Hackathon Ziggo & Exact

01-08-2016

Basefarm hackathon: discovering new technologies together and sleeping on beanbags

A party that’s a crash course at the same time. That’s the unofficial description of the hackathon organised by Basefarm. VodafoneZiggo and Exact developers and data scientists started working with the OpenShift microservices technology during the event, but the hackathon was just as much about collaboration and responsibility. There is sure to be another hackathon in the future, but the participants first need to recover from this 36-hour marathon.

The office of managed services provider Basefarm was the setting of the 36-hour-long hackathon. Basefarm, Exact and VodafoneZiggo developers and data scientists worked around the clock to set up a service to make accessible open data that had been provided by the government. The actual work took place in one of the office areas, with another being furnished with beanbags where participants could go to relax for a while and recoup their energy.

A crash course and party combined

The service that was to be developed during the event was a test case for OpenShift, a platform that uses containers for setting up microservices. The hackathon thus became a crash course during which participants really got to know the technology. They learned from each other, from the collaboration and from the technology, but above all the hackathon was a party, says Jan van Boesschoten from VodafoneZiggo.

Van Boesschoten: ‘You can compare a hackathon with your neighbourhood sports bar: everyone speaks the same language. There’s no boss to make demands of you and everyone understands each other. That’s why it’s so easy to get developers excited about such an event.’ Mark Stadhouders, Global Head of Marketing Automation, Web and Campaigns at Exact, says that developers are very familiar with these types of events. ‘We regularly organise hackathons ourselves, and these events have now become a part of our culture, allowing us to foster intensive cooperation.’

Driven by the same interests

Rick Stiphout, Technical Account Manager Exact at Basefarm, took the initiative, together with his colleague Ron Becherer, who is responsible for VodafoneZiggo. ‘We saw that both companies had the same interests when it came to technology. They want to work with microservices, containerisation, dockers and an API-first approach. The OpenShift platform is based on these principles and offered us the opportunity to experiment.’

Andreas Johnson Skoglund from Basefarm Norway was also present. He knows all the ins and outs of OpenShift and was able to assist the developers and data scientists during the hackathon. ‘The hackathon is purely technical,’ says Van Boesschoten. But this new technology meets the needs of the business community by being able to quickly and flexibly launch new services on the market. ‘By working with a platform such as OpenShift we can launch a new service on the market within two to four weeks.’

Stadhouders would like for the development time, also called the heartbeat, to decrease drastically: ‘My team of technical campaign managers, developers and data scientists is a part of the marketing department, not IT. That’s why my team needs to be able to quickly switch gears so as to reach target groups faster and optimise campaigns in order to get leads more rapidly through www.exact.com. This all requires a new way of working, agility and self-starting by people with extensive knowledge who are able to work with multiple technologies. But having the correct technology, such as microservices, also helps, of course.’

A slower heartbeat

The heartbeat, as Van Boesschoten calls the development time, used to be a lot slower, from three up to as many as twelve months. By working with containers, defined environments within an infrastructure, microservices such as independent functionalities can be developed. Because various teams or developers can work on independent functionalities, a release can take place both faster and in a piecemeal fashion.

By creating an intermediate layer on which the containers run, Van Boesschoten believes that an entire infrastructure can’t fail due to just one erroneous action. ‘You can compare the intermediate layer with a case of beer: you can take out a bottle, drink the contents and put the bottle back in the case without the rest of the beer being affected.’ What’s more, VodafoneZiggo’s developers are already working with OpenShift, in contrast to Exact’s team, which consisted of one developer and two data scientists.

Coordination with other teams

Stadhouders: ‘The challenge for my team was to quickly amass new knowledge and try out the new technology. They learned how to develop microservices in a container and how to connect this with other containers. This last step requires a lot of coordination with other teams, because containers must be able to talk to each other in order to function.’

An interesting debate emerged at the end of the hackathon, namely: should a team or developer be responsible for a container or for the process in between? This is a question that may be answered during the next hackathon, because Stiphout is confident that more of these kinds of events will be organised. Now that the participants know each other, Stiphout hopes to be able to get even more value out of the hackathon next time. Exact has already said that they want to organise it!