U.S. Navy recruits ideas at Northeastern hackathon

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Lieutenant Richard Fail of the United States Navy recently traveled back to Fallujah, Iraq, and he didn’t need to get on a plane to do it. Fail experienced the city for a second time through virtual reality goggles and a 360 video created by The New York Times and on display at a recent hackathon at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

Lieutenant Fail was one of several Navy officers at Northeastern earlier this month for Idea Hack, a two-day hackathon filled with presentations, brainstorming and networking convened by the Navy, the advertising agency Y&R, and Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design.

Around 30 Northeastern students from across the university attended Idea Hack, each bringing a unique skill set and perspective to bear on the event’s mission, which charged students with creating an innovative recruiting proposal for the U.S. Navy using tools like Google Cardboard, software like the Unity game design engine, or platforms like Snapchat and LinkedIn. The participants conceptualized, prototyped and presented their projects – which ran the gamut from social media campaigns to 360 video to Pokémon Go-style augmented reality games – for one of three cash awards.

The hackathon was months in the planning. About a year ago, Y&R, a subsidiary of the advertising giant WPP, won a large contract to rebrand the U.S. Navy and come up with a new advertising strategy for the military branch, which is having trouble finding recruits of varied backgrounds and with diverse skill sets. The agency reached out to Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design and the School of Journalism with a question: Could students help find both stories and new ways of telling those stories? A hackathon was born.

Latasha Sukhu, Y&R’s Global chief learning and engagement officer, who organized the hackathon, said Idea Hack was an overwhelming success. A wide range of skills and disciplines were able to come together and create some great ideas, she said, some of which could be used by the Navy to bolster their recruiting efforts.

But the Navy wasn’t at Northeastern to poach ideas, she stressed. “If [the Navy] is interested, and want to explore, they will approach the students and see where it can go. It can’t happen without the student,” Sukhu said.

Less clear was whether the Navy saw the event as a potential recruiting gold mine.

For one, there was a large Navy expo setup with a recruiting video outside the main Idea Hack conference room. And while chatting with the students about the variety of different careers available in the Navy, the lifelong lessons that they might learn, the benefits they might reap, and the camaraderie they might enjoy, the Navy representatives were knowingly preaching to a captive audience.

When asked whether direct recruiting efforts were happening at the hackathon, a representative from Y&R, who did not want to provide their name, said that the Navy officials were not there to recruit. “They were just giving information about [how to join] the Navy,” the representative said. “Not recruiting.” At least three students, though, were seen over the course of the weekend sitting down with a recruiter and listening to the Navy’s spiel.

This is far from the only corporate or government relationship that Northeastern maintains and many colleges and offices on campus hold recruiting events. Bringing in the Navy and Y&R may seem a bit unorthodox for a hackathon, but it’s all in service to the students, said Jonathan Kaufman, the director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, and one of the judges at Idea Hack.

“We have partnerships with a lot of media outlets, but we need partnerships on the corporate side also,” he said, referring to the Co-op program of internships for which Northeastern is known. The Co-op program is an immense resource for Y&R in their search for young talent going forward. For their part, students are provided with fellowship opportunities, exposure to prominent leaders and companies in their field, and potential jobs after graduation.

Regarding Y&R’s partnership with the Navy, Kaufman said that part of college is meeting new people. “Who [of these students] ever thought of working for the military?” he said. Kaufman said that he will continue to organize events that promote teaching and learning and offer networking opportunities. “Collaboration is crucial, in news, academics, anywhere,” he said. “Networking is also crucial. Ideas are the new currency, not just jobs anymore.”

Lieutenant Fail, for his part, was impressed with what the hackathon participants created. “The amount of work they’ve done, creating games in that virtual doo-hickey thingy, is incredible,” he said. “These are the type of people that the Navy needs.”

Northeastern University Journalism grad student; an avid traveler, blogger, wander-luster and Boston native. Interests include cultural anthropology, good whiskey and live music of all genres.