Hackathons: where innovation goes to die

213 words • reading time 1 minute

Welcome to Hackathon season. University is a month in and the world’s hackathon’s kick off, sucking in thousands of engineers, business students and out-of-work mathematicians for nights of coding and ramen. Hackathons seem especially pronounced nowadays, particularly since that oh-so-viral Medium post. I even read a post that went as far as to suggest hackathons should replace college education entirely.

Okay, I’ll be the buzzkill douchebag.

Hackathons are a waste of time. The idea that wins a hackathon is likely no better than the one that comes in last place. Why? Because unless Paul Graham and Ron Conway are judging your hackathon, the ones picking winners are as good at predicting startup success as Cuba Gooding Jr.

Hackathons are where startups go to die. It’s a black hole where good ideas disappear. It’s a controlled, artificial environment that encourages endurance and stamina (see: Ramen noodles), instead of creativity and passion. Most importantly, it’s taking up valuable weekends. Imagine a startup ecosystem where group side projects were as prevalent as Hackathons. If all the thousands of bright people doing these competitions spent their weekends building products they actually gave a shit about, who knows where we’d be.

Stop doing hackathons. Spend your weekends building cool things. Do something productive that gives value. That’s it.

Macklemore is the anti-christ of racial equality

526 words • reading time 3 minutes

Macklemore is a mediocre rapper with a weird haircut and a distinct style akin to a tone-deaf person yelling.

He’s also the poster boy of an rapidly expanding racial dichotomy setting it’s roots in Western culture.

For the duration of it’s short history, rap music has been the most polarizing genre to hit the mainstream since Elvis first shook his moneymaker. More importantly, rap music has been the controversial flagship for a racial, cultural clash of the ages. Western culture’s shaky acceptance of rap music was a real-time reflection of increasingly perilous race relations in pop culture. Rap music was black music, after all.

Rap has always been a rendition of the struggle. From the days of Afrika Bambaataa, inner-city sidewalks played host to political discourse in the form of rapid, jargon-fueled rhythmic back and forths. Over the last twenty years, rap has experienced a transformation increasingly catering to a mainstream audience.

Not surprisingly, rap music had to lose it’s overly-political undertones to adequately integrate itself into mainstream culture. The struggle never left the music — it just became a lot more subtle, and entirely more sophisticated. In the early days of hip hop, Public Enemy was rather straightforward in it’s political commentary with “Fuck the Police”. Today, Kendrick Lamar puts out songs like “ADHD”, a striking look at the impacts of a generation’s obsession with escaism disguised as a college party song. Statement rappers have had to hide their commentary to adequate be accepted by the mainstream market.

And then comes Macklemore. An unsigned, sub-par artist who suddenly blew up in college dorms and suburban houseparties. At first he was a harmless artist putting out parody music like “Thrift Shop”.

And then, it all went to hell.

With the release of the song “Same Love”, Macklemore was heralded by popular culture as the saviour of “real hip hop”. In a world filled with drugs, money, bling and women, Macklemore was a breath of fresh air talking about things that really mattered. He could do no wrong. Where thousands of other rappers had failed, Macklemore broke the glass ceiling for political songs with a simple piece that effectively came down to “be nice to gay people”.

On reddit’s music subreddit – a community of nearly 3 million people – there are 7 posts with over 1,000 upvotes about Macklemore. By comparison, Eminem has 2, Kanye West has 2, Jay-Z has 3 . Tupac Shakur has none.

Macklemore is a mediocre, white rapper who grew up in the suburbs and is being heralded by pop culture as the greatest that rap has to offer, and the only rapper to offer meaningful political commentary. In doing so, pop culture has made a startling statement that it is decidedly white-centric. Macklemore single-handedly demolished the illusion of racial equality in popular music.

For better or for worse, mainstream media, culture and entertainment are still the proprietory domain of White America. By selecting an untalented, unsophisticated artist who happens to be caucasian as the best representation of a genre born from the Black struggle, popular culture has made a statement that will have definitive ramifications in the future of race relations.

What's your genius?

944 words • reading time 5 minutes

Albert Einstein once said something about geniuses. And fish and trees, and some other things. I think there was something about a girl and an oven too. Anyway.

When I was young, I used to be really insecure about my intelligence. I would take dozens and dozens of IQ tests to get some validation that I was intelligent. I read a lot of articles on physics and theoretical math despite not understanding anything. I rationalized evidence against my genius (i.e crappy grades) by dismissing it as a product of my laziness (after all, all geniuses are lazy). Any time I saw someone my age excelling at any intellectual pursuit, I would obsess over it. Instead of working to get to their level, I’d find rationalizations to bring them down to my level.

My pursuit of genius eventually lead me to a program called Engineering Science at the University of Toronto. Those unaware of the program, it annually pulls in 200-300 of North America’s academic elite (~94% admission) average, and puts them through a program with such rigor it’s been compared to an MIT graduate program. By 2nd year, while other engineering programs were learning basic differential equations and compsci 101, Engineering Science students were learning Quantum Physics and building a fully-autonomous robot. This program was the ultimate opportunity – a chance for me to prove my worth.

Once my freshman year started, I hit the ground running – right into a brick wall. My dreams of becoming a fabled Physicist all but disappeared after scoring a 38% on my first Physics mid-term. Don’t get me wrong, everyone struggled in EngSci – but my struggle was on a different level. After my first semester in Engineering Science, I was near the bottom of my class, 0.4% away from failing out of first year entirely. My grades dropped 40% from high school. I became a hermit, spending most of my time in my room not doing anything particularly productive. Second semester came, and was somehow even worse. My already border-line average dropped some more. I was literally 0.2% away from failing out of first year. To this day I don’t know how I made it.

My first year taught me a couple of things:

1) I wasn’t nearly as intelligent as I thought I was, much less what I wish I was
2) The people who excelled in my program weren’t just smart, they were workhorses

At the end of my first year, I switched into a different program – Industrial Engineering. The program was significantly easier, and my grades flew up 20-30% without any added effort. I was on cloud 9, things were looking up. Much like high school, I absorbed content and could solve problems faster than most of my peers. I was convinced that I finally hit my stride. The genius was back.

But at the back of my mind, there was a lingering doubt. The doubt that I failed. The doubt that EngSci had beaten me.

In my second semester of my sophomore year, things turned south again. My grades once again plummeted — although the content was nowhere near as difficult as EngSci, my interest in school was marginal at best. I stopped attending class. That’s when I started on a period of intense personal growth that only recently culminated, the details of which I won’t go into.

At some point, a switch flipped in my head. I didn’t care about being smart anymore. I didn’t care if I was the dumbest person in the room. The insecurities that had plagued me for damn near 7 years had disappeared, and I barely noticed. I had experienced complete and utter failure, my ego had taken everything it could’ve possibly taken, and I was still alive and unscathed. It was a daunting realization.

After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, the following things happened over the next few months:

1) I launched a startup with a few friends. We got a bit of money for it.
2) I started a software engineering internship at an extremely high growth startup, ClassDojo in San Francisco. I was one of the few people in my year that got a solid internship.

Everything changed after that. I had become a different person. I no longer cared about my resume, or my grades, or my intelligence. People’s perception of me mattered less and less. I knew who I was. I knew I sucked at math. I knew my GPA was embarassingly low (<2.0) by conventional standards. I knew I was a mediocre programmer. I knew that any resume I sent out would hit the trashpile or the shredder, whichever was closer.

I also knew that I was a hustler.

I knew that I always had a ridiculous ambition. I knew that if you put me on a stage with a projector, I’d sell ice to an eskimo. I knew that I could learn shit fast, and had an incurable curiosity for things. I recognized all of my weaknesses, and I took an intense pride in my strengths. I gained a quiet confidence and self respect that I never had, and the people around me noticed. For the first time in my life, I had the respect of my peers.

I’m not a genius, and to be honest, I don’t want to be. It sounds like too much pressure. I’m a smart guy with an insatiable love for ideas, and an inherent sense of product. Embrace your failures. Embrace your weaknesses, and take pride in your strengths. Figure out what your genius is, and be that person to the thousandth degree.

Life isn’t worth being something you’re not.

What's a product?

449 words • reading time 2 minutes

I hear the word product a lot.

Everybody likes talking about what a product is. Product design, product management, product marketing — I recently met someone who describes themselves as a “product sentinel”. I have no idea what that means. Behind all these words thrown around, the basic meaning of a “product” got lost somewhere in a mess of buzzwords and jargon.

When you’re launching a startup, product is the most important thing. Not revenue, not investors, not even your customers. Your product is the culmination of every design decision you make in the days, weeks and months leading up to your MVP launch. A startup without a product is an agency with shitty job security. It’s the difference between Air BnB and your local bed and breakfast. It’s the difference between Uber and Uncle Al’s shuttle service.

A product is a self-encapsulated set of decisions and asks that can be replicated and scaled to any extent. Uber can take their fundamental model and deploy in any city in the world without fail. They may have to make logistic changes to match the local market conditions and bylaws, but the fundamental model wouldn’t change. By contrast, if Aunt Edna wants to start a new bed and breakfast in a neighbouring city, it’s likely going to be completely different from her first one, catering to a completely different demographic.

If she choses, however, to duplicate the exact same Bed & Breakfast – the same name, colour scheme, furniture, architecture, etc.) – then she’s got herself a product.

If your service’s pitch changes from company to company, it’s not a product. If your model has to change as it scales, it’s not a product. Google Search is the exact same product with 2 billion users as it was with 2 thousand. That’s the beauty of startups, and the reason everyone and their uncle has tried to launch one over the last 10 years — products can grow extremely fast. Because you don’t have to manually scale up your service like a brick & mortar business, you have room for extraordinary growth the likes of which has never been seen in enterprise history.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen first hand examples of companies that operate like a startup but are agencies at their core. The long hours, rockstar talent and insurmountable growth that have characterized succesful startups in the past are all accessible to any company, provided there’s an overemphasis on product. Every single person in the company needs to know the core product inside out.

Otherwise, you’re an agency, and you’ll have to settle for a best case scenario of a loft in Manhattan, living and dying by quarterly growth and consumer sentiment.