An Insider’s Guide to Booking.com’s Hackathon All Women Edition

by Bianca Ohannessian

Booking.com recently hosted one of their global hackathons which focus on new travel technology. I was invited to join the #BookingHacks All Women Edition at their Planet Booking headquarters in Amsterdam, where 44 female tech professionals were brought together for three days of brainstorming and creating new features for the online booking company.

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When I told my friends and colleagues in the digital industry about the exciting news, everyone’s reaction seemed to be the same: “Wow, that’s great! But… what is a hackathon?”

So, just in case you’re wondering the same thing, according to the Oxford Dictionary, a hackathon is: “An event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.”

Still not sure what a hackathon is? Well, large tech companies, including the likes of Google and Facebook, hold regular hackathons to come up with new features for their apps and other digital services. It’s also a good way for them to recruit new, fresh-thinking employees by seeing them put their skills into practice.

At the #BookingHacks event, we were split into eight Product Teams and set the challenge of coming up with new, innovative technology that would help Booking.com customers plan and book their trips. This would end with a presentation of our working prototypes on the final day of the competition.

We were part of a truly international group, with participants flying in from 20 countries including Australia, Brazil and Canada. With Booking.com operating in 200 countries, 43 languages and 54 currencies, it makes sense to have a multi-cultural mix of people represented in each of the competing teams. Each team consisted of a mix of back and front-end developers, designers, product owners and copywriters, such as myself.

Innovation all the way

The All Women Edition was a hat trick of firsts. As well as being the first hackathon I’ve ever participated in, this was the first time copywriters were invited to a #BookingHacks event. It was also the first all-female hackathon hosted by Booking.com.

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Even though many companies have diversity programs in place, the gender gap is still extremely wide with women accounting for only 11-20% of people working in the tech industry (Diginomica, 2017). Events such as hackathons generally still represent a very male-centric crowd. I feel disappointed that we still have a need for gender-specific events just to give professional women a chance to show their skills.

However, thanks to opportunities like the #BookingHacks All Women Edition, it becomes clear that all genders (whether female, male or transgender) can add value to the industry. Surely a larger variety of perspectives can only be a good thing, right?

Iffat Gill, founder of The Code To Change and one of the speakers who kicked off the event, made a valid point, ‘We need diversity and representation of all genders in the industry. We don’t want to add to what we’re fighting against.’

Day 1: A wonderful welcome

On our first day of the hackathon, introductions and tech talks were followed by a tour around Booking.com’s impressive office space. Spread across several levels with panoramic views across the city from its windows and lovely rooftop area, it’s a fun and inspiring atmosphere to work in.

Meeting rooms are themed according to different cities from around the world, the lunch canteen will take your taste buds on a journey of their own and you know you’re in Amsterdam when there’s a cycling track running through the corridors!

We were then split into our teams with an open brief to create a digital product that would help Booking.com customers. The hacking sessions kicked off with a brainstorm and the day ended with a surprise boat trip through the picturesque canals of Amsterdam.

Day 2: Hacking from AM to PM

It was heads-down for a full day of hacking the next day. Having already decided on one of our ideas and started the coding process, we were all set to get stuck in.

A delivery of warm, freshly baked cookies provided a welcome sugar boost in the afternoon and we continued working until the evening.

Day 3: Seeing the future of travel technology

The final morning was focused on adding the finishing touches to our working prototypes and delivering our presentations to a panel of judges, members of the Booking.com team and the other participating groups.

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Even with common themes arising, it was great to see how everyone interpreted and presented their ideas differently and each project could be valuable to travellers in its own way. Our group worked on an interactive map which earned itself an honourable mention from the judges.

Catching up with some other team members at the closing drinks afterwards, we couldn’t help thinking that if we could pull all the product features together we could create something even stronger. It will be interesting to see what type of new features will be incorporated into Booking.com’s offering in the future.

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As well as a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills and meet new people, the All Women Edition hackathon also provided an interesting insight into working with one of the world’s largest online travel services. The people were welcoming and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the company’s mission to empower people to experience the world.

Follow @therockskippers on Twitter for travel news and reviews

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