stories

Hacking Hackathons: How we won Masters of Code SG

From L-R: Jay Ching, Kean Ho, Daniel, me, Leonardy

This is a special guest post by Gwen Yi @gwenific . Her team One Small Step were the recent winners of the Masters of Code SG Hackathon. You can check out the demo: https://one-small-step.herokuapp.com/.

It all started in a bootcamp.

Coding bootcamp, to be exact.

From L-R: Jay Ching, Kean Ho, Daniel, me, Leonardy

From L-R: Jay Ching, Kean Ho, Daniel, me, Leonardy

Jay, Kean, Daniel and I met in the March intake of Code Division, an intensive 9-week web development bootcamp sponsored by MaGIC.

We were all there to learn Ruby on Rails, but our motivations differed; Jay and Kean wanted to level up their already-badass coding skills, while Dan and I simply wanted to understand technology – and our future technical co-founders – better.

The four of us hit it off almost immediately.

When Jay found out the February cohort was joining Masters of Code Singapore, he suggested we sign up for it as well. We concurred, thinking it would be a good place to practice the skills we’ve picked up so far. (The free transport played a role as well… Thanks, Heis! ;) )

We started brainstorming two weeks before the hackathon, but due to internal assessment exams, we couldn’t give it our all. Two days before the hackathon – the day of our last exam – our fifth member dropped a bomb on us: She wouldn’t be coming with us to Singapore.

After a frenzy of stalking, calling and elevator pitching, we managed to get Leo – UX design extraordinaire – on-board. At that point, we still didn’t have a solid idea.

We hardly got any sleep on the overnight bus. Groggy, irritable and restless, the five of us looked around the room at our bright-eyed, bushy-tailed competitors and thought to ourselves: “We don’t stand a chance.”

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24 hours later, we were hugging each other in sheer ecstasy and striking victory poses in our oversized Masters of Code jackets.

It’s been three days, and it still doesn’t seem real.

How on Earth did we become the regional Masters of Code?!

The boys and I have spent way too much time analyzing, dissecting and talking about this.

Here’s what we’ve gathered.

1. We stuck to the theme.
Even our flowcharts are a mix of MECE and coding syntax. Help.

Even our flowcharts are a mix of MECE and coding syntax. Help.

We knew the theme for Singapore’s hackathon was “Using Commerce / Payments to Empower Women”, with the operative word being ‘women’.

So when we were brainstorming, we ran the gamut on all ideas – from bill automation to confinement ladies (LOL) – that were even remotely related to women empowerment.

Our final idea – simple coding games for women to understand the technology around them – was a marriage of our current bootcamp experience and what MasterCard was looking for. Which brings me to…

2. We identified a real need in the market.
FEMSTORIA-1024x273

WTF, Google?

When we read that, we had two kinds of reactions:

OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE GOOGLE ACTUALLY SAID THAT

and

HOLY $%^* IT’S A FREAKIN’ BLUE OCEAN?!

At the moment, there were only coding games for kids on the Internet; there simply wasn’t any avenue for a young woman to learn more about technology in a fun, casual context.

She would either have to join a coding bootcamp (full-time commitment) or an online course (part-time commitment), which didn’t sit well with most busy women’s schedules.

So, why not create our own?

3. We validated our ideas to the best of our ability…

Remember, we had exams and we were stuck in Cyberjaya, so getting in touch with the right people was a real feat.

Since our focus was on women empowerment, I sought counsel from all the local community organizations that supported women in tech – RailsGirls, Code Equality, Women Who Code, Gorgeous Geeks, even Google Women Techmakers.

Many times, I had to sneak out of the room to entertain phone calls; Daniel and I skipped a whole morning of classes to meet up with the former regional COO of Groupon. (S/O to Chen Chow for being a kick-ass mentor and friend!)

4. … And we were willing to pivot when necessary.

We didn’t actually end up going with the idea we ran by CC. But it doesn’t matter, because it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Part of the hackathon experience is knowing when to push on and when to let go.

The moment MasterCard announced their secret API (MoneySend), we pivoted until we could find a way to incorporate it into our revenue model (funneling our Premium revenue to a coding scholarship fund for underprivileged Southeast Asian women).

It wasn’t by chance. It was a conscious choice.

And last but not least…

5. We had AMAZING team dynamics.
Coders doing their thang.

Coders doing their thang.

Leo was the only one among us who had bona fide hackathon experience; the rest of us had either dabbled in Startup Weekends (the less technical version of Angelhack) or not engaged in any form of ‘hacking’ before.

Nevertheless, we respected one another for what we brought to the table – be it coding, designing or business expertise – and we allowed each other to do what we did best. No questions. No instructions. Just trust.

Sometimes, Daniel and I would give feedback on how the company logo or the programming structure should look (and here is where I am eternally thankful for our one month of RoR training); other times, Jay, Kean and Leo would share their thoughts on the copywriting or the business model.

The dynamic just WORKED.

To sum things up… Here’s a poem:

We stuck to the theme,
Identified a real need.
Validated to the best of our ability,
And pivoted when necessary.
Last but not least,
We had great team dynamics!

BONUS TIP: If you’re a biz dev looking to join a hackathon, do the techies a favor and complete at least one course on Codecademy. You can thank me later.

***

You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

At least, you could for the six finalist teams.

We were clustered in the back, anxiety rolling off of us in waves. At the front of the room, the MasterCard team was waging Nerf Gun warfare; so oblivious were they to our obvious distress.

And then just like that, the verdict was out.

They kicked things off with a photo roulette giveaway. All the individuals in the selected photo will receive a stack of Sentosa Adventure Cove Waterpark passes, as well as a pair of A-Reserve tickets to watch Disney’s Beauty And The Beast in Marina Bay Sands.

 

Of the seventy billion pictures we took together… They picked my favorite one of us!

Of the seventy billion pictures we took together… They picked my favorite one of us!

We got it.

What were the odds, right?

Little did we know sweeping the sweepstakes was prescient of our bigger triumph to come.

 

“And the Second Runner Up goes to… Rebound.me!”

That was the February cohort. My jaw dropped open as they made their way to the stage.

You Jing, my bootcamp mentor, housemate and friendly rival, looked me dead in the eye as he passed. “Win it for me.”

There would only be two winning teams; the First Runner Up would receive $500 USD worth of MasterCard gift cards per member, and the Regional Winners would be flown to Silicon Valley for the Masters of Code Grand Finale and the MasterCard Priceless® Experience – Northern California.

We held each other with steel-tight grips; to give or get support, I couldn’t be sure. Our foreheads touched as the lady judge stepped up to the stage. All eyes were on her.

“Here at MasterCard, we care a great deal about women in STEM. One team was courageous, creative and determined enough to come up with an innovative solution that addresses that problem. Today, we celebrate them.”

She looked over at us, and smiled.

We screamed.

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I’m not sure which is sweeter: becoming the regional champion, or winning the title on foreign land. #MalaysiaBoleh

I know one thing for sure, though – I’m going to treasure these memories for a lifetime.

Silicon Valley, here we come!

 

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