Coding on the rails: Kiwi.com’s Trainhack

Teams of coders spent an exhausting 26 hours on a train creating the ultimate apps for travel

Hackathons are, by their very nature, punishing experiences. Ambitious developers sit at their laptops trying to build a brand new product for much longer than most sane people binge-watch Stranger Things.

Code.kiwi.com decided to intensify the latest hackathon by putting it into a returning train from Prague to Košice — Ben Finch
Code.kiwi.com intensified their latest hackathon by holding it on a train from Prague to Košice — Ben Finch

For their latest hackathon, code.kiwi.com decided to ramp up the pressure and held their 26-hour event on a train.

The roar of the wind, the clatter of wheels, confined coupés and sudden lurches that could easily lead to typos in lines of code all combined to drain the hackers’ energy.

But, despite the difficulties, there were some excellent new products to display when the RegioJet train thundered home to Prague from its return trip to Košice.

The winning team were Fly 2 Event, who developed a programme to create tailor-made travel packages according to what its user has liked on Facebook. They received a €2,500 ticket voucher, and are likely to take a holiday to Amsterdam.

They were followed by Pickme Up, who created an app using a similar principle to find holiday destinations and experiences, and Hackiwi, which links the Kiwi.com mobile app to Instagram in order to provide travel recommendations.

The teams were supposed to create a new travelling app. The winning team received 2,500 ticket voucher — Ben Finch
The teams were tasked to create new travelling apps and the winners team received 2,500 in travel vouchers — Ben Finch

“We plan to sell not only travel tickets, but also tickets for events that will be recommended to users by the app,” says Pavlo Onysko of Fly 2.

Surrounded by the grand murals of Prague Hlavní Nádraží’s Presidential Suite, the journey began with the formation of teams.

Some, like Fly 2 Event, had arrived as a ready-made package and had travelled from as far as Kiev for the opportunity; others came along by themselves, hoping their skills and ideas would be a good fit with the other hopefuls.

After a brief presentation of their ideas, the teams boarded the business-class carriages of the train and, fuelled by coffee, Red Bull, beer and vodka, got to grafting. While the train began to roll through the darkness, they scribbled their plans on the windows and began to code.

The Trainhack took place in RegioJet's business class carriages where the participants fuelled themselves by coffee, Red Bull, beer and vodka — Ben Finch
The Trainhack took place in RegioJet’s business class carriages where the participants fuelled themselves with coffee, Red Bull, beer, and vodka — Ben Finch

As technology has taken a significantly more important place in our lives over the past ten years, so has the demographics of those attending hackathons changed. Now, you’re as likely to meet businesspeople and marketers hunting for a killer app as you are to find someone who can make Ruby on Rails sing.

This even extended to code.kiwi.com’s partners RegioJet, who provided the train to Košice. As a company looking to expand their online business, their Director of IT development, Jan Pavlovič, wanted to learn about how to execute a hackathon, and what benefits these can bring a company.

Google’s Thorsten Koch and Brendan Hills provided support in using their Cloud as a platform on which the developers were building the apps. Senior developers from a range of Kiwi.com’s teams also provided the teams with mentorship.

Kiwi.com’s mentors also hacked RegioJet’s onboard wi-fi to strengthen and extend the range so it was stable for all the competitors.

RegioJet's participated in the event because they find IT development a key element for the travel industry — Ben Finch
RegioJet’s participated in the event because technology development is a key element for the travel industry — Ben Finch

“We partnered with RegioJet and hosted our own wi-fi access points in the subnetwork of the train, we prepared a portable server where we hosted useful services for collaboration and preloaded it with resources for development,” said Bence Nagy, Platform Software Engineer at Kiwi.com.

Martin Žarnovický, PR Coordinator of RegioJet Communications, said: “The development of IT innovation is a key element for RegioJet and that was why we decided to join the train hackathon project.”

“In addition to providing a train, deploying special conference cars and refreshments and helping with organisation, we sent our Director of IT Development, Jan Pavlovič, as a mentor of the event who drew additional inspiration to develop new trends in the development of transport applications,” Žarnovický said.

Košice is full of grand churches and palaces. However, as the train pulled to a halt it lay under a damp, freezing November fog.

By the time the train was approaching Košice, most teams were confident they would finish their projects on time, and some of the members took a nap — Ben Finch
By the time the train was approaching Košice, most teams were confident they would finish their projects on time, and some of the members took a nap — Ben Finch

Not that the teams had an opportunity to explore the sights of Slovakia’s second city in the grey early morning light. There was just enough time for a quick walk to the centre after a train station breakfast and progress updates.

By this time most teams were confident they could reel their projects in on time. Some had even taken a chance to sleep on the floor or in their seats. Working demos of augmented reality maps were being constructed, and Android apps were played with to see if they could do what they were supposed to.

Again surrounded by the roar of the train pushing through the countryside, the teams were hard at work when the mist suddenly disappeared.

The train affected the hackathon very positively, as it was moving forward all the time, people seemed inspired and motivated to keep working," Jan Bleha said — Ben Finch
“The train affected the hackathon very positively, as it was moving forward all the time, people seemed inspired and motivated to keep working,” Jan Bleha said — Ben Finch

Standing tall on the horizon were the great snow-covered Tatra Mountains. Tools were downed for a few minutes as everyone gathered by the note-covered windows for selfies and Tatratea, a Slovakian tea-based liqueur that certainly warms the bones.

Across the border, and on the final run to Prague, the teams were given another opportunity to relax. Two masseuses boarded the carriages and kneaded the knots out of the tired muscles from everyone hunched over a computer.

But by now, time was short and some coders felt they couldn’t even take a five minute break. People were beginning to worry that they had been overly ambitious.

An odd mix of alcohol and caffeine-fuelled panic, calm and celebration settled over the train as darkness fell and the rush to finish the applications began.

Teams started to exhaustively prepare their final presentation, rehearsing questions and staring at Powerpoints, some typed furiously on their keyboards, and others sat with a beer and attempted to break what they’d built. By arrival, most if not all, teams were satisfied they had done the best they could.

When the time was running up some coders felt they couldn’t even take a five minute break — Ben Finch
When the finishing time was close some coders felt they couldn’t even take a five minute break — Ben Finch

The final presentations were made to RegioJet’s Pavlovič, Google’s Hills and Koch, and Kiwi.com’s team of mentors. Somehow, even after 16 hours slog on the train, the teams managed to hold themselves together and sold their new products as best as they could.

There was a huddle of judges to decide that Fly 2 Event would take the crown, and everyone decamped to party in a nearby pub.

Jan Bleha, Kiwi.com’s Community and Event Manager, said: “The organisation was more or less the same as for other hackathons. However, the atmosphere was different this time. The train had a very positive effect as it was moving forward all the time. People seemed inspired and motivated to keep working, setting up an extremely creative environment.”