What an awesome weekend at Cajun Code Fest!

So I’m currently sitting in an extraordinarily cramped seat 23D on the way back home from Lafayette, Louisiana. Ali, Umesh and I had an incredible weekend, capped off with a great evening and just a little excess at Lafayette’s Festival International --- incredible music, great food, and a few more drinks than was probably advisable.

Just arriving at the Lafayette airport gave us a hint of what was to come. As I walked up to the Avis desk I was greeted with a friendly hello and “Here are your keys Mr. Nolan… see that Microsoft logo on your shirt.” This does not happen when I go to San Francisco or DC!

Thursday Night

After checking into our hotel, we headed over to a reception where we each picked up a Sazerac and met some of the folks sponsoring and running the codefest. Todd Park and Bruce Greenstein said a few words, but the highlight for me was being named an “Honorary Cajun” by Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel --- check out my certificate!

Friday Morning

Friday started early with me being late and missing a tour of the LITE center (made up for it on Saturday afternoon). From there we went across the street to the Picard building where a huge room was set up with tables and cables at one end for coding, seats and a podium at the other.

A series of presentations and talks gave some context to the codefest challenge --- help do something about childhood obesity, using data and social dynamics to drive behavioral change. It was cool to hear Bruce talk about personal responsibility for the issue; the social stigma around weight issues makes it really hard to have an open discussion … our choices drive our outcomes. The question for the weekend was --- how can technology help people make better choices? As always during sessions like this, it’s hard not to connect it to my own struggles with losing weight and keeping it off --- a big motivator for me to be in this business!

I got to speak a bit about HealthVault too, trying to give a sense of why data ecosystems are so important for health … because beyond the obvious value of data exchange, they enable “guardian angel” applications that can help us avoid risks and make better choices in real time. It’s always fun to share a few of the personal success stories that I hear from real folks getting value from HV.

Friday Afternoon and Evening

At about noon, the teams jumped into designing and writing code. It was totally cool – something like nineteen teams of all different makeups. Heading down from Redmond, we didn’t know what to expect, or if folks would really leverage Ali and Umesh for help … don’t tell anyone, but we even had a backup plan so they wouldn’t look stupid if nobody talked to them! :)

Write that off as wasted worry … immediately folks started asking about HV (and other stuff too) … and we were off to the races. A few shots of Ali and Umesh in action:

I went off to learn more about Lafayette from local leaders and businesses. I have to say, they made a believer out of me --- Lafayette (second most optimistic city in the USA) is a special place. Some of the great business we heard from:

  • Terry Huval of the Lafayette Utilities System (the city runs its own fiber network to every home; residents can get incredible bandwidth super-cheap … wicked cool!)
  • Doug Menefee, CIO of the Schumacher Group, which outsources emergency departments and systems across the country.
  • Richard Zuschlag, CEO and Chairman of Acadian Ambulance. Founded as a member-supported ambulance service in the 70s, they do a lot more than that now…
  • Raj Shetye, CIO of Louisiana Health Care Group, which provides home care with some pretty slick mobile tech backing it up (they need some Win8 slates!).
  • Clay Allen, volunteer chairman and David Callecod, President/CEO of the Lafayette General Medical Center --- folks who understand that value-based pricing is coming and are working on it now.
  • Geoff Daily, CEO of fibercorps --- a totally cool non-profit helping to bring together community stakeholders to leverage the great fiber network for things like health information exchange.

This was just a really cool experience … the sense of positive collaboration between government, education and business was insane and unlike anywhere I’ve been in a long time. I found myself boring people with parallels to Walt Disney --- another guy who believed that business-based innovation is the best way to solve problems. Woo hoo!

After finally getting a bit of time to check in and visit with the coders myself, we headed over to Abdalla Hall where Ramesh and company had organized a fantastic crawfish boil --- my first! While Terry Huval and his sons (yes, the same Terry who runs the fiber network) entertained with great Cajun tunes, Geoff Daily (yes, the same Geoff that runs fibercorps) taught me to twist and pinch my way through a pile of crawfish about the size of a Mini Cooper. It was unreal and I went back for more until the cupboard was bare.

Then to bed --- felt guilty knowing the teams were working late into the night, but I was done!


Judging day! We were treated to a great breakfast at Prejean’s … got to reprise my New Orleans favorite bloody mary breakfast (drink your veggies), and then back off to the Picard for more coding. Folks in the coding room were pretty bleary but still a ton of enthusiasm.

Coding stopped at 1pm (Zac Jiwa was super-excited about the countdown). Semi-final judging was broken up into three groups; two groups went into the final round from there. Each group had 5-7 minutes to present and demo, followed by 3 minutes of questions from the judges. We were looking for a few things for a maximum of 100 possible points for each team:

  • How well they addressed the challenge of fighting childhood obesity (25pts max)
  • Innovativeness (20pts)
  • How much work they got done in the 36 hours (20pts)
  • User friendliness (10pts)
  • Market viability (10pts)
  • Quality of presentation (15pts)

The groups were all pretty awesome --- that anybody could get a semi-working solution put together in that time is an incredible accomplishment. My only disappointment was that there were a lot of very similar “set goals / get rewards” solutions. There is a lot to be said for this model, but I kept asking myself, “why is this better online?” My kids had a system too --- Lara would keep a stock of little toys, and by doing extra workbooks the kids could earn “bunny money” to buy toys. The physical nature of the paper “money” and storefront was actually a big part of the process, so just translating that online didn’t seem like enough.

Three groups really stood out and I was excited we were able to recognize them:

  • “PlayFit” by team “BE CAMP VB” --- $25,000 grand prize winners! I hope we’ll see more of this solution in the future. They created a system to manage “pickup” games and events, targeting at-risk kids and engaging community groups like churches and the YMCA. In today’s world it’s much harder to wander downtown and find folks to play ball with --- I love that they’ve revived a concept that has both physical and emotional benefits. The other cool thing about this team was that they didn’t even know each other before the event --- Ramesh matched them up and they just clicked. Sweet!


  • “The Eating Game” by team “Flying Fighting Mongooses” --- $10,000 surprise student team winners! In one sense this was a classic diet-based challenge system. Eating choices are awarded points, and students and classes in schools compete to get the most points. What I loved about this solution was the details. The team really honed in on how to make this relevant to schools … they knew their market and they had laser-focus. This is so often missing and it’ll kill a startup. They also took a novel approach to the problem of “cheating” --- designing a game that was still effective at education even if kids do cheat. These kids rocked and I really hope they’ll work with the Parrish of Lafayette to pilot their program in the school system.


  • “Health Hero” by team “PixelDash” --- “best use of Microsoft technology” winners (some Xboxes and HealthVault-connected pedometers, plus tuition to attend the new gaming academy in Lafeyette)! This was the first ever nutrition “game” I would actually play. They used the Kinect to build a grocery bagging game, forcing you to identify quickly-approaching foods as “fruits” or “veggies” and putting them in the right bag. Imagine “high fat” vs. “low fat” and other categories here. The gameplay was fun and engaging, kind of like a physical version of the old Diner Dash. This isn’t easy to do, and especially not in 36 hours. So awesome!

Whew. I could go on and on. But finally we were done with the codefest and awards. For a last hurrah we all changed closed and headed out to Festival --- got to spend some great off-the-grid time with JL and Hemali from Health 2.0, Geoff continued his role making me want to move to Lafayette, Lucas and his wife came out, Zac was there --- what a great way to cap off the weekend. Here’s a few shots, very different from the intensity of the coding floor!

Thanks to Ramesh (the man behind the curtain!), Lucas, Zac, Bruce, Joey, Bob, Carol, Geoff --- I’ll forget somebody in that list because so many people contributed to the smooth and welcoming experience we enjoyed. You are wonderful hosts and inspired a ton of people to focus their energy on a great problem. See you next year!