Where do we begin with Watson?

Many people and organizations who look to adopt and use the Watson technologies will often struggle at first. They struggle with the idea of getting started using IBM Watson and the cognitive technologies. Some of it is the common fear of the unknown, some of it is just not knowing where to start. Are there things I should read? What order should I read them in? When we talk about enabling an entire development team or organization, the questions get tougher. Should everyone concentrate on the same things?


One of the key methods that we use in getting IBM Watson customers familiar with the Watson capabilities, and in how to apply them to their business problems and challenges, is through the use of a Watson Boot Camp. These used to be called Watson Hackathons – but “hackathon” can have a negative connotation to some people. So we now refer to these as “Watson boot camps” or “Watson Learn” offerings.

How does a Watson Boot Camp work?

A Watson Boot Camp is a two day, everyone at one site, hands-on session. It is run by two Watson developers or architects, who lead the group.  We’ll call them your “Watson Coaches”. The attendees are a collection of roughly 20 people (the size can vary), with a mix of developers, architects, data scientists and subject matter experts (SME’s). This group is broken into teams of 4-5 people each – with each team having at least 2 developers and 1 data scientist. Since these teams work collaboratively, they need to be together. Remote attendance does not work for the boot camp, everyone needs to be physically present at one location.

Boot camp preparation

We begin two weeks prior to the boot camp, the Watson Coaches will discuss potential boot camp use cases. Typically we like to see a list of 6-10 different potential use cases to cover in the boot camp. The coaches will work with you to identify the 2-5 best use cases, and the ones that will be addressed during the boot camp. We will also agree on logistics for the boot camp. You will need to have the following things:

  • A location with good internet access, that can support the development work of all of your attendees.
  • A Bluemix account where the Watson services will be created.  Individual services will need to be created for each boot camp team (so they don’t impact each other).
  • A large room at your location for kick off activities, and for the final read-out from each boot camp team.
  • Smaller rooms for EACH team – a space where they can work together and collaborate.

Logistics note: You will need to reserve one BIG room that will hold all attendees for the kickoff on day 1, and for the final presentations on day 2. You will also need to reserve SMALLER rooms (one per hack team) that will be the home for each team during the hack phase of the boot camp.

Preparations continue during the week prior to the boot camp, with a general session for all boot camp attendees. In this initial session, usually done remotely via conference call or e-meeting, the Watson Coaches will do a quick overview of the various Watson services that may be applicable to the boot camp, and will give the attendees links to some pre-Boot camp educational materials (here is a sample of those pre-boot camp educational materials).

Yes – we actually expect attendees to go through these materials!!  If they do, it will pay off for them in the long run. (hint!)

Boot camp execution

Then we come to the first day of our onsite boot camp. We get all of the attendees into the same room, and we typically provide from 2-4 hours of additional training and classroom exercises. We will also go over successful working models with the teams, and give them ideas for how to get started.

Once the morning classroom session is complete, the attendees break up into their teams, and each team will get their own use case to implement. You may want to assign use cases to specific teams, or you might want to let them choose use cases on their own. It’s up to you, and should be based on what is most effective in your corporate culture. Each team will then go off on their own, and begin to build a cognitive application using the Watson services that will implement their use case.

Teams will spend the remainder of day 1 working on their use case, and will often work into the evening. They come back on day 2 and continue to work on implementing their use case. While the teams are separated and working on their use cases, the Watson coaches will circulate between the teams offering guidance, technical support, and some problem solving ideas to the teams. Often teams will segregate the work based on their roles, with each team member focused on doing what they do best.

Boot camp close-out

After lunch on the second day, each team will usually spend the last hour or two of their time preparing a short slide deck with a pitch based on their cognitive application, and fixing bugs. The last 60-90 minutes of the boot camp consists of a series of 10-15 minute presentations done by each team. The presentation is essentially a pitch – showing a demo of what they have built, highlighting how it could be extended and improved, and explaining what they have learned.

The presentations are usually given to a panel of judges. The judges are a mix of business and technical leaders from the customer, and they score presentations based on some criteria. The usual criteria that we use include the following:

  • Ability to extend/expand – Does the prototype appear that it will be easy to extend or 
    expand, to provide additional value to the business?
  • Shared knowledge – Did the presentation help educate the wider boot camp audience? Did the team share lessons learned and personal observations on the use of the Watson cognitive services?
  • Innovation – Is the prototype or the approach used to solve the problem new and innovative?  Is this something new that has value?
  • Feasibility – Is this something that could move from prototype to product in the next 6 months?
  • “Wow” factor – Does the prototype grab the evaluator, and provide a significant business or consumer capability?
  • Demo – was the prototype smoothly working?  Was the scenario “canned”, or did the demonstration show real cognitive capability? 
  • Entertainment – was the presentation engaging and entertaining?  Will people remember this presentation a day from now?  A month from now?  Will it “stick”?

The judges will typically score each presentation, and these scores will be collected. Based on the scores, a “winner” for the bootcamp will be announced, and all members of the winning team will receive some sort of prize. The prize depends on your culture. It could be an old repurposed bowling trophy, it could be cash, vacation days, or something else. The key is to make it valuable enough to encourage healthy competition, but not so valuable that it encourages unhealthy competition.

Why do Watson Boot Camps work?

This boot camp approach seems to work for a number of reasons. I’ll list the major reasons that I have seen, but I am sure that someone having gone through this experience might have some other reasons to add.

  • People learn best by doing things – People can learn in a passive (lecture style) environment, but they seem to learn better, and retain information better, when they learn in a “hands-on” environment, where they learn by actually doing something.
  • Competition narrows focus – the friendly competition between the teams helps to focus them on learning as much as needed, and on learning what is applicable. Teams are under time pressure, so they don’t waste time learning about obscure product capabilities, but instead they focus on the capabilities that have value to them.
  • Team collaboration allows teams to be efficient – With a mix of roles on each team, teams can have strong resources that can cover each part of cognitive development with Watson. Developers can learn about the importance of data in cognitive systems from data scientists – without having to struggle with doing the data curation themselves. SME’s can learn about cognitive development, but can focus their efforts on providing their expertise to the overall system. It allows people to learn about everything – while working within the areas where they are skilled.

This is AWESOME!!  How do I get one of these Watson Boot Camps?

You could potentially run a session like this yourself, if you have the knowledgeable Watson Coaches who can help guide your teams. If you are looking to have one of these sessions using IBM’s Watson Coaches, just reach out to me (or have your IBM representative reach out to me), and we can see about getting a session set up.

I find that the people and organizations that execute these boot camps tend to come away from them with a MUCH better understanding of Watson and it’s capabilities.  It also gets people thinking. Usually a couple of weeks after a boot camp, I will begin to see question related to their new ideas about how they can apply the capabilities of Watson to solving their business problems. The boot camp combination of education, competition, and “learning by doing” seems to get people thinking in new and innovative ways.


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