Become a game changer – Future hack

Coding and IT have an unfair reputation of a sense of isolation, but when over a thousand people come together at Europe’s biggest hackathon — Junction in Helsinki — amazing things happen. The winning team reflects on the importance of Lego, catering and exhaustion when facing challenges.

A large venue is filled to the brim with state-of-the-art technology and concentrated faces illuminated by thousands of computer screens. The mood is somehow excited and relaxed at the same time. Talented coders from all over the world have come together to put their skills through their paces. Fuelled by endless catering, they have 48 hours to complete the assigned tasks. 

Enter Junction, Europe’s biggest hackathon, won by a crew of Aalto University students including Henri Nurmi, Matti Parkkila, Aleksi Jokela, Aleksi Tella and Jere Vaara. Two of them study information networks and the rest computer science. At the hackathon, the team solved a challenge on future transport in Europe, involving a self-driving bus picking up passengers from the right stops. “We didn’t have a plan for how to win, but we knew how to make cool stuff”, says Matti. 

The students got to know each other at Aalto University, where the role of making strong contacts has played a surprisingly important role. “You could think that technological knowhow is the most important thing you’ll get from university, more important than your network. But in fact, it’s the other way around. The people and all the inspiration are clearly the greatest things I’ve received from my studies”, states Matti. 

After Junction Europe, this top team went on to also win Junction Japan in 2017. The trip came with plenty of incredible experiences, one provided by the competition’s local sponsor, who invited the team to its offices in Tokyo. “It was overwhelming — they had one floor in a tall building, with an artificial forest inside. There were screens with animals guiding you to the meeting rooms. It was amazing to think how five friends from Finland ended up in a place like that by winning these hackathons”, Matti reminisces. 

The team members have ended up doing things they enjoy and excel at. Yet choosing their line of study wasn’t a straightforward decision. Henri wasn’t particularly interested in computers or technology before upper secondary school. “I just wanted to play with Lego as a child”, he smiles. After upper secondary school, Matti spent a year working, which gave him time to mull over what to do in the future. “My girlfriend told me about information network studies, and it felt like a combination of what I’m interested in: business, technology and people.” 

These days, all five work in the industry full-time. “At the hackathon, I can stop thinking about everything else: friends at home or work stuff. I know it’s going to be just one weekend where I can focus only on the challenge”, Matti describes. 

The hackathon is a fun but tough test for the team. It’s about learning what can be achieved in a limited amount of time without being able to really prepare for the task beforehand. “The pressure and exhaustion is important, it helps bring out the worst and the best in people. For us, it’s a place to try our limits and explore latest technology”, explains Matti. 

Although hackathons provide a fabulous backdrop, the secret of winning lies elsewhere. “We found a way to combine our skills. Everybody gets to do what they do best. It’s the power of the team that makes great things happen”, Matti summarizes.

Become a game changer. Find your own bachelor's programme (in Finnish) and apply to Aalto University 14 – 28 March 2018.