Khalid Al-Najjar is a Computer Science student at the University of Wollongong in Dubai/ Image Credit: Supplied picture

Khalid Al-Najjar, a Computer Science student at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD), won the first prize in Arabnet Developer Tournament 2013 last month.

The tournament, organised by ArabNet, a hub for digital professionals and entrepreneurs to connect and learn, is a competition for web and mobile developers with a substantial cash prize and an opportunity for learning and career advancement.

The aim of Arabnet was to identify highly skilled developers from within the UAE and with over 50 participants including Ferass Hattab, another UOWD Computer Science student, the competition had the best IT brains participating.

The rigorous and holistic testing criteria focused on the elements of speed (designing a website or application within a stipulated timeframe), complexity (solving a tough problem in the shortest time), creativity (providing solutions to an open-ended question with new and unique ideas), and competency (using a new tool in develop a project on the spot).

Designing specific testing parameters for each attribute, the tournament ensured that developers were put to the test to identify well-rounded individuals who possesses strengths in each attribute.

Khalid says, “As a senior in my last semester with a Digital Security specialization in the Bachelor of Computer Science, I felt that participating in a prestigious competition, such as the Arabnet Developer Tournament, would enable me to improve my skills while competing against talented developers from across the UAE. As the tournament was focused on the domain of mobile and web development, and since I had dabbled in various freelance projects within this scope, I believed that I had a good chance to finish in the coveted top three positions at this tournament.’

“With participants from different fields and disciplines, including employees of web development and mobile development companies, I did not think I would land the coveted top position. This win has bolstered my confidence and I am now considering participating in other competitions to increase my skill set as well as reach out to potential employers from across the UAE.”

He talks to Education on what make things tick for him: 

Q: What sparked your interest in this the field of web and mobile applications? Your early memories of being passionate about it?

I remember using my first PC back in 1998 – I was 7. The world of dial-up and the internet was quite amazing for me. After all, with one touch of a button, I could be connected to anyone in the world and had the entire world of information available at my fingertips. Hence, getting immersed in this domain sparked my interest to create my own forum where I started learning HTML/CSS and scripts.

During this process, I met talented designers, developers and hackers from all over the world, and they all inspired and motivated me to continue writing scripts, designing and finding bugs and exploiting them. As a result, I took it upon myself to build my knowledge in this area as vigorously as possible.

From videos posted by programmers and hackers covering a wide range of information regarding security and programming to enrolling myself in a formal undergraduate degree focusing on the pillars of digital systems security, I did my best to acquire knowledge from every avenue possible to create a strong foundation in the world of programming. This allowed me to hone my skills more in sync with the changing fabric of society and technology.

As a result, over the last few years, I have focused on developing web and mobile applications which have been primarily focused on ensuring and enabling a secure environment.

Q: What were the testing criteria you were subjected to in:

a) Speed (designing a website or application within a stipulated timeframe). What was the timeframe?

The time allocated for designing a website was 1 hour. In these sixty minutes, we had to design a website which managed music albums and provided the ability to add/edit/view albums and their respective data. In order to fulfill this task effectively, I used Twitter Bootstrap for the interface design to speed up the process; this allowed me to use designs which had already been created by other designers. The rest of the website was developed by me during the competition.

b) Complexity (solving a tough problem in the shortest time). What was the tough problem presented to you?

The tough problem was analyzing a database of passwords to determine its security as well as identifying the common practices that users partake in when picking passwords. My approach was to use PHP as it is a server-side scripting language; it provided me with the flexibility to parse, store, search, and match passwords via efficient coding which allowed me to complete the task in 90 minutes.

c) Creativity (providing solutions to an open-ended question with new and unique ideas). What was the question?

A music-based-on-color was my approach to this round; the task was to determine if competitors can come up with new ideas in the domain of music and develop website a website with this idea implemented within two hours. Based on my earlier readings, I had uncovered that psychology had proven that individual colors represent different moods and personalities. Hence, based on this research, I mapped specific genres to specific colors.

For instance, the colour red was associated with romantic songs, the color black was associated with heavy metal tunes, and so on. After the user selected a color, the system would search for the specific genre on YouTube and return the top viewed videos. In addition, users were presented the opportunity to reselect a different color or surf for other videos.

d) Competency (using a new tool in developing a project on the spot). What was the tool and what was the project?

The aim of this task was to find which programmers can learn new tools/APIs and manage to use them to create a fully working website within 150 minutes. For this task, we were provided with the readmill API.

While the required tasks were given directly, it was important for all participants to read through the API’s documentation to understand how it functions and create a website with all the required functionalities implemented. Due to my love for reading and constant upgrading of my skills and knowledge, I was able to quickly understand how the API worked and use it to complete the task in the stipulated time.

Q: What do you see as the seminal breakthroughs in this field 5 years from now?

My experience and readings indicate that the seminal breakthroughs in the field will occur in the domains of education and healthcare. As we move into a society where technology is intricately woven into its fabric, we will start seeing web-based and mobile applications in a plethora of settings in our everyday lives.

This will enable paradigm shifts in these two industries as the global focus will turn towards unsetting inequalities created by income, healthcare and education. As a result, individuals around the world will be armed with the tools to make rapid, positive changes in their lives.

Q: What’s a fantastical concept you would like to be the pioneer of?

Some sort of a unique and creative idea which has the potential to better and simplify lifestyles. This would most likely be in the field I am most passionate about: information security.

Q: What are your plans after university?

There are three avenues that I hope to walk down along, in varying rhythms, after I graduate. These include building web- and mobile-based projects for a global portfolio of clients that range from the Americas to the Far East, share the knowledge that I have gained with other people who can benefit from it (especially in this field), and focus on lifelong learning which will only make me better.

Q: If you had to thank others, apart from yourself, for your achievements thus far, what would your speech be like?

Firstly, I would like to thank Allah for everything. After that, I would like to thank my family for their constant support, my friends for their thought-provoking discussions and motivations, and my teachers for their guidance. Without these individuals, I would not be the person that I have become today.

Q: Outside of this passion, what defines you?

Despite donning the cape of computer science – which would place me in the category of ‘geeks’ – I believe my optimism (in everything that I set my foot into) defines me. In everything I do, I make it a point to take the negative aspects into consideration and focus on the positive so that I can create the maximum positive impact possible. From my academic endeavors and family life to my social life and extracurricular activities, I believe that this ingrained optimism has allowed me to reach where I am today.

Q: Would you want to be part of the race for excellence in your field or would you chart your own path in life?

While being part of the race of excellence can enable me to push my boundaries and set my sights higher, I am a distinct entity in this large world of ours, and hence, would want to chart my own path in life also.

Hence, it would be imperative for me to strive for excellence in the trajectory that I define for myself and tread on as it is only in this way that I will be able to make the best possible use of the intellect that I have been blessed with.

Q: Friends, adventures, hanging out? What’s your social profile?

I am your average teenager trapped in a slightly-older-than-a-teenager body. I love spending time with family, going to the beach, hanging out with friends and cousins, drawing abstract images, meeting new people, trying new restaurants and contemplating and talking about anything and everything under the sun.

Q: Your message in a bottle to those who in the field?

While there are numerous things I would like to tell people in the domain of computer science, I believe the most important lesson – which I have learnt and which would be of great benefit to others – would be to persevere and never give up.

Having faith in one’s abilities an being open to learning all the times are the attributes of a great individual, but adding perseverance and a ‘never say no’ attitude makes a great programmer.

Hence, it is important to think big and keep trying – despite the misgivings of failure. One way of doing this is by surrounding yourself by talented people in your field. After all, you are the product of your experiences and the company that you keep.