4 Lessons Learned After Winning A Car at Ford’s Hackathon

Early in 2015 Ford held a hackathon at the Campus Party event in São Paulo, Brazil. It was the first hackathon sponsored by a car manufacturer in South America ever, and it generated a lot of buzz with the local media, because the prize for the winner was a brand new car.

I always had a blast when I participated in hackathons in the past, but I hadn’t attended any over the last couple of years, mainly due to lack of time. When I heard about Ford’s one, though, I figured it would be important and interesting enough to justify taking a couple of days off my projects, so I enrolled to participate.

ford-car-hackathon
The hackathon stage

The hackathon started on a Thursday, at noon. The 50 competitors had 24 hours to build a mobile app that interacted with Ford’s Sync AppLink. The AppLink platform allows developers to get data directly from the vehicle, and it also allows the user to control his smartphone apps using built-in voice commands.

I developed an app called Good Driver (from Portuguese “Bom Motorista”). The goal of the app is to solve the problem of inefficient risk and price calculations done by insurance companies. Since those companies don’t have much real data about drivers, they need to rely on statistical models to calculate average risks. As a result, everyone ends up paying pretty much the same thing for an insurance policy. In other words, the good drivers need to foot the bill for the reckless ones. The app solves this problem by tracking several data while you drive (e.g., average speed, acceleration pattern, streets most used, seat belt usage) and then by creating a driver profile that can be shared, upon your request, with the insurance company.

ford-competitors
My competition getting busy

My app ended up winning the hackathon. Winning the competition and the car was awesome, obviously. Equally valuable, though, was the overall experience and the lessons I learned along the way. Below you’ll find them:

1. Don’t give up. Really!

The main technical challenge of the hackathon was to learn how to use the Sync AppLink platform, as none of the competitors had had any contact with it prior to the hackathon. Ford provided a hardware bench that simulated a real car, so the first task was to get our mobile apps interacting with the simulator.

After a couple of hours the first teams managed to get it working. After three hours or so around ten teams had it working. Five hours into the competition and pretty much every team had this part working. Except me.

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Discussing my app with a Ford engineer

It was very frustrating, and I was considering to give up. At one point I even stood up and started packing my stuff. Then I thought to myself, “All right, let’s try one more thing. If it doesn’t work, I am out of here.” As you can guess, that one last thing worked and I stuck around. I remember thinking how odd it would be if I ended up winning the hackathon after almost giving up. And odd it was!

The next time you are considering to give up, remember to consider the what if: What if I don’t give up and end up winning? Regardless of winning, what if something awesome comes out of it? You will only know if you don’t give up!

2. Sometimes going alone is the right choice

Teams could be composed of either one or two people. The vast majority opted to compete in two. I opted to go alone, and looking back I believe this decision helped me.

There is an African saying that goes like this, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

It makes sense, and I believe it suggests that you should go together in most situations. For instance, if you are building a company, you want it to go far, so getting other people aboard will be essential.

ford-hackathon-teams
The top 5 teams

On some specific situations, however, going fast is more important than going far, and I would argue that a hackathon is one of them. Since you have a very limited time frame to develop your project, being able to take all the decisions without having to discuss with other people can be an advantage.

I am not advocating that you should always compete alone. But I do believe that your team should be as lean and agile as possible, and this rule applies to most professional endeavors.

3. Ideas and plans still matter

As soon as the hackathon announcer said the competition was on, most teams opened up their laptops and started coding relentlessly. It felt like they picked the first idea that came to mind and started working on it, as if they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to complete the project otherwise. I know this because I had no intention of starting to code for the first hour, so I had time to observe.

Why did I have no intention of starting to code as soon as possible? Because I wanted to make sure I would pick the right idea, and that I would have a plan in place before I started working on it.

ford-president
Ford’s LATAM President

In the tech and startup scene it’s common to say that ideas are worthless, and that only execution matters. Secondly, most tech people preach a Ready-Fire-Aim approach, where getting to work as soon as possible is the only way to go.

I agree that execution is the most important aspect, but ideas do carry some weight, so spending some time on the idea conception phase can be worth your while. Similarly, I agree that moving fast and actually getting things done is paramount, but that doesn’t mean that you should skip the planning phase altogether.

4. Forget about PowerPoint. Focus on the speech

After the 24-hour development period, each team would have 5 minutes to make a presentation. Every single team spent the last two or three hours of the competition creating beautiful PowerPoint presentations. The slides were very beautiful. Some even looked professionally designed. I didn’t see anyone practicing the speech itself, though. In fact during the presentation many teams got lost in the middle of the pitch. Others went far over the allowed 5 minutes, and the judges made remarks about it.

daniel-scocco-ford-hackathon
The prize!

I adopted a different approach. My presentation was the only one that didn’t use slides (I only put the app logo on the screen while I talked). Instead of working on the slides, I spent the final two hours of the competition writing down and practicing what I would say.

First I wrote down the speech and made sure contained all the key points I wanted to make. Second, I edited it until I could deliver the speech in exact 5 minutes. Third, I rehearsed it over and over again. Initially to myself, but after a while I started asking random people if they would spare 5 minutes listening to my presentation.

Obviously I still got a little nervous when it was my time to present, but it flowed quite smoothly, as I knew exactly what I was going to say. I guess this made a big difference.

Summing Up

As I said before, it was an awesome experience. One that I will probably never forget about.

I was impressed with the organization of the event and with the level of professionalism that Ford brought to the table. It was by far the best hackathon I have been too. I also made a lot of friends, and got to network with great programmers.

Finally, I hope the tips above will help you in future hackathons!

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Comments

  1. Chorode says

    Hello Daniel – Congratulations on your win. Thank you for taking the time to putting down in words your experience, your thoughts and your analysis of what went into your winning the hackathon. I was wondering if you would be open about sharing any details about the technologies that you used in developing your app. Any information on frameworks, languages,platform etc is appreciated. Again, a nice write up and all the best in future hackathons.

    • Daniel Scocco says

      Hi Chorode, and thanks!

      I created the app on native Android (so Java). It’s the platform I am most familiar with. I am developing the server backend now, and I will probably be using either PHP or Python and MySQL to store the data.

  2. Jon Lee says

    I stumbled upon your blog via a seemingly unrelates Google search. From the article I read, the Ford hackathon, you seem to have a really informative and inspirational blog.

    I’m currently wrapping up my Computer Science degree after spending four years getting a Finance degree and working in an unrelated field for a few years.

    Blogs like yours give beginners, like myself, immense motivation. Thank you!

    Jon

    • Daniel Scocco says

      I am glad you like the content Jon, and good luck on your journey!

      If I can help in anyway, just let me know.

  3. Kyle says

    Great points. I agree with the speech being important. I think a great looking presentation makes it easier for the audience to understand what your talking about. That way if you slip up on a point people still understand.

    • Daniel Scocco says

      I agree. I guess it shouldn’t be “Forget PowerPoint” but rather “Use PowerPoint sparingly.”

  4. bivu says

    First of all, congratulations. Secondly, kudos on the decision to go solo on the competition: it might have been intimidating at first.
    Also, I have a couple of questions if you have time to answer.
    1) What did your app do exactly? Did you work on APIs provided by symlink to make something?
    2) I read about your $10000 a month blog where the primary revenue seems to come from membership fee. Is that $48 a month or a one-time $48 fee? Does it mean that $10000 is not a recurring revenue?
    Thanks a lot. I am also working on a startup myself and its really encouraging to read about successful and taleneted people such as yourself.

    • Daniel Scocco says

      Thanks bivu. Here you go:

      1. My app interacted with the simulator, using the provided AppLink APIs. For instance, upon connection to the car the app would give a welcome message to the user (both text and audio). Then it would start tracking the vehicle data, including average speed, GPS location, position of the acceleration pedal and so on. Finally it stored the data locally. That is what I managed to complete during the hackathon, and I am now further developing it.

      2. That site used to charge a monthly fee from members, so yeah it was $10000 in recurring revenues. After I while I stopped working actively on that site though, so now it makes a fraction of that money.

  5. Natan says

    Very nice indeed. What about the technical details of the event? How much time did everyone have, and what language was used to develop the app?

    Congratulations on your new car 🙂

    • Daniel Scocco says

      Thanks Natan.

      Competitors had 24 hours to develop their apps. You could use either Android or iOS as a platform, as there was an API provided for both of those.

      During the competition Ford provided several test benches that simulated the multimedia central of a car, so you could see and listen to your app actually working. There were many Ford engineers around help us, too.

      Finally, the apps were to be judged according to 3 criteria: innovation, use of technology and business model.

  6. says

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Daniel! I liked learning about your almost counterculture approach to the hackathon, and it’s awesome to see how it worked for you. It’s always good to have another perspective.

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