The Perks of Being in a Hackathon

by Lisa Knolle, Izabela Bratovic - 5 Apr 2018

How stepping out of our comfort zone led to a hackathon victory

Zalando Tech doesn't just put on hackathons, we love to attend them too! Here, we catch up with software engineers, Lisa Knolle and Izabela Bratovic about their time at #picturepunk.

At the end of last year we took part in a hackathon. We came to this decision for the sake of exposing ourselves to new experiences, new people, and new technologies. Other than our in-house equivalent, the esteemed Zalando HackWeek, we were both completely inexperienced in participating in such events. Our event of choice was #picturepunk. It was an event hosted by the German Press Agency (DPA) and in cooperation with Adobe, Microsoft, and Google News Lab. Its focus was set on media journalism and the participants were tasked with finding ways to further improve the industry.

Following the “preparation is key” rule, we sat together and started to brainstorm for the next game-changing idea we wanted to bring with us. Three fruitful hours later, we decided our sheer willingness to work and contribute would just have to do. As the date quickly approached, the “hackathon anxiety” started to slowly settle in as well. Backing out was out of the question. But of course, this initial anxiety turned out to be completely unjustified.

The hackathon was kicked off with an idea pitch that was open for all contestants. Seeing that our brainstorming wasn’t so off-point immediately boosted our morale. More than a few ideas piqued our interest. The pitches ranged from enabling journalists to create smart photostories using an app, to making use of blockchain technologies for image licensing. Luckily, a rather interesting group of participants started to gather around the idea that appealed to us the most, and sooner rather than later, we found ourselves jotting down features on some post-its together with our freshly founded team. Our goal was set on finding ways to help journalists comb through the vast amounts of available stock media material, optimizing their search results and saving them some of their precious time. Our team of seven people consisted of three UX designers, a media science student, and an entrepreneur; the latter two both with some programming experience and, finally, the two of us full-time software engineers.

The next 48 hours now seem like nothing more than a short blur. Slightly sleep-deprived and high on a constant supply of Club Mate, we gave it our best shot to build the MVP. This was achieved using some technologies we have expertise in mixed with some that we don’t get to use in our day-to-day jobs. The sponsoring companies made sure we had their APIs at our disposal, and it was just as compelling exploring them as it was using them. Access to Google’s Cloud Vision API for image analysis and Microsoft Cognitive Services, which detect human emotions on images, were some of the tools we had the privilege of using. It was enlightening to see the state of technology in that field and try to put it to good use. Our application’s backend pulled media from Adobe Stock, enriched it with relevant metadata using the aforementioned APIs, and handed it over to our friendly user interface. The journalists would then be presented with many options of filtering through these images, be it by selecting metatags, liking or disliking images that come up, or even by details on those very images that were detected through image analysis in the previous step. Having less than 48 hours to prove our skills and put all of that together was what motivated us most and kept us going.

But, as we would soon find out, building a MVP does not necessarily make a winner; it was the team of cool individuals we worked with. Having met on the spot, armed with very different skill sets and personalities, we worked together towards a common goal. The designers’ resourcefulness and fast-paced working style made it possible for the team to effortlessly impress the jury. Equally important; our teammates’ aptitude towards the business side of the startup world was what brought our presentation to another level.

Photo credit: Silas Stein

Finally, and contrary to our expectations, our team was awarded by the judges in two out of four categories: Best Overall and Best of API. You can imagine why we can only recommend the experience! A hackathon can give you so much room to learn interesting new things, meet people who share the same drive as you, and the opportunity to challenge yourself in a different domain or even industry.

Come work for us with people like Lisa and Izabela. Have a look at our jobs page!

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