Recently I have done a few hackathons with some different customers.  A hackathon involves a group of developers that are split into teams of roughly 5 developers per team.  Each team gets a use case, or real world problem, to solve.  We usually spend the first half day teaching the participants about cognitive computing and how Watson services can be used.  We then spend the next day and a half doing the “hack” part of the hackathon.  At the end of the hackathon, each team will present their prototype, and typically a winner is chosen.

In general, a hackathon is focused on helping people understand Watson, and then having them quickly build a prototype application that uses Watson’s cognitive capabilities to solve some kind of real-world problem.  These can be hectic, with me helping and coaching teams looking to use Watson for the first time, but they are a lot of fun.  It’s really interesting to see teams of developers come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems, and I always find it exciting to watch the teams focus on solving real world problems.  Since people learn best by DOING, it also serves as a great way to teach people about Watson, how to use it, and what it can do.

After this last hackathon I had a discussion with one of my customers on how to “best learn about Watson”.  We discussed how hackathons can be really effective, since they force people to overcome that early apprehension whenever trying something new, and because people are able to get their “hands dirty” solving real problems.  He then asked me, “You can’t expect to run 1000 hackathons this year – how do the people who can’t do a hackathon learn about Watson?”.  It was a good question, and I realized that my answer was something that a lot of people might be interested in, so I figured I would share it here.

One of the first places that is good to start is relatively new, it is the IBM Learning Lab.  The site has a bunch of great resources for learning about Watson on your own.  If you’re one of those people that likes online courses, you can look at a catalog of cognitive courses that are available to you.  It’s a mix of courses from Coursera, Big Data University, Codecademy and the IBM Watson Academy.  You can browse courses based on your skill level.  Some of the courses are free, others require you to pay for them.  You can learn about Machine Learning, Data Science, Watson technology and more.  It’s a nice way to pick and choose learning opportunities for yourself.

Personally, I am more of a “hands on” learning type of person.  One of the other great features of the IBM Learning Lab is the section on Use Cases.  This section has a bunch of use cases focused on a particular Watson capability, a particular industry sector, or on some type of function.  The Pokemon Go use case is one of the most interesting (and maybe least applicable to a business problem), but there are others focused on things like virtual agents (or bots), social media analysis and response, automated systems, and others.  Just knowing the use cases is helpful, but what really makes this great is the fact that the code for an application to address each of these use cases is also available.  Having this code available means that you can look at the code to see HOW to use the Watson capabilities, and you can even use these as a rough starting point for your own cognitive application.

One other great place for getting cognitive use case ideas, and the code that implements an application to solve the use case, is the Application Starter Kits (ASK’s) page out on the Watson website.  You can look at the use cases presented here, and find a use case that helps address a real problem that you have.  These also have code available for you to use.  Often in hackathons we will see teams use these starter kits as the starting point for their application development.  The use cases here show how Watson services can be combined and use together to solve some common patterns of cognitive computing capability.

Keep in mind that nobody is going to become an expert with Watson and cognitive computing overnight, but these resources can help you effectively use your time to learn about WHAT is possible, and HOW to do it.  They will give you a great start on your journey to becoming a cognitive computing expert.