Break the Banks — The inaugural TransferWise NYC Hackathon

The Hackathon participants gather at the Wall St’s Charging Bull.
By Alvar Lumberg, TransferWise Engineering Lead.

It’s 9.30 on a sunny, chilly Sunday morning and there’s a little mob gathered around Wall St’s Charging Bull.

The ever-present police patrol eyes it with bemusement — in their view a hundred geeks wielding plastic coffee cups and diet sodas can’t pose much threat.

We grab some space near the Bull. A few early bird tourists frame their shots to keep the family in, and the sleepy hackers out of their photos. Policemen wonder.

The chilly Sunday is December 6th 2015 and people standing at the landmark are participants of the first Break The Banks NYC hackathon, organised by TransferWise and partners. They’re somewhat red-eyed from the 36 hours of working non-stop and increasingly anxious about the nearing conclusion of the hackathon: pitching time. They have a jury to face, but apart from a few souls staying behind to iron out bugs and polish pitch decks, most have come outside to listen to Matt Trudeau from well-known stock market disruptor IEX.

Founded by Brad Katsuyama (of Flash Boys fame), IEX opened in December 2013 to bring transparency and honesty to stock trading. I’m standing in the back, humbled by the familiarity of the story — the story of a true pioneer taking on the status quo in a market even more regulated than the international money transfers that TransferWise is tackling.

It’s easy for me, a TransferWiser, to relate to what Trudeau is saying. As a matter of fact, this is why we started Break the Banks. The similarity of the stories, the opaqueness TransferWise and IEX are clearing only prove that these opportunities exist in all corners of banking. There are many paths towards fairer finance and one company cannot take them all. We think it’s our duty to get others started on their paths. People are finding more and more new ways to use technology to undercut prices and remove waste from finance.

It’s easier than ever to carve out the next new vertical from some opaque concept formerly known as “banking”. Payments have already received a lot of attention. Current accounts? It will be hard but there are ways to do it very well. Asset management? There’s a team working in that very field at Break the Banks. Just like yesterday’s financial services, the one’s built tomorrow will enable other industries. The difference? Now that cruft and waste are being removed, not only do familiar services become cheaper but new ones become possible.

Matt Trudeau telling his story on Wall St.

Matt Trudeau finishes his inspiring story and we get back to work. We’re hosted by WeWork in their Charging Bull coworking space and it’s been great to see the diversity among their tenants.

Our 13 hackathon teams, formed out of about 100 participants, have very different products and services in mind. One team is researching a lending platform for eSports pros and setting up an analytics dashboard. Another is in the final stages of building a virtual keyboard that allows users to send money through any IM app. A third has done solid homework on how to offer fair exchange rates when paying for your Amazon purchases in a foreign currency, and their developers are adding some finishing touches to their prototype.

Once the pitches start it’s great to see what a team of 6–8 smart people can get done in just a short weekend if they’re united behind a cause. 2 hours and 13 pitches later the jury announces two runner-ups and the winner.

ChaChin, the virtual payment keyboard team gets the first of the runner-up prizes — “Hackers of Wall Street”.

The judges were impressed by the teams ability to build a fullblown working prototype over the weekend, consisting of a virtual iOS keyboard and backend with 2 payment methods integrated. I spent some time with the team over the weekend and can vouch for the energy. On top of being great coders, the team also made an effort to chat with mentors and learn a lot.

ForX, the Amazon gift card crew, gets called up as our second runner-up — the “Hustlers of Wall Street”.

They’d built a solid proof-of-concept prototype of their service too, but won the hustler prize hands down for sneaking their way into Amazon’s checkout system. Their solution offers a way to buy the needed amount of USD cheaper via a dynamically created gift card. They also confidently said they actually knew it could work. Great job!

Pitching in progress.
The winner really surprised everybody by showing us a market where many people couldn’t have imagined one to exist.

Cronopio provides credit to eSports pros — a market where many people make loads of money, but need credit to visit high profile competitions and buy new gear.

Cronopio built a model for estimating future income of players, essentially providing them with a credit score based on subscriber count for their video feeds, past competition performance and other criteria. Gamers rejoice, Cronopio is here to rocket-jumpstart your careers!

There’s also a prize for the best use of the Yodlee API, won by Budgeteer.

Budgeteer is a simple, no-nonsense virtual accountant for the millennial — with live feeds of your actual balances and expenses.

The work is done, but it’s not the end — many teams have promised to keep going. We take a group photo and the participants melt into a buzzing, weary and happy crowd. The first ever Break the Banks NYC was over, but it won’t be the last.

As I leave the venue for JFK airport with my fellow developer Chris, and step through the brass revolving door of Broadway 25 I cannot help but revel in the symbolism of it all. It felt a little bit like showing valiant knights of the Jedi a way into the heart of the Death Star — the blocks of concrete, steel and glass embodying the heart of finance, ruled by people in ornate thrones. People believing that what took them into the 21st century will also keep them safe from it.

The geeks will prove them wrong. Onwards.

By Alvar Lumberg — TransferWise Engineering Lead. Follow him on Twitter at @alvarlumberg.

For more Ideas from the TransferWise team — check out our Medium Publication here: TransferWise Ideas.

For more from the TransferWise Engineering team, follow us on Twitter @tw_engineering.