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Two Elsevier software engineers turned into hackers; hear what they have to say

Software engineers Brittney Tuff and Ariam Abraham flew to Finland to mentor competitors in Elsevier’s medical education hackathon

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Software engineers Ariam Abraham and Brittney Tuff look on as participants collaborate on apps to improve medical education. (Photo by Todd Fredericks)

Editor’s note: The recent Elsevier Hacks event in Helsinki pitched 60 hackers against the clock in a race to solve some of the biggest challenges in medical education. But they weren’t working in isolation; some of Elsevier’s own technologists were on hand with advice and some nifty homegrown tools. Here, software engineers Brittney Tuff and Ariam Abraham share their perspectives as technical mentors at the event.

Read their story below and watch the video.


Brittney Tuff: "We work quickly and we work together ..."

Elsevier Software Engineer Brittney Tuff mentors a participant at Elsevier Hacks. (Photo by Todd Fredericks)When I arrived at Elsevier’s medical education hackathon (#ElsevierHacks), you could feel the excitement – smart, dedicated students and technologists buzzing with ideas. They were formed into eight teams of hackers, including 20 medical students from around the world. They had just 48 hours to achieve one goal: change the face of medical education.

Each team chose from three types of challenges, with the chance to use the same content and technology that powers our clinical and medical education products. It was exciting to put my daily work into a hackathon context: harnessing data and content to make medical education more effective and efficient.

Even before the official start, students gathered to pitch their ideas to each other, sharing real problems they had faced themselves – information overload, retaining knowledge, staying up to date – and seek solutions to help future students deal with the same challenges.

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Normally, I work on backend software development, creating the technologies that drive our healthcare education platform. At the hackathon, I was a technical mentor, providing support and advice for the hackers with my colleague Ariam Abraham. We walked around and checked in with the teams, but mostly we let the teams come to us with questions so as not to interrupt the intensity of their work.

What I saw were very diverse teams of people from all over the world working together to develop solutions to common problems — medical students who were passionate about trying to solve the problems they face daily in their medical education, and developers who were equally enthusiastic about the implementation.

Hackathon participants from different countries work together to design their product. (Photo by Todd Fredericks)

Is there a formula for hackathon success?

At Elsevier, we have about 1,000 technologists on teams around the world. We work quickly and we work together, which is exactly what these students did at the hackathon. The medical students acted as product owners — expressing their visions and expectations for the product – and they were excellent communicators. Then the developers worked closely with them to develop an app that met the students’ expectations.

They bounced ideas off one another. They shared feedback. They listened.

Through this collaboration, the hackers were able to anticipate problems and speed up innovation, the same way we do at Elsevier. They understood how technology can improve efficiency, but with a tight deadline, they had to think quickly, anticipate problems and think ahead.

And the results? They were every bit as impressive as the collaborations that forged them. With little time to develop an app, using existing technologies and APIs was essential. As a technical mentor, my role was to give the medical students access to Elsevier’s APIs and demonstrate how to use them to retrieve  books, case studies, images, videos and question sets.

Some teams integrated their code with existing voice recognition technologies to create chat bot apps that could communicate with medical students. Another team integrated their app with a bot in Slack, a cloud-based set of team collaboration tools and services. With this app, students could type into Slack and the bot would provide the guidance and answers they needed. Another team used QR scanning technology to create an app that could provide students with further information on a book topic after they scan a QR code in the text.

With such a diverse group of people, everyone was able to learn from one another. The med students learned more about technology, and the developers learned more about medical education – and I learned what kind of problems the med students face and what kind of technology would be most useful for them. Much like the culture of learning at Elsevier.


Ariam Abraham: "Collaboration is key in a development-focused team"

Software developers Brittney Tuff and Ariam Abraham introduce Elsevier’s APIs to the technologists at Elsevier’s medical education hackathon in Helsinki. (Photo via <a href="https://twitter.com/BeMyAppNordic/status/901081000012337152">BeMyApp Nordic via Twitter</a>)

The atmosphere at the hackathon was ecstatic. Like Brittney, I was there to provide technical mentorship to hackers and students, which meant giving them information on the content and APIs Elsevier was providing for the event.

We supplied various APIs used by medical education products such as Sherpath and HESI so the hackers could retrieve book content, images and videos and create assessments. We gave them an overview presentation on the first day and continued to mentor teams on a one to one basis throughout the event. I’m a backend developer for the Elsevier Optimized Learning Suite platform, which powers products such as Sherpath and HESI. We’ve been working on expanding and stabilizing our APIs for quite some time, and my role is about making the desired content available using Elsevier’s existing APIs on the that platform.

So introducing that technology to the hackers was exciting — who wouldn’t welcome the chance to talk about their products or code bases? Seeing the teams trying to quickly learn the behaviors of the APIs and come up with different ideas to get the best use of our APIs was impressive, as was the range of technologies the participants were using. You saw a variety of the latest JavaScript frameworks — like React — being used to build some of the apps, and the integration of innovative technologies like voice recognition, QR scanning and chat groups.

Participants with different backgrounds and expertise collaborate. (Photo by Todd Fredericks)

It was also impressive to see the teams work well together despite their background differences, which is something we highly encourage here in Elsevier. We have a big and diverse group working with the latest web stack technologies. Collaboration is key in a development-focused team and provides each team member with equal opportunities to participate and communicate their ideas. Seeing the hackers sharing ideas, innovating, and solving problems as a team regardless of their backgrounds reflects the Elsevier technology culture precisely.

A technology team at Elsevier would usually also include a product owner and a delivery manager to help with defining and delivering the product features. I saw that dynamic reflected in the hackathon teams, as the medical students played the role of product owner by coming up with feature ideas and defining user experiences. It was terrific to see team members partnering to tackle the different problems they were facing throughout their 48-hour hacking marathon, and working together to achieve a common goal.

Watch a video about the event

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