I was recently in Romania for 2 weeks. However, it was not for a vacation this time, but for a 12 day hack-a-thon with Romanian programmers for the hostel front desk system. It was very interesting (Really, it was!) so I want to share it here.
A Need for a New System
Pacific Tradewinds uses a web-based front desk system to manage the operations related to our hostel. It's software custom written just for hostels back in 2004. Over the years there have been many updates and patches. As a result the software was getting very old, buggy and outdated. Last year, I had shown my front desk system to Josh Cohen of HostelManagement.com and told me that many hostels needed this same software. Then at the World Hostel Conference in Vancouver, I met with several hostel operators who were in desperate need of a front desk system for their hostels. It seems that many of them are still using Google Docs, spreadsheets, and even pen and paper to manage their front desk operations! While some people love pen and paper, it's not a good method for tracking the operations and financials of your business.
Hiring Programmers Outside the US
I decided to have the software rewritten with updated PHP and a fast MVC framework called Kohana. This time I would rewrite the software so it could be used by a variety of hostels. I tried to get this work done locally however because we are located in the epicenter of tech, it was difficult to find any available programmers for such a small job. I used vworker.com and posted a request for bids for a 12 day intensive software project. The plan was to rent a nice apartment in some distant location of the world, fill it with food and host my programming team. I learned this idea from Alex Torrenegra of wehostels.com. Alex has built the wehostels.com platform (as well as many other amazing projects) using this "coder house" technique in Colombia, South America. Normally I would've done this work over email and Skype. However, doing this work with programmers in different time zones can be very challenging since answering a single question from the programmer can take 24 hours.
Numerous interested programmers contacted me from all over the world. Some provided generic responses but very few provided precise detailed responses as an indication of their high interest in doing this work and the fact they had taken the time to read my project description and understood it. The bulk of the responses came from India (to no surprise) and Romania (small surprise). Doing a bit more research I found that Romania is a software development hub for Europe. Recently the country has done a lot of investment in computer science education. As a result there seems to be a good selection of intelligent highly qualified programmers in that country.
Living with Programmers
In time, I was able to narrow down my selection to 3 good programmers from vworker.com. Each had good reviews and provided me with excellent pre-project communications which was a good indication they wanted to the work and were qualified to do the work and that they understood the scope of the project and how I was hoping to achieve it. I continued with a few Skype interviews until I was satisfied that these programmers could do the job. Finally, I booked my ticket to Cluj-Napoca, Romania. I didn't even know about Cluj-Napoca before this project was started. I found a well suited apartment in the heart of Cluj-Napoca through Airbnb. On July 29, I flew to Romania and the next day I was in my spacious apartment in Cluj-Napoca.
The day after, I met with my programmers. Everyone was very nice and congenial - but I wondered, could they program? We started by going to the big supermarket in Cluj-Napoca called Auchan. I encouraged each programmer to make a selection of foods they like. We bought bread, cheese, fruit, crackers, cookies, candy, sodas, and beer. Back at the house we had a meeting, discussed the project and used the widescreen TV connected to the computer to show how the site works currently. Then Sorin installed SVN on our VPS server and got everything ready for the next day.
The following day I was truly amazed at how quickly they got to work. It's the first time I've ever witnessed programming in parallel. Everyone immediately checked out the framework and initial code base from the SVN server and got to work. Within the course of 12 days, we rebuilt the hostel front desk system and got everything mostly done. Currently, we are working on some of the final pages. However, now they have a very clear understanding of how the project works so questions by email are no longer needed as often.
Enjoying the Romanian View
I was also able to enjoy a bit of Cluj-Napoca in the early mornings and evenings. The city is full of beautiful churches and interesting architecture. My programmers and I enjoyed some nice meals together and had few beers at the local restaurants and pubs. This perhaps was the best part of the trip for me because even though I was there getting a lot of work done, it also felt like a bit of a vacation because we were all having fun together. One of my favorite things to do in life is create so the software project provided that outlet. I attended two meetups while in Cluj-Napoca. One was called "English Language Speakers in Cluj" and the other was the standard couch surfing meet-up. These were fun too.
Great Hostel in Romania
Perhaps my most enjoyable time was spent at the Transylvania Hostel. As it turned out, Transylvania Hostel was also located in the heart of Cluj-Napoca. This hostel is very similar to Pacific Tradewinds in so many ways. I completely enjoyed meeting Iuliana and Brian, the proprietors of this fine hostel. Those of you who know me, know that I'm very particular when it comes to hostels. There are certain things that I look for (community, friendly welcoming atmosphere, clean facilities) and this hostel had it all! Even when Brian and Iuliana were not there, it was quite easy to socialize with other the other hostel guests. Perhaps it was because Iuliana and Brian possess many of the same philosophies and passions that I have about small, social and community-based hostels. In fact, Brian is the Community Manager of HostelManagement.com and he has some great ideas about how to keep hostels social and friendly as they are meant to be. I truly feel like I have new friends in Romania. If you go to Romania I highly recommend that you visit the Transylvania hostel.
Post your comments
All in my entire trip to Romania was a huge SUCCESS. And in the coming days I hope to show other hostel operators the work that we did. We will also be looking for a few hostels to serve as beta testers for this new software. If you're interested please let me know in the comments below.