Running the Code Marathon

Inside the world of a 48-hour hackathon

Reading Time: 7 minutes

It was not until the can-can came on that Firas finally lost it. The tall, bearded man rushed to the sound system, cranked it up to full volume, raised his hands and wiggled his body – somewhere between a dabke and the Harlem Shake, but definitely nothing like the can-can. The moves failed to illicit much of a response; the half dozen men around him briefly looked up before returning to their computer screens. But that was 2:00 am on Sunday morning — hour 34 — and a lot had already happened by then.

 

Developing developers

Hackathons — where developers are given a finite amount of time to design and build a particular product — are relatively common in the West. But this is not Silicon Valley or London, but Beirut. While Lebanon’s Internet is among the slowest in the world, the last two years have seen rapid improvements, and a development community is, well, developing.

For this event, created, and initiated by Lebanon’s leading telecoms operator Touch, the crème de la crème of the country’s developers turned up at AltCity, an alternative space for techies in the Hamra district.

The basic principle is simple: teams are given 48 hours to create a workable model of a mobile app using Touch’s new Touch Cloud, which provides simple back-end services for app development. The winning team receives $1,000 cash, a Samsung smartphone for each member and an assortment of other prizes that help the team further develop their app.

While it is a competition, teams are encouraged to collaborate, especially when it comes to figuring out how to use the unfamiliar back-end. Experts from Touch and other organizations such as the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute and the Ministry of Telecoms, who sponsored the event, were available all weekend to give advice to the participants.

Executive decided to check out the scene and see if the competitors and their apps were up to the task.

 

Friday 6:00pm – Hour 0

60 people are squeezed into a small room, chatting. In front of them, 17 are lined up in branded white t-shirts supplied by the competition staff, like a bad television commercial. Each waits for their chance in the pulpit, with 60 seconds to explain why their app can solve Lebanese technology needs of the 21st century.

After the last one announces his pitch, the frantic process of forming alliances begins. Theoretically, each team should have at least a designer, developer and businessperson, though a number merge the roles.

At the end of the night, the participants are given a crash course into how to use the new Touch Cloud. While it is a race, the first night starts with more a canter than a sprint and Altcity is closed, giving the impression that we would have to wait until morning to see some real action.

 

Saturday, 10:02 am — Hour 16

If there is a sense of urgency, a sunny morning seems to have dampened it somewhat. On arrival, around 20 of the 60-odd participants are spread out over the room. In the next hour, a few dozen wander in, grab a coffee, make idle chitchat and consider starting work.

One sign, however, that being an ‘early bird’ is worthwhile is found at the breakfast table. The tasty doughnuts and fresh manaeesh are long gone, with the latecomers faced with a choice between fruit or nothing. Many go hungry.

In a corner, Firas Wazneh and Hassan Kanj are plugging numbers onto their computer and setting up a business model for their MenaVersity app. It aims to provide an online connection between teachers and students, as well as offering video courses in Arabic in “everything.”

While they may be a team of two, they are planning on tapping the expertise of their extended families. “For now, we are going to count on our connections, our friends who are willing to record for free,” Firas says.

Other teams are less organized. Aida, a developer, and one of the few women participating in the event, is working with two teams, but mainly because one has not yet shown up. She is currently helping out the Bala 3aj2a team, designing an app that seeks to solve Beirut’s traffic congestion through car-pooling, but is visibly frustrated that her other team are late. The temptation to ask whether they are stuck in traffic is resisted.

 

Saturday 19:20 – Hour 25

“Ah, you need to put a slash,” Majed Traboulsi snaps at Mohamed el-Amine as they stare at near endless lines of code. “Then it will work, I reckon,” the longhaired developer adds.

The two men have sequestered themselves, capturing a room off the main space in which they are plotting their path to victory. Outside, a buzz has steadily been growing about their app and their isolation only intensifies the rumors, with rivals increasingly worried they are competing against the new Facebook.

Inside, the two are relaxed about their favorites tag. Their app — La2ta, meaning ‘bargain’ – already looks smooth. It has the same basic principles as GroupOn and other social buying websites but with several differentiating factors. Most importantly, while readers can ‘grab’ coupons for free, it is only by going to the store or restaurant that they can claim them. There are a finite number of ‘La2tas’ and when someone uses that coupon in-store the number online automatically ticks down one closer to zero, thus encouraging buyers to rush to claim their deal.

“It’s the thing that makes us different really,” Traboulsi says. “You can be walking past a shop and then your phone will give you a push notification reminding you that you have a voucher there and there are only a few deals left.”

All of the apps have to be designed using Touch’s new backend-as-a-service system. This, for non-developers, will mean little. But the unique benefit, for the Lebanese market at least, is that these apps could allow user billing, meaning, for example, that you could pay for your food online and it would be charged to your phone bill. This circumvents one of the major issues in online payment, that customers are unwilling to enter their credit card details to sites they don’t trust. The La2ta team are hoping their plans to implement the billing system will tip the balance with the judges.

In the general hall, Ayssar Arida is at the other end of the organized scale. In the initial round he found no developers for his proposal, which involves making users move the phone in the air in a certain pattern before being able to read a message. But he has not allowed himself to be defeated and is attempting desperately to teach himself mobile app development in 48 hours. “I don’t know if I will have anything to show tomorrow, honestly,” he admits.

 

Sunday 1:48am – Hour 31

The room is sparse, with a hardy gang of some dozen remaining. Like Darwin in reverse, developers squat in varying stages of decay. One stares blankly at a screen, another slumps on beanbags, while a third has passed out on a vaguely flat surface.

Firas has long since stopped being productive but can’t bring himself to give up and go home. His sleep-deprived mind has lost some of its linearity; in response to one question about MenaVersity he pontificates about developing an app to record the sound of a gun and know exactly what type of weapon is being used. “Useful in Beirut,” he jokes. Then, in a flash, he is gone — off to the sound system to crank up the can-can, shortly followed by Leanne Rhymes.

“That’s it, we are locked in,” an excitable AltCity staff member shouts shortly after 2 am. No one bats an eyelid; they have long since consigned themselves to a sleepless night.

 

Sunday, 11:26 am — Hour 41

Angst and stress have settled nicely between the now cluttered tables, as teams frantically try to meet the deadline. “I tried calling my partner, but he didn’t answer. I don’t know where he is,” says a member of one team designing an app aimed at the Lebanese Red Cross. While the app supplies a “panic button” to shorten the response time for emergencies, it sounds like he has already pressed his.

Other teams are applying the finishing touches. La2ta are nearly finished with their demo and are beginning work on the presentation. “Some things, such as getting the user back from Touch’s payment page to the app, were really difficult, we had to stay up all night to figure that out,” says Majed, trying to hide his exhaustion with a smile.

 

Sunday, 4:45 – Hour 47

Entering from the street outside, the room has taken on a unique aroma born of a combination of unwashed bodies and energy drinks. Perhaps in a back room the event organizers are discussing whether white was the correct color for the t-shirts, as many have taken on a yellowish hue.

Some competitors, including both La2ta and MenaVersity, are ready to go, enjoying a few minutes of downtime before the deadline. Others, such as Ayssar, are still huddled over their computers.  “Are you ready?” Executive asks. He shrugs in a way that doesn’t invite further questions.

 

Sunday, 5:00 – Hour 48

There is no big countdown, no bell, no presenter announcing: “ladies and gentlemen, please put down your computers.” In a style many Lebanese will recognize all too well, the five o’clock deadline ends up being a bit more like five fifteen, which then drags on to around five thirty. For those, like Ayssar, who are still adding the final touches, the tardiness could hardly be more welcome.

Eventually the six judges, including representatives from Apstrata, Touch, AltCity and the Ministry of Telecoms, are introduced and the teams begin to present their ideas to be picked apart. Both MenaVersity and La2ta give good presentations, tightening the race between the two.

 

Sunday, 19:50 – Hour 50

The six judges, and an unidentified child, retire to behind a glass wall to debate their decision. Nervous contestants mull around the food table, eating and drinking their way around the fruit.

 

Sunday 21:10 – Hour 51

The judges return and the results begin. Three honorable mentions are handed out, then the Bala 3aj2a team are awarded third place. Silence descends.

“The winning team has a team member called Mohamed,” the presenter says jokingly, knowing that it doesn’t rule out many of the remaining teams. “And the winning team also has a member called Majed,” he announces, bringing the La2ta team to their feet. MenaVersity have to settle for second.

“We were confident but there were some other teams with really good ideas,” an ecstatic Majed says. The app, they hope, will be ready in a few months. “We want to improve our skills on mobile, we cannot count only on web applications. We are going to take it to the next level, we are going to think big,” Mohamed adds. Even for those not recognized, the experience has been valuable. “I made something basically in a day, and it’s a good idea,” Ayssar says.

Lebanon’s mobile application sector is still in its infancy and many ideas will be tried in the coming years. Many, as is so common in the technology sector, will fail. Yet the space for these developers to grow is important and will help hungry young coders like the La2ta team to stand out from the pack.

The La2ta team Mohamed el-Amine and Majed Traboulsi

Joe Dyke

Joe has extensive experience covering the Syrian crisis, oil and gas, and Lebanese government and regulatory authorities, among other topics. He was Executive's online editor from 2012 to 2014, and led the Economics & Policy section from 2013 to 2014.

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