The Story Behind Smart India Hackathon

If you are a student with potential but do not belong to the best of colleges, SIH gives you an opportunity to get noticed by leading companies
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The year 2017 saw the first edition of the Smart India Hackathon (SIH) being launched. Introduced by the Ministry of Education (MoE), SIH gives an opportunity to students (especially engineering students) to come up with innovative ideas and solutions to problems posed by corporates, PSUs, and NGOs. 

Except 2021, SIH has been conducted successfully for four years now, the latest being the SIH 2022, in which students across the country participated. An interesting new addition to this year’s edition was the Smart India Hackathon – Junior, for younger children.

Analytics India Magazine caught up with Dr Anand Deshpande, founder, managing director, and chairman of Pune-based Persistent Systems, who is also one of the architects of the initiative.

The SIH origin story

“We have been conducting hackathons at Persistent Systems for over 15 years now. But it was the hackathon held in 2015-16 at Pune, where we got a few government officials, students, a few of our own employees, and external participants. Conducting the competition at such an extravagant scale was impressive. It gave us the confidence to be more ambitious. In fact, my colleague Abhay Jere, who now works with the Ministry of Education, suggested that we try this hackathon at a national level,” said Dr Deshpande.

For the first year, the national-level hackathon was bootstrapped. At that point, the company sent requests to several engineering colleges through AICTE, which resulted in the strong participation of 15,000 students. PM Modi was also invited as a guest. Dr Deshpande told us that PM Modi, who interacted with the participating students, was particularly impressed with the whole setup, scale, and motivation behind this hackathon. Thanks to the push from the Prime Minister, this whole hackathon idea started getting bigger. “The Prime Minister would ask when the next hackathon is scheduled,” said Dr Deshpande.

Dr Deshpande’s colleague Abhay Jere brought the government and the company together to launch the hackathons on a national level. This year’s hackathon had 300,000 participants from across the country. “I am happy to see that an initiative that germinated out of our company has now become a nationwide movement for innovation,” said Dr Deshpande.

He also said that SIH is a large-scale initiative, with several government departments, companies and volunteers participating by way of posing problem statements, sponsoring the prize money, evaluating the solutions, or guiding the participants.

Sowing seeds of innovation

“SIH is not just a technology platform, it is more of a grassroots movement getting students excited about innovation,” explained Dr Deshpande.

For SIH, 25-30 government departments and industry bodies together come up with problem statements that are broad and open-ended. AWS is the preferred platform where participants can work out and store their solutions. Interestingly, among the solutions submitted at SIH, AI and machine learning are the most popular, technology-wise.

Speaking about the real motivation and goal of SIH, Dr Deshpande said, “What is built as code in a hackathon doesn’t necessarily become a startup or will get deployed. Only a small fraction of that will happen. But it’s a great place for idea generation and creating energy among students.”

It is no secret that hackathons are candidate-hunting grounds for many companies. SIH, in this regard, is no different. Elaborating on this, Dr Deshpande said that companies often find it interesting to recruit people from the hackathon as it demonstrates that the students have the capability to think ‘broader and bigger.’

“This is especially true for students studying in tier-2/3 colleges where it is very difficult to reach companies. So, if you are a student with potential but do not belong to the best of colleges, SIH gives an opportunity to get noticed by leading companies,” said Dr Deshpande.

Moreover, select teams with winning solutions are also nurtured in incubators to be hived off as separate startups. But according to Dr Deshpande, it is not the ultimate goal. “Startups need longer time and money. I think a student project should not necessarily be forced into becoming a startup. But I do think SIH is a good start to build an idea, but to build a robust product would require a lot of thought and strategies.”

Coding as a spectator sport?

India is a sports-loving country. While cricket grabs the biggest chunk of attention, there are other sports like football, tennis, and badminton, which find many takers. Now, what would you think if you were given the option to consume programming/coding as a sport? 

This is what Dr Deshpande told AIM when asked about his next mission.

I’ve been on a mission to get techies in India to be proud of their craft. I feel, we are not able to identify who our top techies are, and don’t let techies take centre-stage. It’s all managers and management. Hardcore coders are not valued; we don’t do enough to get them excited. I’m passionately exploring ways to make programming a spectator sport

Dr Anand Deshpande, founder and chairman, Persistent Systems

He further explained that if cooking shows can draw so many viewers, why not coding? “Nobody would have imagined spectators for cooking 20 years ago, but today cooking has become a spectator sport. So, I’m really trying to figure out how to get the hackathons or these kinds of programmes to become spectator sports in some sense,” he added.

Dr Deshpande is already brainstorming with the Association of Computing Machinery to move it from the ideation stage to execution. Sounds exciting!

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