Sometimes during the Yarl IT Challenge, I dropped by the Junior hackathon. It took place at the same building that the more mainstream stuff was held in, and while university folk were pitching for million in funding, a lot of schoolchildren were doing something similar – albeit with less ambitious projects.
Among these, one in particular caught my eye: three students from Jaffna Hindu College pitching something called “INQURTIME” to a panel of judges. They had a rather impressive pitch – at first glance more professional than many presentations happening just next door. Much later, when the results came out, it turned out that they’d won the Junior hackathon – and earned some special attention from Dialog’s Ideamart team for their work.
However, at that particular point, I’d arrived too late to get the full gist of their pitch, so I invited them for a chat afterwards.
The Inquirtime team: from left to right, Gnanakeethan Balasubramaniam, Chandramouleesan Selvachandran and Sankeerthan Sivalingam. They, along with the others in this room, represent the next generation of coders, entrepreneurs and designers in an area that desperately needs more. Gnananakeethan is into web technologies and coding; Chandramouleesan is a designer by trade, a student who already runs a profitable design business parallel with his studies, and Sankeerthan is an up-and-coming marketer. Their project: a timetable system that uses SMS alerts to notify people.
“It stores the timetables, which can be edited, and it stores the details of students and it sends notifications to students on that timetable,” explained Gnanakeethan, giving me the Cliffnotes version of a pitch he’d already spun out earlier during the day. “Students can subscribe to specific teachers, and specific subject streams.”
It sounds a lot simpler than it is. The application, Gnanakeethan told me, was intended as an entry for the Young Computer Scientist competition. His inspiration was Esoft’s Jaffna branch, where he’d studied. There, timetable management was inconvenient: teachers would notify the students of the next class at the end of the session, and Gnanakeethan, never a very regular student, but sporadically trek over to the Jaffna branch to find classes cancelled or rescheduled. He became obsessed with finding a way around this.
The initial plan was to create a web interface, but then Ganakeethan came across the Dialog Ideamart API. He realized he could do the whole thing via SMS and USSD – and potentially reach more people by doing so. So, changing the direction of the project, he ploughed in.
And fell into difficulty. “It took me a month to learn what was inside the API, because it severely lacks user-oriented documentation,” he said. “I asked hSenid and others about it, and they confirmed that they’re working on it.” He realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. “I couldn’t hold do everything. Programming, graphics, marketing – I could only do one thing.“
He went to Chandramouleesan, who had started out with an arcane version of Photoshop and a bunch of online tutorials and turned it into a business, and to Sankeerthan, who had little interest in tech but knew his marketing inside out. They began work, completing some things just before the mark – in fact, the GUI was done just hours before the final pitch: Chandramouleesan had been up all night working on it. They say that, even with a barebones application, they weren’t able to showcase everything: they have much more functionality in there than they let on.
“We’re going to turn this into a business,” mulled Ganankeethan, who seemed the least reserved of the three. “It won’t work in schools, because of the formality of those institutions. You already have a timetable and you’re supposed to be at school anyway. Our target is private institutions and tuition centers. We’ve actually talked about this to Esoft: they’re keen on getting this software implemented in these institutions. One of the new features they asked us for is about sending reports and marks to the parents of students. They want such a solution – and the thing is we actually have this functionality inside this application, even the data, and all we need is a bit of coding.
“Which is why we told the judges that we don’t have something workable now,” he says. “It doesn’t scale right now. If a hundred students join, the whole thing breaks down and becomes inefficient. Soon it will be working without scale issues.”
As he detailed how they plan to make this all work – a private solution running on Ideamart, and enterprise solution running its own instances privately, licensing fees – I couldn’t help but wonder at these guys. A Photoshop artist who, working with older, outdated software, has to teach himself not to be outmatched; a self-confessed web coder who set out on his journey four years ago with a Joomla installation; and a marketer who’d determined to make it – and while others their age are presenting sites cobbled hastily together under an educational premise, these three are digging around in industrial codebases and pitching their work to big corporations. Perhaps they’ll succeed. Perhaps they won’t. Either way, the seeds have been sown.
Perhaps Jaffna’s Silicon Valley isn’t too far off after all.