I’ve worked for many companies over the years (people say I’m older than I look) that just don’t bother with innovation, at least not to the extent that tombola does it. Recently I got a chance to take part in my first ever Hackathon. For those that don’t know what it is, you get to sit your projects to one side for a few days, and experiment with tech and ideas that you think would be interesting to try out and maybe work with people that you may not usually work with.

Here at tombola we love all things AWS and my team mates love the range of echo devices, they’ve been raving about them since their launch. I’m sure everyone on my team, myself included, now has at least one in their home. I thought it would be cool to build something with Alexa for my Hackathon so I gave it a shot.

My team had recently just finished our new social feed news stream and consumed it on our website https://www.tombolaarcade.co.uk/socialfeed so I thought it would be good if Alexa could read this out to the players.

Building a skill

When you start to build a skill you will quickly realise there are loads of useful documentation (https://developer.amazon.com/docs/custom-skills/steps-to-build-a-custom-skill.html) to walk you through the process, and an Alexa skill is simply an AWS Lambda function designed to convert spoken intents into API calls.  This is now even easier by using one of the many Alexa skills SDKs https://github.com/alexa/alexa-skills-kit-sdk-for-nodejs simplifying the amount of code you need to write.
The information feeds for the skill’s functionality just comes from API calls, which depending on your architecture you may already have existing, like we did here at tombola.
AWS even cater for developers to test their skill without the need to actually buy an echo device, you can interact with your skill using the Alexa simulator:

Once you’re happy, publish it and wait until AWS approve it. If you are lucky enough Amazon will send you some free swag. J


When we demonstrated the prototype to our CEO he immediately recognised its potential, a new method of interacting with the players and a new way of delivering social content at no cost to the players.  It wasn’t long before a real production project was kicked off, with an enhanced functionality specification, and now we have released the “tombola news” Alexa skill: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tombola-Ltd-news/dp/B07D18H75B/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-skills&ie=UTF8&qid=1530092410&sr=1-1&keywords=tombola+news

Hackathons are a good way to let developers experiment and see what they come up with. You never know, your next hackathon idea may make it to production too.