Orange is one of the world’s leading operators with 265 million customers in 29 countries, offering fixed and mobile connectivity services. Orange launched its Orange Partner program for developers several years ago and now offers identity, payment, communication, cloud, IoT and proximity APIs. We spoke to Thierry Gaillet, developer advocate and API evangelist for Orange, who shared some of the practices that the telco used to double the size of its developer community in 18 months.
In addition to marketing, community activities and events, Orange Partner runs two to three hackathons a year, each of which includes a meticulous developer recruitment, selection and preparation process, and a closely-monitored competition and follow-up phase. Orange’s network has grown to 3,000+ registered developers, while developers get the opportunity to create customer-tested solutions and take them to market.
VisionMobile: You recently ran two large-scale hackathons in France. Could you share some of the best practices you followed?
Thierry: What differentiates the hackathons we organize, is that we partner with industry partners to understand and address the challenges they face. We carefully plan and supervise every phase of the ‘hackathon cycle’, which aims to cultivate long-term relationships between developers and industry partners rather than to competition for competition’s sake.
We give participants a lot of time to prepare and study the submitted themes, use-cases and challenges, we make sure our people are available to assist and listen to developers, and also invest in their future by mentoring winning teams.
Initially, we promote the event to gather potential participants in our network. There are two types of teams we take on during the qualification process; one is high-potential, less experienced developers. The second type is more mature IT professionals, with a lot more experience under their belt, often in the form of ready-shaped teams working in enterprises.
Once we have a shortlist of candidates, we organize a networking kick-off, mixing teams (including developers, designers and marketers) as well as experts from our partners and Orange and make relevant technical resources, documentation and supporting material available to them, in order to train them for the actual competition.
I’ve been a participant in hackathons myself in the past and remember distinctly how difficult it is to be introduced to tools and hardware right when the clock starts ticking for you to build a prototype. We avoid this by investing in a long preparation process, making sure candidates – including developers and other professionals – can focus on what they are developing, during the competition.
This is what we call the “animation” phase, which lasts from ten days to a month. We monitor discussion channels for Q&A regarding the hackathon, share video tutorials and host webinars about the IoT hardware and all the resources which will be available during the competition. This way, when developers come to compete, we know they will be comfortable taking the challenges based on detailed use-cases, they will understand the communication protocols for example, or how to use the hardware kits they are given to work with.
The two-day hackathon starts with participants coding straightaway and building tangible prototypes to solve real-life problems, which is appealing as it carries the aspect of usefulness and usability. As an example, one of the teams created a smart safety helmet for factory workers, which would check and communicate whether workers are properly equipped in factories or building sites, at the right time and the right place.
The team members met during the event kick-off of the Industry 4.0 hackathon and received €4,000 as a prize, sponsored by EDF, a leader in low-carbon energies and Air Liquide, the leader in gases, technologies and services for Industry and Health. This team then launched their own start-up: e-novact and industrialized their connected helmet solution which is now available to large industries.
VisionMobile: What experiences can you share from your most recent hackathon?
Thierry: The most recent event we organized was the LoRa IoT challenge, in collaboration with Objenious, a subsidiary to Bouygues Telecom, which was held between December 2016 and the 18th of January 2017. This was appealing for us because as competitors we have contrasting agendas, but also a shared interest to promote LoRa®, the Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technology. As members of the LoRa Alliance, we share the same IoT goals and want to demonstrate to the French market that the two leading companies are joining forces to promote the same technology.
The 25 participating teams of developers and other professionals were called to solve real-life challenges presented by three of our partners:
- Groupama, a leader in the insurance industry, covering 70% of French agricultural businesses, which was looking to mitigate risks of agricultural activities,
- Schneider Electric, global specialist in energy management and automation, who were looking to optimize electricity distribution, and
- Colas, a leader in the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure, interested in embedding LoRa sensors in bridges, carparks and more locations, to monitor traffic and improve driver experience.
Together, these teams have received a total of €30,000, comprised of six prizes.
From the IoT LoRa Challenge and previous hackathons, we had various teams applying for the Orange Fab accelerator start-up program – from which over 240 start-ups have “graduated” so far. We often invite start-ups on our booths to large events, as Viva Technology, to let them showcase their products/services. We also often present start-ups to our Go-Ignite alliance counterparts (Deutsche Telekom, Telefonicá and SingTel) to widen the scope with a total addressable market of more than a billion customers worldwide.
VisionMobile: What is the greatest benefit for Orange, from these hackathons?
Thierry: The placement of a hackathon-borne solution on the market is not a requirement but part of our goal to promote innovation. Part of this is ensuring participants are serious about joining our hackathon and spending quality time, ideally to fully develop a solution, which is the primary reason we run our hackathons on weekdays.
The second reason, is making our experts available during this time. The Orange Partner experts are present at the hackathon to both make sure participants are comfortable using the resources available, but also receive first-hand feedback from developers. This feedback is key to our product development. It informs us of what technologies and tools developers in our community are using and like working with.
We get the most valuable feedback as we speak to our developers at the time they’re solving a problem, when we can get to the core of how they work. Participants come to hack with their own tools, they know what our competition is doing so this is an opportunity for us to understand why they are using each tool, what process and platforms our competitors use and through these understand how to improve our products based on this feedback.
Looking at our developer program, these hackathons are an important way for us to engage developers in our community, in addition to our digital marketing and participation to key events and exhibitions. In the past 18 months, we have doubled the number of developers in our network, as well as other professionals such as business developers, marketers and designers – not just with the hackathons themselves, of course, but with various meet-ups and promotion campaigns targeting fast growing market segments, such as West African countries and Egypt, with many innovative startups and small businesses using our SMS, USSD and payment APIs, for instance.
We’ve also managed to better qualify our customer or developer base from the feedback that we have during various events. It’s very important that we offer something tangible for the community, not just announcing a new product or a competition, while these hackathons are also a way for us to make sure we have a more direct contact with our community.
VisionMobile: What are you looking to improve in the next hackathons?
Thierry: One thing which needs to be improved is the right mix of participants’ profiles, in these events. We aim to grow our developer network and also make sure participants are serious about what they do. In similar events there are always the “hackathon professionals” who are well prepared and pitch-winners of earlier, similar events. We try to limit the number of participating pros, to make sure we allow for fresh talent to surface.
Another challenge we have faced is the simplification of the legal framework of the overall event, like the need to provide contracts protecting participants’ intellectual property and solutions. As those contracts involved multiple partners, we can now rely on a solid foundation for planning the next hackathons.
On another note, we plan to arrange hackathons in other French cities. We know we’re missing some very interesting teams who cannot attend the Paris events, and we don’t want to restrict these projects inside the capital city.
Finally, we’re working on ways to improve even further what we do. For example, we’d like to be able to give away the resources we make available at the event. In our last event this included kits by Microchip Technology and Sagemcom, and our own devices, such as Pops (embedded computers with BLE/SMS gateways), beacons or other systems.
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Disclaimer: Orange is a customer of VisionMobile, but there was no financial motivation behind this article.