The low points in our lives can break us. Or make us.
In the fall of 2014, Max Macaro, a student from small town in Siberia, was right up against it. From a young age he’d had big tech dreams. He’d learned English through a mail-order program, taught himself coding, been accepted into an accelerator program and now, at age 22, found himself working at a tiny startup in San Mateo, CA.
But things had gone sideways. The startup had burned through its funding. It was broke. So was Max. Living on Corn Flakes and pilfered containers of coffee cream, he was literally days away from having to scrap his Silicon Valley aspirations and head back to his Russian hometown with his tail between his legs.
Then someone in his workspace tossed out a crumb. A bit of hope. One word: hackathon. A prestigious one called TopCoder 14 was coming up next week in San Francisco.
A hackathon is the ultimate Big Day for young tech entrepreneurs. Typically, teams are thrown together to solve some creative challenge under a crushing deadline. Your mission is to create something in a day that never before existed — whether that’s a new app or a new business model. Facebook’s “like” button was hatched in a hackathon. So was the taxi-hailing app EasyTaxi. So was the original incarnation of Twitter.
And oh yes: there’s prize money. In this case $10,000 to the winning team in the design division. It was a crazy long shot, but at this point crazy was all Max had.
He approached a couple other students in his program. One was a young Bulgarian man named Vichod who had some experience with hackathons (he’d been part of a team that actually won one). It was Vichod’s last week in the Bay Area. He figured, Why not go out with a big swing?
They completed the team with a guy from Toronto named Hubert. And the three of them huddled up to summon some underdog mojo.
Immediately, they faced their first hurdle. The entry fee was $400. As if. But there was a back-door way in. You could prove you belonged by solving a series of tricky programming challenges.
The lads went for it. They solved the puzzles. They were in.
November 9, 2014.
On the convention centre floor, Max recognized some of the other coders. Like him, they’d emerged from the competitive programming community. But they were all way more experienced. Max et al felt like pikers. Still, they were here, and they had to believe they had a chance.
At TopCoder you spin a wheel to get randomly connected with the corporate sponsors you’ll be developing your app for. Max et al got HP Idol OnDemond, Amazon & Salesforce. A lucky turn.
So what’s your idea? they were asked.
It was Max’s idea, but Hubert was the words man so he framed it up. It’s a personalized television experience that you access through your phone, he explained. But instead of TV shows, you surf content on platforms like YouTube and Spotify. “Television without advertisements showing the content you love!”
Cool, the reps said. Does it have a name?
“Yes!” Hubert said. “It’s called, um … The super-amazing endless infinite stream of awesomeness.”
Not to put too fine a point on it.
At a TopCoder hackathon you don’t have to work on site. So Max and Vichod and Hubert caught a BART train to San Mateo and, as darkness fell, they set to work.
Vichod started creating a data set. Max showed him how to scrape content from a public database of tens of thousands of Googleable videos and songs and shows that you, the app’s user, could choose from. Hubert began working on the design and the site. Max was already feverishly writing code.
They worked through the night.
At ten minutes before the 9am deadline for the finished proposal, Vichod pushed “send.” Then they bagged a couple hours’ sleep on sofas.
They woke up to an email. “Congratulations: you made the Top 10! Feel free to work on your app to make it even more awesome before your demo tomorrow!”
High-fives all around. But now it was time for the real crush.
In a way, Max had been preparing for this moment all his life.
In eighth grade, his teacher one day announced an exciting opportunity to learn English quickly; you paid an up-front sum to this company, and in return they’d ship you through the mail, biweekly, CDs and workbooks that you completed. The prize for the best student was a trip to Hawaii.
A free trip to Hawaii sounds pretty good to anyone. When you’re a teenager living in Siberia, it’s damn near the Holy Grail. Max worked like a mule on the Erie Canal. He aced the program. He allowed himself to entertain thoughts of palm trees and toe-tickling surf. Then one day the teacher came in looking glum. Turned out the guy offering the program had been arrested. He was a con man. There was no trip to Hawaii. The work was never going to be graded. The guy was just collecting everyone’s money. And now he’s busted. Sorry.
The way Max looks at it, he didn’t get the trip to Hawaii but he got something that lasts longer than a tan: proficiency in English. And that had been his entrée into the canon of business books he devoured, and which shaped his ambitions. When you view life this way, there’s really no way to lose. Crises are opportunities, and setbacks have silver linings.
Back in San Mateo, the musketeers beavered away on the prototype. They realized they wouldn’t be able to quite realize the wildly ambitious scope of the original idea, so they scaled it back a little.
At 4am, Hubert checked in on Max. Howzitgoin?
“It’s gonna work,” Max assured him. “I just need to polish it.”
Vichod and Hubert caught a few z’s. Max kept going. He fuelled himself with water and the occasional chomp of beef jerky. He was exhausted but also stoked. Teetering on the edge of just-manageable difficulty, he repeated to himself: “My whole life has conditioned me to deadlines and execution. I love stressful situations and impossible challenges.”
Time ticked toward the 9am deadline. Max kept tinkering and tweaking. As the BART train rattled back to the convention centre, he sat hunched over his laptop. He was getting close, but they had to demo the app in, like, two hours, and it still wasn’t working.
The presentations unfolded. A vast ballroom full of teams of bleary-eyed developers. The judges looking down from an elevated stage, like Gods on Parnassus.
Max’s team was up in thirty minutes. Twenty. Ten.
With five minutes to go, Max cracked the nut. The thing worked.
The team strode up onto the stage. Vichod handed the remote control, McGyvered from a cel phone, to the judges. He launched into the pitch. Max was so nervous he thought the judges weren’t hearing Hubert’s words — but that was only because the sound system was directed at the crowd. So Max kept interrupting Hubert while he was talking, basically repeating what he just said.
The judges passed the remote around. They logged on to the Internet through it and surfed over to various YouTube channels. Clips appeared on the big screen. You could have heard a bead of flopsweat drop.
The hackathon was soon over. The judges conferred in the next room. Then they returned and started announcing the winners.
As they counted down from eighth place, Max and the lads were dismayed not to hear their names. Not fourth, not third, not second. The last slide announced first place.
Holy no-more-CornFlakes, Batman. Max and Hubert and Vichod had won.
(l to r: Max, Hubert and Vichod)
At the after-party, the competitors mingled with industry veterans. Engineers from SpaceX and Tesla and Google played ping pong with the up-and-comers. One of the TopCoder founders quietly took Max aside. “There’s no way you developed this in two days,” he said. “You must have had in in the can, right?”
(“I was actually a little bit offended,” Max recalls, “because we’d worked so hard.”)
A former TopCoder champion from Eastern Europe engaged Max in some chitchat. Max admitted, “I thought I would never be like these people. “Well, you don’t need to be like them,” the guy said. “None of them would have been able to do what you just pulled off.”
In some ways, the cash prize is the least of the benefits for winning a hackathon.
These competitions reveal the skills and the character of the participants. How well and efficiently can you collaborate with colleagues? The pressure is itself a litmus test: if you excel under these conditions, very little in the working world is going to faze you.
In the days following, Max was flooded with attention by venture-backed companies. Executives from Facebook, 8tracks and many more companies invited him to lunch. The chief technical officer of Open Table offered him a job on the spot. Max soaked up all he could from these experienced tech insiders.
And then he turned them all down.
That’s because, fundamentally, Max is not a joiner. He is a founder.
“My number one goal, and it has been for a decade, is to build and launch a successful company from scratch, myself.”
After the hackathon, Max returned to Russia and worked remotely for another startup with a big idea: it was basically Airbnb for apartment sublets. That company got bought, and Max moved to work in Bali for a while — a proxy for the Hawaii he was denied by the con artist. He now lives in Vancouver, where he’s working on an app he believes will streamline the publishing process for academics.
And that app he cooked up for the Hackathon? In retrospect it was pretty visionary. A little bit like TikTok, come to think of it. “Maybe I should have pursued it,” Max says with a chuckle.