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Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.

How 14 YC companies answered the "Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage." question from the YCombinator Application.

14 answers / 111 words on average / Obsolete question
Problem solving is a key skill for founders. Demonstrate that you can think outside of the box to overcome obstacles.

"Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage." — 14 answers

Relationship Hero(S17)

Full application

Liron Shapira – In 2012, when my company Quixey was struggling to find great engineers to hire, I spotted an arbitrage opportunity: Recruitment costs per engineer were upwards of $20k, yet $100 is a lot of money to a college student. Ergo, we could afford to pay 200 college students $100 if it yielded us 1 great full-time engineering hire. This led me to invent the Quixey Challenge, a tough 1-minute online coding challenge that anyone could play which instantly paid out $100 to winners, and then asked if they might be interested in applying to Quixey. We ran it a few times, usually hitting the front page of HN. For a total of $70k, we were able to hire 7 great engineers plus build excitement for our engineering brand. Lior Gotesman – I graduated college in the middle of the market crash in 2009 with an Economics degree. Finding a career-building job felt like an insurmountable task. For the first time, the college-to-career system that’s been ingrained in my mind since elementary school seemed fundamentally broken. Going against conventional wisdom, I decided to pursue a programming career without any formal education. Since this was before coding bootcamps existed, I studied it all on my own and with Liron’s guidance. Last year, I was promoted to Senior Software Developer at Full Circle Insights. I hacked the career system that relied on having a formal education by teaching myself how to program and ignoring the part of job descriptions that say a computer science degree is required.


Full application

I've been on holiday most weeks this summer, thanks to micro‐adventures. A micro‐adventure is an adventure between 6pm and 9am. Head out of work, grab friends and jump on a train, in one hour reach wilderness. Hike, make a fire, cook, watch the stars in your bivi as you fall asleep beside the glowing embers. Arrive at work on time next morning. You're a tiny bit disheveled, but are relaxed, triumphant and feel you've just had a whole weekend.


Full application

In 2011, I used math to help end the decades-long political disadvantage that my party had among immigrants to Canada. (To use an American comparison, imagine if the majority of the African American community voted for the next Republican candidate for President.) My party had lost 10 out 13 elections since the 60’s because we kept losing the votes of immigrants. In 2011, we reversed that trend, won the immigrant vote, and handed our opposition their biggest defeat in history.


Full application

Due to a weird California law, I couldn't apply for a real estate license since I dropped out of MIT and hadn't earned a college degree. I was told I'd need to earn my degree or spend two years as an apprentice. Neither of those options worked for me since I was busy with So, I found a way to get a brand new Bachelor's degree by spending just four weeks on actual coursework. I now hold a degree in Information Technology (basically just how to install Windows). The loophole was to use a competency‑based online university (take the test, pass the class, repeat) rather than a semester‑based university. Amusing side note: I am both an MIT dropout and a college graduate.

One Month(S13)

Full application

In February I spent a month in Buenos Aires working on a book about growth hacking. I was afraid about starting with a blank slate. So the day before I left, I organized a 3-hour lecture and promised anyone who attended a free copy of my book when it was done. I recorded the session and paid someone on Elance to transcribe the audio into text ($200). The day I arrived in Buenos Aires I opened my email to find a 140-page transcription of my talk. It was beautifully formatted, with "Um"s and "Uh"s removed. Over the course of the month I extended the content to create a 250-page manuscript. Wiley emailed me out of the blue because they're looking for authors to write a book about growth hacking (my name shows up on the first page of Google search results) and I'm in talks with Wiley and a few literary agents, though I'm strongly considering self-publishing instead.

Standard Treasury(S13)

Full application

When I started in Newark, I didn't have a computer or an email, and City Hall didn't have wireless. So I tracked down one of the wireless networks I could find - owned by a bails bondsman close to the court, and negotiated with them for their wireless password. I once spent hours looking at floorplans and historic housing lottery data so that my roommate and I could pick a HUGE double with our own bathroom despite having a terrible pick at Brown.


Full application

Nancy wanted to work in the Middle East but there wasn’t a culture of internships. Nancy discovered if she didn’t mention she was just a sophomore she could interview as a consultant (and get a company car and phone). She was the first student ever hired for Mercury’s R&D office in Israel (a load testing company acquired by HP). At Google, Jeremy became an expert in free travel. After getting on shortlists for university recruiting, he positioned himself as a datacenter expert and visited many across America. After targeting developer relations, Jeremy got on the shortlist for places like Moscow, Berlin, Manila, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyo, giving talks, meeting partners, and exploring- all for free.


Full application

Travis (beambot): I got 5 professors to sign off on my dissertation. Seriously, it was the most difficult part of a PhD. It took 6 months just to get them in a room together. Fei (bebefuzz): In grade school, I made money by selling rosewater and chives door to door, and (redacted, sorry). David (dmohs): In high school, I received a ticket for not stopping at a stop sign before the intersection. I took pictures from various distances and proved to the judge, mathematically, that it would have been impossible to stop earlier than I did. The ticket was thrown out.

Make School(W12)

Full application

My iPhone's lock button was broken, so the screen would never turn off and the resulting poor battery life made the phone useless. I wrote a simple app that activated the proximity sensor, so when I slipped the phone in my pocket the screen went black. This software fix to a hardware problem restored the phone's battery life and saved me $600.


Full application

We used a comedy twitter account to get meetings with tech superstars who wouldn't have returned our emails. In the week before our YC interview, we started @YC_Y_U_NO as a joke with the tech community and ended up featured on TechCrunch -- and more importantly (coupled with serendipitously meeting Fred Wilson at the airport, who tweeted out Readstream) used cold DM's to build relationships with brilliant startup people, angel investors, and VCs (along with more than a few YC alums/Garry and Harj).

The Muse(W12)

Full application

I spent 77 days traveling around the world and only paid for a hotel room once; instead I stayed with friends from the year I spent living abroad, former colleagues from my time working at the UN, families I met en route, and a few shared hostel dorms when the first 3 options fell through. I spent time in Oman, China, and Ecuador as well as France, Australia and Sweden, and a lot of places in between. In Belize, I once managed to talk my way onto a plane that departed 12 minutes after I arrived at the airport. Traveling light and cheaply is all about hacking systems, finding work­arounds, turning strangers into allies and not giving up no matter how zany things get. I freaking love that stuff.


Full application

A Computer Science degree from U.Va. typically requires that you complete many courses within a variety of unrelated disciplines. Most of our peers must take classes in Physics, Chemistry, and a “fake” humanities listing called Science, Technology and Society. We escaped such requirements through a little-known option to pursue a BA in Computer Science, in place of the Engineering School’s BS. With this degree, we completed the core CS curriculum and any other classes that caught our interest, but we avoided the rigidly defined ABET requirements of the Engineering school. This left us more time to pursue research and hack on web applications.


Full application

Our very first customer wanted a contract. This customer is notoriously picky about contract terms, and a bolierplate off the internet wouldn't work. We had just spent about$3k on the incorporation process, and didn't want to drop another $2k on additional lawyer fees. Instead, I spent twelve hours scouring the web for example web-service agreements, random contracts, and a few forms purchased from Legal Zoom. It turns out that lawyers use code just like hackers -- it felt a bit like learning PHP. Being an English major at heart, it was actually pretty fun. At the end I had a 15-page contract. I paid the lawyer $300 to look it over, he said: "Nice. Well written. Where'd you get it?"


Full application

Last summer I managed to get an internship at Slide, but a month after accepting their offer I decided I wanted more hourly pay. Before I even started at Slide, I was able to convince the recruiter that I had numerous offers still outstanding from companies like RockYou and Zynga and had in-depth OpenSocial experience that was deserving of a $10/hr raise. Luckily, she was able to get it and pay was very good that summer.

"Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage." — advice from YC partners

Paul Graham (Co-Founder & Partner at Y Combinator)


How you hacked some real-world system to your advantage is not a super important question. Probably not even in the top 10. I don’t know about the other YC partners, but the two most important questions to me are what you’ve done in the past that’s impressive, and why you chose the idea you’re working on.

Sam Altman (CEO at OpenAI, Former president of YCombinator)


When I was running my startup, we got catastrophic news that the first big customer in the space (Boost Mobile) was signing a deal with a competitor instead of with us. This would have killed us. The competitor was a much larger and better funded company that had been around for years. I was a 20 year old CEO. Most big companies do not like to make risky decisions, so this was not entirely surprising. We got this news at about 11 pm. The next morning at 6 am, I was on a flight to Orange County. I sat in the lobby until the guy responsible for the deal on their side walked in. He was polite but said the decision was made. I convince him to look at our demo (in the past few days, we’d done some research to figure out exactly what features he really cared about). As soon as he saw it I knew we had a chance. Ended up hanging around for about two weeks. Eventually, the other company overplayed their hand and we got the deal, and then the deals with every other major US telecom company.

Zain Shah (Data Scientist at Opendoor, YC alum)


They’re looking for evidence that you are clever. The ability to think out of the box and manipulate large systems to your advantage are critical to gaining an edge on the market when you have no capital advantage (which is usually the case with startups).

Harry Zhang (Co-Founder at Lob, YC alum)


I believe the key to this question is demonstrating with a concrete example how you demonstrated the ability to be relentlessly resourceful and overcome an obstacle by thinking outside the box. As an example, in our application, I specifically discussed how I overcame terrible customer support lines (ie. cable companies) by carpet-bombing executives w/ strongly worded but polite emails using contact information I hunted off the internet until they couldn’t ignore me and sent an executive support member to solve my problem.

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