scoreboard,” Dragan says, smiling ear to ear. “The real time, automated experience makes the competition very dynamic and also delivers completely objective scoring.”

A winning formula

For the Hack9 teams, the remote competition meant that they were often tackling separate problems at different times. Orest explains that solving the issue of being out of sync was what ultimately put them on the fast-track to the winners circle.

“In the first days we weren’t really spending a lot of time collaborating, but once we started to operate as a team our results improved. In the end, it comes down to communication and how you distribute work as a group.”

From a technical perspective, the Hack9 events are designed so that anyone who is curious and willing to try something new can participate. Orest feels that he can apply many of the Hack9 learnings to his Levi9 projects going forward.

“You need to learn quickly and make decisions based on the small amount of information that you have. I also found that the challenge was a really good starting point for sparking interest in new technologies. You can see for yourself how it works and what’s possible.”

This mix of high-octane team building and innovative tech is the exact formula that Dragan says the Hack9 organizers hope to create with each event.

“As an IT service organization, our hackathons are always focused on IT solutions instead of product development. Our vision is for people to be able to jump in, give it a try, and see immediate results. It’s about staying open to new technologies and it’s also about having fun.”

Do collaboration and IT innovation fuel your engine? Check out the opportunities to join the Levi9 team. Who knows, maybe you’ll even take home next year’s Hack9 prize.