The #HackAHoliday Hackathon by Booking.com Experience

I got to experience my very first hackathon from 13th-14th May (Friday and Saturday) and boy was it fun. Apart from the free pizza, food, snacks, soda etc. I got to meet guys who I would have otherwise never met. To those who may not be aware of what I’m talking about, probably asking what a hackathon even is, let me explain.
DISCLAIMER: This is a long read, so brace thy selves!

A hackathon is an event more like a marathon but for coders, innovators, designers, hackers and pretty much anyone. A hackathon brings guys from all walks of life and of different fields for one purpose only, to bring an idea to life in the specified time given and probably win a prize(s)!

Booking.com is the No.1 hotel reservation and accommodation website that allows anyone to book a room/space in over 800,000 properties in 220+ countries! So, yeah it’s big, really big. The company started in 1996 has over 8000 employees in which 1000 are developers, designers and product owners.

A team from Booking.com decided to fly over to Nairobi with 3 Tech recruiters, 1 Product Owner, 1 Backend Developer (Kenyan) and 2 UI/UX Designers (Kenyan). The twitter hashtag was #NairobiMeetsBooking and #HackAHoliday and you can check them out if you need more information. The Hackathon was hosted by the iLab, an innovation hub located at the main campus of Strathmore University.

Day 1

Teams at their tables
Teams at their tables

At 9 AM Friday 13th, the day started off with the team from Booking.com introducing themselves, what they do, why they came, what’s Booking.com, and how Booking works. The main idea was to make use of the Booking.com API to build something awesome and business-minded. After the brief, we had to take breakfast because we can’t code without fuel. The team and snacks were great and I thank the hosts from Strathmore University who oversaw this. We didn’t go dehydrated for even a minute thanks to their hospitability.

After eating and drinking tea a tad too much, we got on to form teams. I befriended the guys I immediately sat with when I arrived, and we decided to stick together. The four of us (nearly said “The Fantastic Four…”)- Sailas, Cyprian, Peter and I- made a great team, each of us had knowledge of the technologies used and were ready to go.

A brief hour of discussion on the problem we wanted to tackle (Finding a hotel + flight price and plan) led us to an idea of building a Bot. “Which kind of bot?” we thought, “A Twitter bot!” Sailas exclaimed. A Twitter bot it was, we agreed. The problem was half-way solved, the next step was finding an appropriate Technology that would aid us to quickly build and test. We also had to be all able to use the technology proposed. Since we are all Web Developers, we chose JavaScript as the programming language of choice and its awesome server framework, NodeJs to interface with the Booking.com and Twitter APIs.

Next, we had to find out who had built a Twitter bot before. I had been meaning to for months, but was trying out Telegram bots a week before but they kept on failing. Peter had been tinkering with one a few weeks before and so had a plan on how to go about it. We checked out what he had been building and decided to build a new bot based on some boilerplate code that he had. I set up a team account on BitBucket, an online repository to host code projects. I created a new project with some help from Peter and the coding began. I think this was at 11:30 AM maybe.

We built the code base for searching, receiving and sending tweets, tested a bit but it didn’t go as well as anticipated. We had a delicious lunch and coded some more until late at night where we had pizza and soda. We all decided to leave even though we had planned to stay overnight. I got home at 10 PM, coded some more to try to debug the problems until 2:30 AM Saturday the 14th. I gave up and went to sleep in order to wake up at 6:30 AM.

DAY 2

The challenges came in various forms on Day 2, first I woke up not feeling well and had to notify my team and hoped for the best. I had to stay home for nearly 2 hours after which I felt much better and could leave for Strathmore. This took about one and a half hours. Got there at about 9:30 PM and found Peter had solved some issues with the code I had struggled with so much. Sailas had been working on the Flights API and Cyprian on the Booking.com API functionality. At 12 PM, we had to start integrating the code in a proper manner and carry out testing live on Twitter. We hacked the code until lunch time (1 PM), but the data wasn’t being pulled correctly. The bugs in the code couldn’t be let to rule our stomachs J and so we left to eat. At 2 PM, we came together and we resolved to work together until all was working well.

Cyprian came up with an idea of writing a new file going step by step including all functions and calls to APIs. After 45 minutes of tinkering, it worked!! You should have seen the relief and joy on our faces. We could finally relax and the only thing left was playing with our little bot. All was going according to plan at this point. We realized it was 3 PM, one hour before presentations. Sailas gratefully took the initiative of create a PowerPoint presentation to introduce our idea and to demo the bot. He was our main man, the guy who could express our idea creatively and in a fun way and so was the quick choice when it came to presentations.

Presentations

The presentations commenced at around 4:30 PM where 7/8 teams had to present what they had been working on for two days. We were 2nd to present and all went well, everyone tweeted at the bot and received notifications. This was great and we were glad that all the effort had not been in vain. Each team was asked questions about their product/ app and had to defend it. Every team came up with amazing ideas, from mobile and web apps to 360 degree walkthroughs of Hotel rooms. I witnessed creativity at its best from young Kenyan developers. It was just amazing.

Prize Giving

It was finally prize-giving time right after we took a short photo session break and taking each other’s mobile phone numbers. The judges had come to a decision on the winners of the 2016 Hack A Holiday Hackathon. Our hearts were literally beating, and then we had our names for Runners up. It was a wonderful moment of vindication from two days of toil and sweat (a little exaggeration here!). We got gift bags with a few items and we were grateful. Of course we believed our idea was the best and no other team had a similar one. Even though some called foul/bias etc., no hard feelings were kept. The No. 1 team received Go Pro Cameras.

Conclusion

The hackathon was an eye opener for me having been my very first. I learnt cooperation and working as a team even though we had never met before. I learnt not to fear and to take on every challenge with confidence. I definitely learnt to trust in God always since I believe He is the source of all ideas and knowledge. I will definitely take part in more hackathons and events to improve on my skill set and to network with like-minded people.

Thank you the Booking.com team (Brandon, Jana, Emily, Eve, Nelson, Omolo, etc.)! Sorry, I didn’t get everyone’s name. Let’s meet next time! Maybe in Amsterdam 🙂

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d3vd@vid Written by:

David is a software engineer who loves building solutions to solve common problems in everyday life. Apart from coding, he also enjoys art, photography, music, animation and movies that display great ingenuity. Being a pencil artist himself, he loves identifying great portraits. Say hi to him.