The Difference - What Makes an Idea Work

We’ve all been there. Talking with old friends or new acquaintances about your career as a software engineer, and those magical words pop into the conversation: “Bro… I have an idea for this app…” Much to the surprise and chagrin of many aspiring Zuckerbergs, success comes from a heck of a lot more than just a good idea.

My purpose here is not to disparage any idea. I think some of the best ideas in the world are those that sound insane from the start. My purpose is to reflect on one of my own experiences and use it to identify some of the things that separate the successful ideas from… well… the others.

alt text

This experience I’m talking about was a time that I was able to witness the end-to-end process of an idea becoming a success. It started similarly to the other experiences I referenced in the beginning of this post - a friend came to me with an idea, and an ambitious one at that.

(cue flashback music from “Arthur”)

The Idea

It was April of 2016. I was just about to finish one of the most difficult semesters I’d had to date. I was trying to understand Turing machines, Database relational algebra, and every sorting algorithm ever made since the caveman stacked the biggest rocks at the bottom. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, just imagine you’re drowning… You cry out for help, hoping someone is close enough hear you… But the only response you get is from your terminal: Segmentation fault.

In the heat of the confusion, rage and tears, this friend approached me with an idea to create the biggest hackathon in the state of Utah. He wanted it to happen in the upcoming semester (in 5 months) and that he wanted me to help him do it.

At the time, I thought, How could we ever do that? Where would we even find the time? Why put more on our plate than we already have?”

It’s safe to say I had my doubts. But after thinking about it for a few days, I thought it sounded kind of fun and that I’d join him. He recruited a few of our other classmates that were either crazy enough to say “yes” or too scared to tell him “no.” We had ourselves a team.

The Team

Our first official meeting was a few weeks later, and was actually a video conference, as several of us were working at internships in different states. We jumped on the call and realized that none of us really knew any of the others, except for this friend that had pulled us into this. We weren’t anti-social, but we each had our own spheres and didn’t often venture outside them.

I thought to myself, “This is quite possibly the most random possible sampling of students in the University of Utah Computer Science program…” Looking back, I realize that these were some of the first indications of differences between this idea and many of the others I’d heard:

  • Assemble a diverse team - Seriously, we could have been a poster for a University marketing campaign. We had just about every demographic covered. But diversity became much more than a box to check. A team with different backgrounds, perspectives, connections and opinions would become crucial to the success of the hackathon.
  • Find the right people - Rather than just pick his friends, he went out and picked people that would be right for each job and helped them catch the vision. I’m not saying the people on the team weren’t his friends, but I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of just defaulting to your circle of closest friends, even if they’re not right for the job.

The Sacrifice

I’ll never forget the day we went to ASUU (Associated Students of the University of Utah), our school’s student government, to ask for their financial sponsorship of our event. We came on a day where other clubs and student groups were being grilled by the student-legislators over requests in the $50-$100 range. We were coming in asking for $3,000.

But not only did we believe this event would be fun and impactful for each of the participants personally, we strongly felt it would benefit the University and the community in the long run.

Big hackathons were starting to become one of the ways students from other schools in and out of the state were exposed to universities, and many of them would eventually plan on going to graduate school. We felt that if we could just give these students a chance to see what it’s like to be at the University of Utah, more would consider the U for future educational opportunities.

These hackathons are also major opportunities for companies to recruit potential candidates (hence the corporate sponsors that shelled out $$$ for a booth at the event and their logo on our materials and website). If we could host a large event where students from around the state and country could get face time with local companies, it was possible that many of those participants would receive job offers, work in the area, and boost the local economy.

So, yes, $3000 from the University seemed like a lot up front, but we felt like the investment would pay for itself many times over.

When we got up to pitch the idea to this group of our peers, many of them caught the vision, but there were also some that just couldn’t get over the amount of money we were asking for.

One of them posed the question, “What will you do if you don’t get the money?”

My friend answered without hesitation, “It will come out of my own pocket. I believe in this cause and it’s something I’m willing to pay for if we don’t get the funding.” I was as surprised as each of them. Which brings me to the next difference:

  • Be willing to make real sacrifices - It’s not like he was made of money, either. He worked long hours at the hospital, but he also paid for his own education. In my mind, he was offering more than what seemed “reasonable” to the rest of us. A sacrifice is more than just giving up something. It’s something that actually hurts that you do anyway because of your belief in a cause. He believed in the cause and was willing to hurt for it.

The Work

We each went about our duties, as busy as we were. We did our best to attend weekly meetings on our progress, where we’d identify any blockers and discuss solutions. It was a lot of work for everyone involved.

We had team members over categories like Marketing, Social Media, Hospitality, Sponsorship, and others. I was the Director of Technology, which meant I would be responsible for the hardware lab, coordinating the schedule and tasks for all of our volunteers and oversee any technical mentoring that was needed.

However, when it came time for the event, even though we still each owned our piece of the pie, we all pitched in to help each other and make it happen. This was something I’d read from the great John Wooden, but that was reinforced in working with this team:

  • “It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” - No one was above helping anyone else with any activity. We all did our best to operate as a team rather than just make sure our own responsibilities were covered. We all did everything from setting up chairs to serving snacks to running games to renting hardware to schmoozing sponsors and everything else in between.

The Iteration

After a successful hackathon with very few hiccups, I thought we had earned a well-deserved rest. I was sure there were a few complaints here or there from participants and sponsors alike, but hey, in an event with 180+ participants and ~15 sponsors several employees each, there was bound to be at least some whining.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just thought we had a little bit of time before we needed to worry about it again. My friend felt differently. After the feedback survey came back, he personally spoke with each sponsor, apologizing if necessary for any inconvenience and pledging to make the changes for the next year. I watched as those items of feedback tormented him over the next year, giving each one a great deal of time and attention, making sure no one would be able to raise that complaint again.

In other words, he made this idea different by:

  • Not only accepting, but seeking honest feedback - It wasn’t enough to pat himself on the back for a job well done and rest up. He needed to address the issues to make the next event perfect. He didn’t want to waste any time in pursuit of that goal.

The Rest of the Story

We did address those issues and prepare for the next year’s Hackathon. Our team locked down a title sponsor that gave us over $12,000 on top of many of our sponsorships from the previous year. Because of the event’s success, they actually signed a contract to remain the title sponsor over the next 3 years, increasing the donation by 20% each year.

We had over 260 participants that created some amazing products, one of which was a robot that used Tensorflow to learn a participants preferences in girls and used a stylus to swipe left or right on his Tinder application.

My friend, Johnny Le, went on to win an award given to one student each year for student leadership that resulted in a $2,000 cash award and a $10,000 donation to the student organization of his choice (guess which organization he gave it to).

I sincerely hope that none of what I have said comes across as hyperbole or sugar-coated. Like all teams and projects, we had our issues and problems. Even Johnny, as great a guy as he is, makes mistakes. I’m also not saying that these are the only things one needs to do in order to be successful at any given task. I don’t pretend to know the secret sauce to success - I’m still trying to find it myself.

But HackTheU didn’t end up in the “Good Idea Graveyard” because Johnny and our team treated it differently. I had a front row seat to watch some amazing individuals come together, take collective ownership of a good idea and make it happen through initiative, sacrifice, humility and the unglamorous, frustrating, seemingly never-ending work.

“You wonder how they do it
And you look to see the knack
You watch the foot in action,
Or the shoulder or the back,
But when you spot the answer
Where the higher glamours lurk
You’ll find in moving higher
Up the laurel covered spire
That most of it is practice
And the rest of it is work”
-Grantland Rice

Written on June 15, 2018