code breaking

India’s top hackathon winner did not go to an IIT (or any other name brand school)

Ravi Suhag has won 14 of the 16 hackathons he has participated in over the last four years, a winning rate of 88%.

A farmer’s son who did not own a computer until college has become the toast of India’s hackathon scene.

Now a prominent face in the circuit, Ravi Suhag has made it a habit of sorts to win hackathons, where programmers from different fields – students, employees, hobbyists – get together to code over a short period of time. Each event usually has a prescribed challenge that coders solve over, say, 48 hours, either individually or in small groups.

So far, Suhag has won 14 of the 16 hackathons he has participated in over the last four years, coming out on top at events organised by companies such as Sequoia and Times Internet, among others.

“My winning rate is 88% in hackathons, which is [the] best as far as I know,” Suhag told Quartz. And that is a key marker of success in an industry the 27-year-old simply could not break into in the traditional academic sense.

Small town, big dreams

As a child, Suhag spent the first half of his schooling years at a Hindi-medium village school in Jhajjar, Haryana, where both faculty and facilities were subpar. But in the seventh grade, when his father came home with a new gadget, a combination of an FM radio and a tape recorder, Suhag discovered a budding interest in electronics.

“I broke down the entire thing and the pieces were here and there. I couldn’t assemble it back. I thought ‘My dad is going to kill me’,” he recalled. “After studying for a few months, I assembled it back and it started working.” After that, Suhag would continue tinkering with all sorts of electronics – lights, radios, speakers – in a locked room.

In the ninth grade, he switched to an English-medium school, where he initially struggled to get comfortable with the language. After the first six months, though, Suhag began getting top marks in physics, and by the time he hit the 12th grade, like many other young Indians, he had set his sights on attending one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. This despite the fact that his computer knowledge was limited to the likes of Microsoft Paint, and he had only ever seen a computer at school, and never owned one himself.

Suhag studied by candlelight, snatching sleep between 10 pm and 2 am. Because of his village’s spotty internet, he moved to rented accommodation that he shared with two other boys, and spent what little free time he had listening to a fixed playlist of late 2000s Bollywood hits. Everyone – his family, his tutors, and even Suhag himself – was confident that he would ace the competitive exam.

But in a surprising turn of events, this was not the case. “My mind went blank on the exam day,” Suhag said. “I couldn’t clear the IIT exam.”

He was crushed by the results, and spent the next few months solemn and solitary.

“My parents never said ‘you couldn’t do it’ but I could feel that I failed really badly here,” he said.

Beyond the grades

Suhag did manage to get into another engineering college – Kamrah Institute of Information Technology in Gurugram, which does not even feature in the top 100 engineering colleges in the country – where he went on to become the ideal student once again. But over time, he realised that it would take a lot more than just good grades to really set himself apart from the crowd.

So, while still in college, Suhag founded his own consulting firm, Inspiration Edge, using the money he saved by conducting tuition classes on the side. He also started borrowing books from the college library to teach himself design and coding, skills that would come in handy in the future.

Today, Suhag works at ride-hailing platform GoJek, and runs his profitable private venture alongside. He is also a consultant at the Evidence for Policy Design at Harvard University, where he works with various rural ministries to reduce delays in making digital payments to workers. And ever since his first brush with hackathons during an early stint as a web developer in Gurugram in July 2013, Suhag has been making a name for himself in coding, too.

“I can say that he’s won more hackathons in India than anyone I’ve heard of or come across,” Eric Dodge, the data analytics lead at the Evidence for Policy Design, told Quartz. “When he started working with us in 2014 he had won maybe seven or so – that definitely didn’t hurt him in the hiring process, but the main thing that impressed me was how eager he was to get down to the details of a project and start building something. I’m sure that plays a role in his hackathon successes as well.”

Earlier this year, Suhag received an award at an event organised by the office of the president of India, the Festival of Innovation, for his work in digitising entry into public monuments by creating a web platform and mobile app to replace manual ticket checkpoints.

“My uncle called my dad saying, ‘Congratulations! Ravi got an award from the president’, and my dad and mom thought it was a usual hackathon and said, ‘He wins every two months’,” Suhag said.

While that is proof that not attending a top institution does not have to limit your career, Suhag believes there is a lot more that can be done to create more success stories like himself.

“For most of us, you never get the opportunity. You get into [a] bad college, the bad college has bad teachers, they don’t encourage you. It’s hard for people to come out of that,” he said. “All the good faculty goes to the IITs. The way it should work is that smaller colleges should have better professors... there, students need much more attention and encouragement, and exposure.”

But he hasn’t figured out how to hack that yet.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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