ARJUN SAWHNEY

I’m a 18 year old studying at the University of California, San Diego. I’m passionate about Computer Science, design, sketching, and building FeedOn, my social venture

Organising a Hackathon!

        Ah, the long awaited summer break. Days filled with laziness, a family trip to the hills, school projects, occasional boredom, and binge-watching netflix shows. Well, this was how I usually spent my summer vacations, often also working on things that I enjoy doing. Learning how to code, designing simple and elegant websites and apps, and interning with IrisVR and InnerChef were some of the experiences that kept me busy the past two summers. Little did I know what a casual family get-together with two of my cousins would bring this summer.

        Kartik and Saumya are both college students, and were visiting home in Gurgaon for their summer break with not much to do either. When my dad suggested the three of us work on a cutting-edge project together, my mind instantly gravitated towards a hackathon, having organised one for ShriTeq (my school's annual tech symposium) before. I have always been fascinated by entrepreneurship, the concept of absolutely anyone having the ability to form teams and innovate to solve relevant problems. The three of us, with our diverse skill sets, decided to give it a shot.

        I had been working as an "Entrepreneur in Residence" (EiR) with a tech startup accelerator called GSF for 8 months, creating and managing their new website and backend. The idea of hackathon, that we decided to call 'HackGSF' gradually began to materialise into something that was real, tangible, and actually happening. Kartik would drive 2 hours from his place to my house for brainstorming sessions and Saumya had basically moved in. Our work began with us putting our heads together to identify 'Frontier Technologies' as the theme of the hackathon and writing a mission statement to spell out our goals. We felt that this theme would go with the contemporary times when so much research and implementation is happening in this area. Furthermore, it would distinguish our hackathon from all others in India.

        "As newer technologies disrupt, displace and reshape economies, 'the next big thing' emerging as the hotbed of innovation are the frontier technologies. Today we associate frontier technologies with Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Cloud Computing, and an intersection of the above.

        At HackGSF, our goal is to encourage developers to build products that employ one or more of these frontier technologies. A crucial aspect of working with these technologies is the availability of large amounts of data. To this cause, we will provide the developers with key resources such as data and frameworks to successfully implement frontier technologies into their projects."

        To successfully implement Artificial Intelligence, developers require very large data sets to train their models to learn from them. It's the reason why Google is leading the AI surge today. There is no other company in the world that logs such vast amounts of user data, as a result, Google is able to train their search engine and voice assistant to understand language, context, objects in images, and much more. As we began to research more about Frontier Technologies, we found that availability of data sets of such orders of magnitude is almost non-existent for individual developers. The three of us recognised this as the main barrier for developers to innovate using AI techniques. The second barrier we identified is the lack of good mentors to guide these budding entrepreneurs and developers. To quote Anandamoy Roychowdhary from Sequoia Capital - "Indian startup founders have to spend 100 hours thinking deeply about their startup before spending 1000 hours building it"

        After flagging these problems, we realised that we would have to provide our developers with data as well as proper mentorship through workshops at our hackathon. However, obtaining and providing the same was a mammoth task. Several other logistics related questions came to our minds before we could proceed any further. "Where would the hackathon take place? Who would sponsor the event? How would we reach out to India's smartest developers? How many of them would we be able to host? What about the judges? Who would provide tech support? How would we provide good WiFi to so many people?"

"Do it in Bangalore."

        My dad's voice and footsteps came thundering in from the corridor. The idea was so profound, all of us were sitting in Gurgaon never having travelled down South before in our lives. But then it hit us: Bangalore is the start-up hub of India, home to the smartest tech minds and innovators. It made perfect sense. We started our plan of action by creating dozens of company-personalised sponsorship decks, drafting the best proposals we could to send them to companies in possession of large data sets, co-working spaces, tech giants, AI specialists, and many more.





        After a week of this effort, not receiving a single reply to our countless emails made us lose some faith. It took my dad some time to console us and share his knowledge in the field. His words still resonate with me today:

"Raising money is the most difficult task for entrepreneurs. Don't despair, keep looking forward and improving, or you won't make it."

        The statement proved itself in the weeks to come. We analysed and improved our proposals. It wasn't long before we heard back from Amazon Web Services. They were completely on board and ready to provide their full support through monetary sponsorship, a judge for the event, and someone to deliver a workshop on Artificial Intelligence at Amazon. Our determination soared higher than ever before and we moved on to the next steps of planning. I took charge of creating the hackathon website hosted on gsfindia.com, Kartik took charge of creating a pre-hackathon Crypt Hunt, and Saumya cracked down on the nitty gritties. Things started to fall in place beautifully as more companies like Facebook and Razorpay resonated with our mission statement. We soon heard from Y Media Labs in Diamond District. They were ready to provide their stunning office free of cost for us to host the hackathon and had already worked out the provision of WiFi, cables, cubicles, refreshments, gaming stations, and much more. The three of us took the largest sigh of relief we had taken in a long time.

        HackGSF 2017 was a family effort. The three of us never really got to spend time together before. Saumya and her family had lived in 5 different countries over the course of 10 years, never really sticking around in India. Kartik and his family had shifted to France many years ago, and only occasionally visited us in Gurgaon. Two months of working together trying to make HackGSF a success really tied the three of us together. Over car rides to buy merchandise, brainstorming Crypt Hunt questions, hilarious application responses, designing ID Cards, certificates, banners, standees, backdrops, receiving my dad's mentorship, having to update every single platform when the tiniest change was to be made, and the frustration of every cancellation, we learned organisational skills and things about each other that we never would have otherwise. For two months, my bedroom turned into a mini conference room where everything was planned, discussed, and finalised.

        The bulk of our work was yet to come. We had decided to tie up with HackerEarth as our platform partner for outreach to developers. We set up the page and just like the act of falling asleep, slowly then all at once, registrations started pouring in. The numbers ticked up from 200 to 500 just a week before the hackathon. A major reason for this was the targeted facebook and twitter ad campaigns we were running, along with the emails we had sent to college clubs in Bangalore. We knew we had to control the quality of developers present at the hackathon, so we devised a short-listing criteria, dividing teams into red, green, yellow, and orange categories based on their resumes, github profiles, portfolios, interviews to screen them and their application answers. After a week of calling applicants to interview them, we had come up with a great green spread of college developers, hackathon junkies, and startup founders.

        Finally, the stage was set and before we knew it, we were off to Bangalore, waiting for teams to show up at the registration table with butterflies in our stomach. What we didn't anticipate at the time was that if we had shortlisted and received confirmation from 50 teams, only 40 teams would actually show up due to uninformed cancellations. Anxiety and panic began to take over when my dad shared our next crucial learning:

"Such things happen. You have to take it in your stride and prepare for it next time."

This learning has been one of importance, and will stay with me as I organise events in the future.

        The first day of the event kicked off with 3 stellar workshops by Razorpay, Amazon, and Sequoia Capital India. The 24 hour hackathon began shortly afterwards with over 100 of India's smartest developers forming teams to innovate using frontier technologies. Expert mentorship was provided to participants during the hackathon by GSF EiRs and the judging panel. Kartik, Saumya and I spent day and night getting to know the participants, what they were working on, which technologies they were using, and how they learnt how to implement them. The experience of interacting with so many intelligent people changed the way I've looked at technology so far; it was no longer something that would aid a few industries, it was the absolute and certain future, driven by automation and artificial intelligence.

        24 hours later, participants delivered a shark tank style pitch and demo to the HackGSF judging panel, that included leadership from Amazon, Razorpay, Sequoia, Incubate Fund, HackerEarth, InnerChef, and Rebright Partners. Six impressive teams won cash prizes worth Rs. 1,00,000/ among other sponsored prizes such as the chance to be selected for the GSF Accelerator Program, Batch of 2017. Three teams even won a spot in the FbStart program by Facebook. The HackGSF Overall Winners, team "Faith 3.0" from IIT Roorkee, developed a product to remove the dependency of visually impaired individuals on others. The app uses a smartphone camera and Google's Machine Learning technology to detect the location of objects in the user's surroundings and converted them to text and read them aloud to visually impaired users using Amazon Polly.

        Organising an event requires a lot of effort, persistence, energy, and team-work. HackGSF 2017 was a roaring success because of the collective team effort, systematic division of roles, and a commitment to plan and execute in a set time frame till the end. The three of us did goof up several times, for example, pushing the registration deadline forward by 2 weeks resulting in confusion among registrants. However, our most important learning was that making mistakes is the most important part of the learning process. If it wasn't for the mistakes we made, we would never have learnt what could have gone wrong and how to work as one and take advantage of our individual skillsets in such high pressure situations.

        Learning to adapt to changes on short notice kept us on our feet and required a lot of quick thinking. We developed personable, yet professional communication skills and learned a great deal about exciting frontier technologies being developed today!