NYUAD International Hackathon gives students a taste of the challenges awaiting them in the workplace
Bloomberg mobile software engineer Kassem Wridan arrived in Abu Dhabi last month ready to mentor university students who were participating in the 2018 Annual New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. Instead, he was surprised to find that he learned as much from the students as they did from him.
“Just when I thought we hit a roadblock, they’d say ‘Oh, we can just use this new API.’ I was very impressed by their knowledge. The event taught me that no matter how small or big the project is, there are always similar challenges,” Wridan says. “Facilitation and teamwork are everything.”
Based in London, Wridan has built his career as a software engineer on Bloomberg’s iOS platform team, but he also finds time to mentor the next generation of tech talent at hackathons and campus events across the UK – and now, in the UAE.
The NYUAD International Hackathon is an event with a difference. Bringing together 90 computer science students representing 30 countries, the event draws on the Middle East’s vibrant and ever-growing population of ambitious young tech talent to design and develop solutions for social good in the Arab World.
This year’s event was based around pre-determined themes ranging from healthcare to education, and placed participants into groups based upon a questionnaire they had each completed beforehand – a unique structure in the world of hackathons. Bloomberg engineers Kassem Wridan and Mark Wood were invited to lend their expertise – as a mentor and judge respectively – alongside peers from other leading tech companies and academic institutions, including IBM, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and MIT.
Wridan’s role as a group mentor was far more hands-on than he had anticipated. “Typically, hackathon mentors are there to provide assistance when needed, but this was very different – mentors were assigned to specific teams from the start,” he explains.
Tasked with improving student participation in schools that are based in refugee camps, Wridan’s team, named Insahny انصحني (AdviseMe), decided to use emotion reading artificial intelligence software and other interactive technologies to provide teachers with live, in-class feedback. This would then improve how they engage with their pupils.
For Wridan, the experience of pulling together each team member’s individual work to create the end-product was the biggest challenge, but one that parallels his work at Bloomberg. “We were a group of nine – six students and three mentors. Integrating all the different pieces created by such a big team was the toughest part by far,” he says.
“In this respect, the hackathon was definitely a big learning experience for me, and it was the same for the students. When I asked them what they’d learned following the event, everyone said teamwork.”
As a member of the event’s judging panel, Mark’s role allowed him to observe the important role that teamwork played from an outside perspective. “One of the most noticeable aspects to the event was how such a diverse range of people worked together so successfully,” Wood says.
“There were people there from more than 30 countries and, refreshingly, an even split between male and female developers. It was really interesting to see such great cultural diversity in teams working towards one joint goal and it had a clear impact on the solutions developed.”
The hackathon’s mentors and judging panel were also a diverse group, representing a wide range of professions. A number of judges were from non-technical backgrounds, bringing with them expertise about subjects relevant to the event’s social good aspect.
From Rana Tomaira, a lecturer in social science at NYUAD, to Toby Harward, the Head of Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Abu Dhabi, these members of the judges’ panel were able to connect the participants with the issues they were trying to address, which brought a personal touch to the hackathon. For Mark, the social good aspect to the event was educational, as well as rewarding.
“As much as I was there to provide technical expertise, I was also trying to learn more about the issues in the Middle East the groups were working to solve. The experience helped to open my mind to a range of topics I would never have considered before in my day-to-day life,” he says.
One issue the hackathon tackled was that of fake medicine in Egypt, where 30 percent of drugs are counterfeit, compared to just one percent in the United States. One of the hackathon’s joint-winning teams, Dawa دواء (Medicine), looked to tackle this problem using a secure blockchain for pharmaceutical distribution. The other winning team, Boosala بوصلة (Compass), proposed using facial recognition to identify missing people in refugee camps using online and broadcast video footage.
For Wridan, the event’s success is a tribute to the growing abundance of tech talent in the Middle East. “It’s clear that the area’s reputation for this kind of technical knowledge has improved. When I was a kid, I’d never even heard of a hackathon,” he says.
Wood and Wridan agree that the core elements of a hackathon are integral to being successful in the professional world, and recommend others considering entering one of these contests go ahead and do so.
“Fundamentally, a huge part of working as a software engineer is about working with other people, as well as computers. At Bloomberg, collaboration is a great part of our culture, and it is crucial to our success. The more people can get exposed to that early in their careers, the more it will benefit them,” says Wood.
“It’s an excellent opportunity to meet other students studying similar things, but from different backgrounds,” says Wridan. “As a mentor, it was just great to connect with other professionals I would never have met otherwise.”
Hackathons are a learning experience on multiple levels. “One student came up to me and asked ‘Why do you need more than 5,000 engineers to run a TV station?’” says Wood. After 72 hours of non-stop coding together, they had their answer.