4 guys and $5200 — A NBO Hackathon story

Of all the ailments I’ve ever had — and that includes my very recent tryst with hernia — the ones I hate the most are a sore throat and a common cold. As it would turn out, on the morning of 30th April, I had both. With sleepy eyes, I informed my mother of the same, also mentioning that I wouldn’t be attending the hackathon that day — after all, it was a huge event, with advertisements everywhere including the newspaper — “Oman’s first hackathon!” — what were our chances of winning?

But fate was to not allow me to sit my lazy ass at home — a read through the buzz in my hackathon team group chat made me turn on my heels and reluctantly dress up for the scene — full jeans and a collared t-shirt.

So i went….but I wasn’t to have it easy. With a sore throat, cold and mild fever I first ended up at the bank — or so I thought. After 5 minutes of the receptionist trying to tell me off, it hit me — I had ended up at Oman Arab Bank. I slipped out of there faster than I had after my first SAT attempt, and walked the kilometer and more to the actual venue under the beating Arabian sun — not the start I’d imagined. I reached the venue with my sling bag and was welcomed in by a bouncer. The entrance was a tunnel walled with white stenciled images of devices I assume the society pairs with geeks and this led to a comfortably air conditioned room with glass walls and rounded tables. After an embarrassing introduction by the MCs and registration, I was led to my table where I set up my laptop.

The venue was how i assume hackathon heaven would look like. The walls were full of similar white stenciled murals, there were hammocks, a gaming booth with XBOX One’s, a graffiti wall, a tech booth with Alexa and the Hololens, a food counter with free RedBull mocktails, free waffles, free pizza, and yes, free Shawarma too.

Ours was a team of 4 — with Auro, Mukul and Siddhant working from India, and me working from the scene. We got started on discussing the idea we had decided upon the previous night — a bot chat for the customer that somehow had to be able to do more than just basic banking. That’s when I met the first mentor. Let’s call him mentor X — X came to our table by himself and after speaking for a bit about my background, I got down to discussing our idea with him. I poured out all the different scenarios our bot could be used in and its features and X calmly listened. X then pointed out something that led to a change that I consider monumental in the final outcome — our features weren’t really strung together. They were just independent bullet points that really didn’t come together to give a direction to our solution. If anything they’d only leave the judges confused on what we were really proposing. We needed to make our design more formal — a few rules, a blueprint, some structure. So that’s just what we did.

We divided our bank bot’s services into 3 categories:

  1. The basic stuff: So once you had “logged” into your bank account on the messenger bot, you could query for basic stuff like bank balance, send money to xxxxxxxxx bank account or view your last 10 transactions at McDonalds Al-Khuwair.

2. The social layer: On top of the basic layer, we also plan to leverage your Facebook account since you’re already logged in to use the messenger bot. On NBO’s server, we pair Facebook account-bank account number (be it NBO or any other) and allow really complex IFTTT like automation (which we called ‘recipes’) to be deployed. So now, you send stuff like: “Send $50 to Mukul” and it’ll send $50 to Mukul’s account, provided all the information is provided.

3. Intelligent layer: Where we really start innovating is in the addition of an intelligence layer which, using a neural network of your past transactions, intelligently gives recommendations and suggestions on how to save money better, make more automation to save time, etc — all by studying your spending patterns. So if it notices that you visit a particular eat out every week, and the bot notices that you spend $2 less when you eat there on a Friday rather than a Saturday, it will recommend a particular spending pattern for the next month that can save you, say $8 more than last month. It also enables you to use GPS to make payments without even mentioning the payee’s name!

This way the bot becomes a social mobile wallet, a financial adviser, a task automator and much more — it completely takes over your financial life and makes you comfortable in the NBO ecosystem which introducing stickiness between the customer and bank. If NBO made an API for this such that other banks could provide the same service, while each person using it pays a monthly fee, it also doubles as a alternate source of income for the bank!

As for implementation, we used a node.js server that Mukul hosted, the FB messenger API and wit.ai for analyzing the messages sent by the user and responding appropriately.

The above is what we arrived at after 24 hours of repeated intense discussion with over 10 mentors, 4 free meals, 2 overnight video calls, some 10 hours of combined sleep (among the 4 of us) and 24 hours of bearing really awkward MCing. Then came the first round of pitching. We quickly put together a presentation and I presented to 2 panelists who initially seemed overwhelmed but then slowly got more comfortable with our idea. With every slide, their interest only seemed to grow bigger and after a quick VIVA, they broke out into wide smiles and congratulated us for having come up with something so detailed and creative. Sure enough when they called upon the top 6 teams out of the 100 and more, we were in it.

My final pitch went even better — the 4 judges were each from a highly technical or finance related background — an entrepreneurship associate professor — IE Business school, the Head of IT at Dubai Finance Market, the director of SAS center for entrepreneurship and the Chief Retail Banking Officer at NBO — and they seemed to understand the technicalities and functionalities of the bot. After a lengthy QA session about the uncertainty of using ML, the security issues and benefits to the bank, I walked down the stage with a wide smile and distinctly remember messaging my team:

“nair_on_fire: Now i’m not much of a bragger, but i think i just lit up the stage”

After a grueling hour of wait, the judges revealed the final results: first the runners up, and then a pause. With a content smile on his lips, the announcer proclaimed

“The winners of the NBO Hackathon, the ones to win the first hackathon in Oman, the ones to create history are — “

I look at my phone — 2% charge?

Nope, not going to be able to tell my team the results.

“BotChat!”

For a moment, my heart drowned — our team name was ‘Victorious Secret’ (Pun intended), and our project name was officially ‘nBOT’ (as in NBO+BOT).

Then it hit me — none of the other top 6 had made a bot!

We had won!

With my parents watching, I ran up stage and after two awkward handshakes and a photo shoot, came back to my chair, and right before my phone died sent one final message to my team that conveyed it all:

P.S:

Our bot was multilingual too :D