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My Hackathon Story

Product
Personal Growth

16 March, 2021

Sami Touil

Sami Touil

VP of Engineering at Onfido

Sami Touil, Senior Engineering Manager at Spendesk, recalls winning the Criteo hackathon and being able to pursue his passion project.

Problem

Criteo, a company I was working at, is famed for hosting an annual hackathon open to participants across the world. When I decided to apply, I was with the company for only a couple of months but was immensely excited to take part in an event so prestigious.

I reached out to a PM who was working on static ad retargeting and he told me about an idea to use video for retargeting. We were thrilled, and we managed to round up a few developers. We worked day and night for three days and came up with an incredibly impressive presentation. We were able to generate an animated video for retargeting ads using assets that could be provided by the full infrastructure. We won, and I was given an opportunity to build a team that would be able to develop our product.

Actions taken

First off, I reached out to a few people I thought would like to participate and started to build our new team. I couldn’t hire externally, but I was able to pick people from the company to join us. As I was already a manager -- though only for two months -- I couldn’t give up on my managerial responsibilities, and I had to add the additional scope.

Since we had already proved that our product was doable from a technical point of view, we had to prove that it was scalable and had business value. The first challenge we encountered was building an MVP. To do so, I had to convince leadership that our approach was the right to pursue, and unlike hackathons that were all about having fun, convincing leadership included some hard talk with people who asked for solid proofs.

The project’s kickoff was immensely stressful as I had to present our project to some rather important people. But I prepared well, anticipating their questions, and managed to deliver a persuasive presentation. It took us eight months to do an MVP; we tried it on some customers to make sure the metrics were good and that we could create the actual value for our business. Once we proved that, we were given three more developers to do a full scalable version that we wanted to deploy to all our customers.

From there, things went rather smoothly. We were adding features bit by bit, scaling steadily, and after a year and a half, we completed our latest version making a considerable profit. Furthermore, we did two patents around it, and the company had a profitable product that customers were excited about.

Lessons learned

  • You have to take it one step at a time. Our product evolved over time from the first JavaScript version written down in two days to an MVP, and later the full scalable one and the one that would fit different markets. You have to be prepared for incremental changes that will, in the end, make a big impact. Our original idea emerged in only one day during the hackathon and evolved following many versions and iterations, which made the project successful.
  • Oftentimes, a group of influential people would rally behind some projects, including executives, pushing for projects that do not always become successful. In my case, it was a group of passionate engineers with no initial support and anything other than their idea, and that made our product immensely successful. Franky, I am not sure if I would be able to invest myself the way I did if it was not my idea but something pushed by management. This was my baby; I was tremendously proud of it and wanted it to be successful.

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