Cloudforce Hackathon Blends Azure OpenAI with a Vestaboard Human Experience

This Spring, in true Cloudforce fashion, two elite teams competed for glory in the first-ever Cloudforce Hackathon Challenge to develop a cloud-based AI solution to program our latest office addition: a shuffling, dazzling, tiled work-of-art communicator, the Vestaboard.

It all began when Cloudforce CEO Husein Sharaf was attracted to Vestaboard’s “wow factor” of delivering technical ingenuity with an ironic analog feel, a welcome relief to the cool blue blare of LCD screens. You may be familiar with the sight and sound of the Vestaboard predecessor’s flip board “clickety clacking” technology from an international airport encounter in the past or perhaps on a trip through Philadelphia’s famed 30th Street Station as recently as 2019.

Inspired by the nostalgic split-flap signage of arrivals and departures while meandering through the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, creator Dorrian Porter first debuted his iteration of the ingenious technology in 2020 as Vestaboard, newly updated with digital programming capabilities for home or office use. When Sharaf discovered the product, he immediately realized how a customized Vestaboard messaging solution was the perfect way to welcome office guests with a surprising, fun, on-point personalized greeting, while also showing off Cloudforce’s incredible cloud engineering chops.

Sharaf introduced the Vestaboard to his team during an all-hands working lunch. Held monthly on a Friday, these gatherings offer an opportunity to discover or expand skills, or in the case of Vestaboard, to introduce a full-on challenge. The staff was divided into four teams, equally comprised of IT engineers and builders, analysts, marketers, and operational specialists. After a 30-minute intro, the teams separated for an hour to develop their custom Vestaboard solution, followed immediately by a “Shark Tank”-style competitive presentation.

From the four teams, two emerged as top contenders. Ultimately, five members, including three engineers, a project manager and a marketer of those top teams were invited to fully develop the actual solution, deploy it on Azure, and produce a final pitch—aka Hackathon! The specific challenge was to “Apply the latest Microsoft cloud technology to Vestaboard’s unique, retro analog-feel communication capabilities to create a consistent and memorable human interaction for office guests.” The Hackathon Challenge spanned one full week, including time to build the solution architecture, ensure its functionality with testing, and package it all up with some marketing razzle dazzle. Strict rules of conduct and engineering guidelines were enforced, and by midnight at week’s end, it was keyboards down, with an in-person face-off looming the very next day.

The key to both teams’ solutions was integrating with Azure’s OpenAI service, while leveraging data from Cloudforce’s existing Envoy Concierge guest check-in solution. Teams also engaged the power of other Microsoft cloud services, including Teams for notifications and host messaging back to the Vestaboard, SharePoint Online to store a variety of pre-loaded creative greetings and acknowledgments, and Azure Function Apps to orchestrate all API interactions with millisecond precision. “Seeing the transformation as we tirelessly turned the prompts we fed OpenAI was interesting,” said Team II’s Cloud Solutions Engineer Jonathon Segars. “Answers went from lengthy and off-topic to consistently unique and relevant to what we were asking.” In the end, both teams succeeded by experimenting with and leveraging several AI models.

Engineers agreed that the biggest and best takeaway from the experience was the ease with which they could build a solution using OpenAI on Azure. “I really enjoyed working with the Azure OpenAI service,” said Senior Cloud Solutions Engineer Ryland DeGregory of Team III. “The simplicity with which I was able to interact with the GPT models, in any context, was incredible. The accuracy and uniqueness of the responses was also very impressive.”

As Team III narrowly walked away as Hackathon champs—with technical staff awarded an all-expense paid trip to this year’s Microsoft Build conference in Seattle, WA and non-technical staff receiving a generous cash award—Sharaf sees exciting potential for future practical problem-solving use cases. Now, weeks after all the brilliant innovations were presented, judged and awarded, the clear winner was undoubtedly Team Cloudforce! Living up to its mission of “thoughtfully applying technology to make lives better,” Cloudforce has swiftly enhanced its team’s capabilities with cutting-edge OpenAI skillsets; given office hosts a spiffy, customized Vestaboard greeting waiting to delight every guest; and set the bar for future practical problem-solving competitions.

Have a practical or interesting use case for applying ChatGPT-like AI capabilities to solve your own real-world business problem? Reach out to Cloudforce to turn your vision into reality, in days instead of months!

Leslie Bucher

Before joining Cloudforce as Content Specialist, Leslie worked in corporate and ad agency settings, and as owner of her own freelance writer/producer business. Throughout her career, she’s written spots and informercials for the likes of Isaac Hayes, Larry King, Brian McKnight, and Tom Bodett, to name a few. Her passion for inspiring, informing and entertaining also led to several fundraising and awareness video efforts for the Northern Virginia Urban League and Northern Virginia Family Services. As a proud Syracuse University graduate, she also served as Alumni President for the Washington metropolitan area, where she helped establish a scholarship program for area students attending S.U.

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