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