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Hack the Virus - Building Software in Response to Crisis

Tony Scherba
May 1, 2020

We are dealing with a scary and sad time. The emotions and stress we are all experiencing has made it exceptionally hard to be creative and think about the future. Many of us are stuck fantasizing about “when things just go back to normal”.

While difficult to accept, the truth is that this crisis has happened and it's not going to "just go away". It's ok to be sad and scared - but in order to start the process of recovery, we need to tap into our creativity and use it to start solving the many problems we are now presented with. This is the only path forward to a hopeful future.

Last week, Marc Andreessen wrote “It’s Time to Build” making the call for a great mobilization in our country towards building on the other side of this crisis.

“Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building?”

I couldn’t agree more. But what does that mean for us right now, as software developers and designers, stuck at home sheltered in place?

Right now the prevailing messaging is “Stay Home”. At Yeti, we felt an obligation to be a part of the solution - we knew we had the tools and expertise to build- and the ability to do so while sheltering in place.

But the big question was, what can we build that will really make a difference?

hack the virus flyer

Hacking the Virus

In our industry a great way to kickstart ideas and begin the process of developing solutions is a “hackathon”. If you are not familiar, hackathons are events where developers and designers work furiously over the course of a given set of hours (~24 in this case) to develop prototypes on a specific subject.

There had already been several hackathons on the subject of “coronavirus” even spanning back to January but what we didn’t see in any of those was input and collaboration directly from experts.

Our experience has shown us that the ultimate success of anything we do requires a partnership that marries product development skill with deep knowledge in a specific subject area. This was glaringly absent in other COVID related hackathons.

livestream experts

Talking to the Experts

We decided the best thing to do would be to reach out to our network and find experts - people fighting on the front lines in different ways. We focused on 4 different areas we were grateful to have the chance to interview:

Medical Response Experts

Education Experts

Small Business Experts

At Home Health and Wellness

To get a good sense of what was going on in their respective fields, I spoke to each of these experts for about 30 minutes. Given the urgent needs of health professionals right now, Medical Response was the most obvious area to focus on. We also had some very insightful interviews with Education, Small Business and Wellness experts as well.

Lots of Problems, Lots of Opportunities

Outside of the medical concerns there is a whole ripple effect of problems that we are only now just starting to understand and realize.

Through these interviews we got a glimpse into a handful of the most obvious problem areas. We learned how it is affecting, not just hospitals, but also students, parents, small business owners of all types (restaurants, tourism, real estate, entertainment etc), and their employees -  and what some of the mental, emotional and health implications are for all of us.

A list of notes and takeaways can be found here.

Some of the most obvious takeaways:

hackathon kickoff

Let the Hacking Begin!

Software isn’t going to solve all the issues that were surfaced - however, given that many of them stem from an inability to interact in person, software is specifically well suited to be part of the solution, facilitating human interaction digitally.

Over 120 software developers and designers signed up for Hack the Virus. We’d never run a 100% virtual hackathon, but considering we’ve been getting pretty good at Slack and Zoom we figured out how to make it fun and interactive.

Upon signing up our participants got a link to a dossier outlining the “mission” including links to our expert interviews and hackathon rules. Expecting a bit of a drop off, we had 70+ developers join our Slack channel which we used as mission control.

Here we allowed teams to form organically. 10 different ideas were submitted at the onset - many struggled to form and get off the ground. At a midpoint checkin only 6 were still up and running, by the time we called for submissions, 5 were prepared to give demos.

During in-person hackathons we typically see  teams of 2-4 people organizing into teams to submit hacks. In this new, virtual, dynamic we saw fewer teams - but those teams were comprised 6-8 people. More on our takeaways from this later.

To kick things off, Steve Brown, “The Bald Futurist”, and I had a discussion from a macro perspective about the many ways that the current pandemic will alter our future. (kickoff video)

Demo Presentations + Winning Hacks

Teams worked through the night to create solutions to the problems presented by our experts. Senior designers and developers in Yeti’s network floated around the various Slack channels helping teams out.

On Sunday the teams gave demo presentations. What they built:

ReachCare was selected as the winner due to its immediate need and relevancy. Our panelists were actually shocked and wondering “Why does this not exist yet?”

We were incredibly impressed by the work these teams did and we applaud them for their efforts, opting to spend a weekend working towards building solutions rather than doing something like playing video games!

As a side note: following up from this hackathon I’ve been messaging my friends in government, telecommunications and healthcare. Nobody has been able to answer why a text message service like ReachCare does not exist other than “it’s nobody’s job”. Without much funding it could go live and help thousands of people in this crisis. If you know somebody who could help let us know. We are trying to figure out how to launch it through some sort of partnership.

winning celebration


This whole experience has left me with a few takeaways regarding building software in a post COVID world:

  1. People want to help. We’re all stuck at home wondering what we can do. Many of us have free time and are looking to put it towards something meaningful. We did very little marketing but still had well over 100 people sign up to commit their weekend to help.
  2. Building gives us hope. Having something that we are working on which helps the greater good gives our days meaning and focuses our energy on realizing other people just like us are out there building solutions to problems. Being in isolation we don’t see this as readily as we normally would.
  3. We need software solutions now more than ever. In just 2 weeks of interviewing folks, I was able to come up with hundreds of ideas for products and services that were needed.

    Software empowered technology is going to lead us out of this crisis - if it’s revealed that our in-person and physical systems are vulnerable. Without question, great companies, with new business models driven by software will be founded and built out of this crisis.
  4. Managing software development fully remote requires product leadership. In our hackathon we let teams freely form but observed how they were doing.

    We saw about 50% of the initiatives fail. What we observed was that the successful teams rallied around a shared vision quickly, communicated and checked in with each other often and had good management of their time in terms of realistically scoping succeeded and got to the finish line with results.

    This isn’t entirely surprising given that we manage our team remotely at Yeti but we’ve mostly all met each other in person at some point and it was surprising to see how quickly these team dynamics made a big difference. If you are managing software teams, make sure you have strong leadership. It’s really important.

Open Innovation Initiatives

The hackathon was a great way to kickstart some ideas, get them going and prove out the power of online collaboration for rapid software development. Now we are left with the question, where do we go from here?

  1. We are looking to get the hackathon prototypes live and publicly launched. We know from our experts that some of them can be helping people right now. If you know anybody with the power to sponsor a public launch of some of this software please let us know.
  2. Media likes bashing tech as an industry because there are billionaires out there not missing a payday but there are also a lot of software developers and designers laid off, just graduating and looking for work. We had many talented participants from demoing teams that are available (their linkedins are below).
  3. Seeing what worked and didn’t during our hackathon, Yeti is taking some of the many ideas from our experts and turning them into Open Innovation Initiatives as we work our way out of this crisis.

    These Open Innovation Initiatives will be structured as open source projects meant to address various aspects of this crisis that can be collaborated on when people have time to dedicate to the cause.

    The Yeti team will provide product management so participating teams can rally around a shared vision.

We will be continuing to bring in experts and talk about the various ways software can help with the problems we are facing.

We have a long way to go but every big journey starts with some uncertainty and one step out the door.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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