Bytes of Banking:

It is the bits that matter.

I am a very sceptical person. Never have I done something without measuring it twice and then cutting it. That was my story with Bytes of Banking as well. I was sceptical about applying at first because I did not know what to expect. What if I failed miserably and just embarrassed myself? However, the topic of the workshop was too intriguing since it involved two things that I am really impressed by: social media — the most rapidly developing media out there, which everybody uses with passion, and banks — the evil buildings everybody is afraid of and whenever mentioned in a conversation, it certainly involves at some point horror and complaints about debt that one has.

So, driven by curiosity I applied for the workshop. A day before the deadline, I got an email from the organizers that they would love to have an interview with me in order to make their choice easier. I was very thrilled to hear that, so I immediately responded to the e-mail that I would be delighted to do the interview. They called me, it was an ordinary conversation, as if I was talking with my friends on the phone, which was great — the first impression I got for the workshop was that if I was picked for this workshop, it would at least be relaxing and friendly.

A couple of days later I got another e-mail telling me that my application for the workshop was accepted — what a thrill! Even then I couldn’t stop wondering how this would all end , I imagined every possible scenario, from the most lousy one to the most perfect one, and I had mixed feelings about it. Then I attended the info evening and I found out that we were going to be simulating a start-up company and our job was to develop an idea that would combine social media and banks. The more I thought about this, the less sense it made to me: how can one combine two things that don’t fit together? On one hand, social media is so relaxing and everybody is blindly using it to keep in touch with the rest of the world, and on the other hand banks are so strict and boring and everyone is trying to keep the interaction at minimum. It was as if you were playing one of those baby games and you were trying to fit a square figure into a triangle.

But I never thought of giving up, the die was cast!

During the introduction evening I met all of the participants, but most important of all, I met my team — the people that I was going to share this experience the most with: Aida, Jinwei, Mališa, Olga and Patrik. Jinwei and Olga were the business focused team members, and Aida, Mališa, Patrik and myself were the ‘developers’ with some programming experience. When I met them, I must admit that my level of scepticism rose a lot because they seemed so relaxed and careless, but the first comment when we gathered was: ‘We are going to win, so just relax and have fun’, too optimistic if you ask me, but I let it slide.

Our first task as a team was to do the marshmallow challenge, which we were great at, finished long before the time ran out, but unfortunately the structure we built didn’t resist the wind that blew when the windows were opened. We lost. A bit disappointing but it was just a game so I did not worry too much. Next, we had to pick a name for our team, which was quite challenging actually. After some time and a lot of brainstorming we had a name, and a name I am very proud of actually — Honey Badgers — ruthless animals that don’t care about anything and just go forward with what they have on their mind.

The following day, the workshop started and it was all relaxing because we had some introductory lessons: the task was thoroughly explained, as well as what was expected from us . At this point everybody realized that it was going to be a tough week filled with a lot of work. But, what I was impressed by was the fact that nobody complained about it. Everybody was actually enthusiastic about having the opportunity to work on this project, do their best regardless of the final outcome. For the first time in my life I was in an environment that shared my enthusiasm and passion. I felt very happy and excited!

We tried to make peer-to-peer transactions more available and fun for the public. The funny thing about the development process is that in the beginning we were doing so badly that after the first pitch everybody was either laughing at us or feeling confused because they didn’t understand a word of what we presented, which was very disappointing.

Nevertheless, the whole team agreed that our idea was great, maybe even a winning idea after we heard other teams’ ideas, so we didn’t give up on it even though we were told by many people that ‘our baby was ugly’.

During the first day the team communication was terrible, so the next day we had an internal meeting in order to set up ground rules, for example, if somebody wanted to say something during meetings, he/she had to raise a hand and wait until the person talking has finished. We kept doing this throughout the whole workshop and that was how we started respecting each other more. And the key to success was to criticize everybody. Whenever a member didn’t like something he/she reacted and, what I admired the most about my team, we self-criticized. That’s how we managed to rise from the bottom with the winning solution.

The second pitch was far better than the first one, but the presentation skills were still a mess: we missed the main point and a lot of provocative questions were posed, but it was fine because now we knew the answers to those questions thanks to the deep analysis of the problem the previous days, so basically, we only had to improve the way we presented it. That was a task for the ‘business people’, so we finally divided our team: Jinwei and Olga focused on how to simplify the presentation and the rest of the team started developing the prototype which had to work for the technical pitch.

For two days we were working with full steam and everybody was eager to do their best for no other reason except believing in the idea, believing that what we had was the real deal and it was worth putting so much effort in. Nobody ever doubted our solution, and even when there were some confusions about it, we gathered as a team, discussed it and since confusions only appeared in case there was a flaw in our idea or solution, these meetings only improved them.

My whole life I hadn’t been so excited about anything like I was during this whole workshop! I was(and still am) so passionate about it that I didn’t mind anything that was happening around me, as far as it didn’t involve our project. I didn’t mind that I was so tired all of the time: every morning when I had to wake up, I didn’t just wake up with the alarm — I jumped out of bed with it and ran off to Halcom in order to finish what we started, and every evening I went to bed thinking how to improve it and what to do next.

The progress went well, but in order to finish up we had to do an all-nighter. So we did, and not only my team, but all of the teams were up until the late hours of the night, some didn’t even sleep at all. Nevertheless, the effort was worth it! We all had a working prototype in the end and we all had a final pitch that was amazing. And the secret behind all of this were the great mentors that were available all of the time at Halcom during the workshop. Whenever we needed to consult anyone we just kindly asked the organizers to call them and shortly they would join us and we could get some critique and bounce some ideas off of them, and this wasn’t just with the mentors! Members of other teams were also very happy to join our discussion and talk about the ideas both of the teams had! Amazing. I admire each and every single one of the participants for being so open-minded and willing to cooperate with everybody.

The grand finale of the workshop came very quickly. Everybody was nervous, everybody wanted to do their best, nobody even thought of giving up. No, that was not an option when you had come this far and worked so hard. First, there was a technical pitch in which we had to present our prototype, what we had created and what features were available in it and this pitch was very relaxing and more informal. Then there was the final pitch which was a very formal event where the Minister of Education, Science and Sport of Slovenia was invited, the Rector of the University of Ljubljana and the chairman of the board of NLB Bank Slovenia. So the pressure was on. Nevertheless, the final pitches were great! Every group had an outstanding and unique pitch and I love all of the ideas, but in the end the winner had to be announced.

I will never forget the moment when they announced the winners — my heart was pounding so hard, I could barely breathe and when I heard our team’s name I couldn’t believe it! We were all so excited that we jumped around and group hugged. The Honey Badgers fought to the very end and did what they do best — go straight to the point and win the trophy.

Honey Badgers, photo by: Simon Tomažič

The outcome from this workshop has been enormous. I learned that you have to criticize and be criticized in order to improve, you need to have trust in the team members, you need to value each and every member’s opinion and you shouldn’t underestimate anybody. I learned that you don’t have to go around and beg people to cooperate, they can just come and suggest things, engage in conversation and argue with you to prove you wrong, or accept when they are wrong. Real heroes if you ask me. In the end, I don’t think that I am as sceptical as I was at the beginning.

It has been a pleasure to work with all of these people. And, of course, I have to thank the organizers, Halcom, the sponsors and most of all I have to thank Darija and Primož for being there whenever we needed anything and for giving their best to have the best and most organized workshop that has ever been made.