Dhiraj Balakrishnan

Software Engineer

Organizing a Hackathon During Covid Pandemic

Posted at — Aug 29, 2020

You just fight to live another day.

Just after completing my term as an Innovation Committee Lead for ITDP Hyderabad, I got an opportunity to work with the DELL TIDE Hackathon team. It was sheer coincidence that I met the right person at the right place, at the right time, with the right response. Little did I know back then that it would have such a profound impact on my work life. In this blog post, I will be journaling about my experience conducting my first Hackathon for Dell India and Malaysia in association with Dell TIDE Team. Let’s get started.

Leap of Faith

The TIDE Hackathon team was to conduct an internal hackathon for the FY21 Q1 when I joined the team. It was a difficult period as we were all working from home due to the COVID pandemic and yet we had to engage our team members to compete in a hackathon. It was completely new for me and the entire team because we had never conducted a virtual hackathon earlier. We also had the added uncertainty of never having conducted a hackathon spanning two different countries. Moreover, we also had our major quarterly release approaching. In a nutshell, we were running short on time and had to pull off something special.

With cybersecurity gaining popularity within Dell, Capture The Flag (CTF) was a logical fit. For those of you who are unaware of CTF, it is a cybersecurity competition that challenges contestants to solve a variety of tasks ranging from web scrapping to hacking their way into a server for data theft. However, most of our participants were new to CTF. We needed to introduce them to CTF and get them hooked so that the event serves its purpose. With the odds stacked against us, we took a leap of faith and finalized CTF as our theme for the FY21 Q1 Hackathon.

Sharpen your Knife

After finalizing CTF as our theme, we had to build a team to work around the constraints that I had mentioned. Thankfully, we already had a core team intact. Sravani and Bhargavi knew Dell’s Ecosystem very well and helped us work our way around the Quarterly release. They were also instrumental in coordinating the competition across two countries. Rajesh was the technical backbone of the TIDE Hackathon team. He steered our way whenever we lost track and was instrumental in involving the Dell Cyber Security team. Finally, we added Bachittarjeet (BJ) to the team. I genuinely feel he was the most important person on our team. He had prior experience organizing CTF and it made all the difference. I worked with him in setting up the CTF platform and preparing the challenges. As a team, we had a singular vision and we knew our responsibilities.

It was crucial for us to come up with challenges that were difficult yet engaging. We spent our initial days setting up the CTF platform and hosting it on our inhouse PCF instance. Later on, we spent over a week ideating, designing, coding, and testing our challenges. After our initial demos within the team and the TIDE committee, we were all set and excited to roll out our platform to the participants.

Execute and Improvise

I still remember our initial conversations within the core team. We were projecting to get just 100 participants across both countries and considered our stars to be incredibly aligned if we could get 150. But on the D-Day, we were pleasantly surprised when over 340 participants registered for our event. It gave us our much-needed boost and motivation to keep working on the challenges and make the event a memorable experience.

With the competition spanning over a month, we had our occasional hiccups. To mention a few, we had a strict policy governing the Firewall settings on our virtual machines and our initial platform was incapable of managing an Attack and Defense CTF. We even experienced an unintentional logical loophole in one of our challenges. I believe these are bound to happen when we organize an event of this scale. You just fight to live another day. Having been through all of this, I am happy and proud that we were able to successfully organize Dell CTF.

I want to end this blog by thanking the core team for giving me this opportunity. I also thank the entire Dell India and Malaysia community for backing this idea.