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Our BEAM Academy was set up in 2020 to shine a light on what a data driven, digital-first mindset can do for M&S, and empower our colleagues through data literacy training and awareness. Last weekend we had the opportunity to spread the word to the next generation of tech practitioners as we sponsored the University of Edinburgh Computer Society’s annual #HackTheBurgh hackathon. Our BEAM Academy’s Principal Data Strategist Conor Rose gives us the lowdown on the event:

Hackathons are one of the best ways to bring together brilliant minds to challenge each other and generate new ideas. I always love seeing the magic that comes from teams working collaboratively to develop innovative, data-led solutions to complex problems. At M&S hackathons have become a highlight in our calendar, helping us get people inside and outside M&S talking about the endless data opportunities in retail. So much so that before Christmas, the Uni of Edinburgh Computer Society approached us to partner with them for their annual 24-hour #HackTheBurgh event.

We’ve made great strides over the past few years to grow awareness, passion, and capability in data across M&S, which includes launching our BEAM Academy as a home for all things digital & data - so me and the team couldn’t wait to get on the road for our first-ever externally sponsored event and fly the flag for what a career in retail can offer the UK’s future tech talent.  

Hack the Burgh

The event attracted an enormous 120 participants who, in teams of four, battled against each other over a 24-hours to produce the best solution to the hack challenges set. The teams gave it their all and worked through the night – camping on floors and windowsills. We were thrilled that 10 teams took on our M&S hack challenge: “what new feature could M&S build into its mobile app to help drive repeat use?”

We were seriously impressed by the breadth of ideas on offer – from an in-store treasure hunt to gamify the shopping experience to a digital wardrobe that tracks what you’ve bought and browsed to offer personalised inspiration - but the winning hack was both topical and forward-thinking: ‘Percy Pig enters the metaverse’. 

This team explored how M&S could use our iconic character Percy as a means of tapping into the future of how we might shop, which really got everyone’s imaginations racing!

With their M&S prizes in their pockets, they’ll now visit our Paddington Support Centre in April for a two-day Tech & Digital insight event, where they will pitch their winning idea to our leadership team with the hope of convincing them to turn their idea into a reality. 

M&S: a destination for a tech career

Before the event began on Saturday morning, I was struck by a student who said he was ‘surprised to see M&S at an event like this’. But that was precisely why we were there - to change perceptions about M&S as a destination for a career in tech.

From the inside, the opportunities at M&S are countless: we’re the second biggest clothing website in the UK, we’ve topped the app download chart twice during the last year and we offer an industry-leading collection of in-house data apprenticeships – which includes the world’s first ever Data Science and AI academy in retail!

But it wasn’t just the hackathon itself that helped us land this message; the keynote speech from M&S Software Developer Andria Njoku also made a huge difference and inspired everyone. The students got to hear first-hand what a data job at M&S looks like as Andria shared his stories about some of the exciting projects he’s worked on, such as our 10x digital stores programme. Andria’s authenticity really resonated with the students and showed them what was possible at M&S for brilliant digital minds.

All in all, #HackTheBurgh was a big success and definitely the start of something new for our growing BEAM Academy. With many opportunities available at M&S, maybe we’ll be welcoming some of the weekend’s hackers through our doors in September.