“The Czech Republic is known as beer country, so usually we go to the pub, have a beer and spend time complaining about the government!”
It all started when Tomáš read about an e-commerce contract tendered by the Ministry of Transport. The contract had been dished out for a juicy, overpriced 16 million euros under a pitch process shrouded in mystery and obfuscation. Five companies had been invited to pitch, three refused because they’d been given just four days notice. And the winner, it later transpired, had already been working with the government.
At WMC/Grey, building e-commerce sites and working on digital infrastructure is a big part of the business, so immediately Tomáš knew something was up. And so he did what any self-respecting CEO would do – he headed to LinkedIn.
“I reposted the story to LinkedIn with a challenge to the community, to the people at Achtung! and Grey if we could develop a simple solution to show everybody how inappropriate the 16 milllion euro cost was,” he says, imagining a weekend pizza party cobbled together from a few friends, colleagues and ex-employees. “That was the very initial idea. To provoke discussion mainly. Honestly at the moment I posted the link, I wasn’t really sure if we were capable of developing it or not.”
And he certainly did provoke discussion. Just an hour after posting the challenge, his post had been shared thousands of times, reaching the eyes of the Prime Minister, who tweeted it out himself.
Tomáš was shocked. Hundreds of talented developers pledged their services and Tomáš was invited to meet the PM himself. Why does he think that the project sparked such enthusiasm? “Now they saw someone who complained but who also acted. Not just saying, ‘oh look, there is another overpriced project from the government,” he says. “The fact that we did not just complain, but we were also acting made it a real wake up moment.”
From the moment of the post, on Thursday, January 17th, things happened fast. On the Monday, Tomáš was meeting with the prime minister – and the minister of transport was fired. On the Thursday, the original contract for the job was cancelled. Over the course of the week hundreds of programmers had been in touch and the team at WMC/Grey had to pour through applications while setting up space. And on Friday 24th at 6pm, the 48-hour hackathon kicked off.
200 programmers were put together in groups and many of them had never met, but their enthusiasm was unparalleled and they immediately got stuck in, working straight through to 6pm on the Sunday evening, when the local press broadcast the results live. “There was enormous energy. I never saw anything like that,” he says.
To illustrate just how keen the programmers were, it’s instrumental to consider just how hard it can be to secure talent in Prague, which has a fiercely competitive digital scene.
“We are always hiring programmers and IT experts because we have significant business in this area. It’s difficult. It’s difficult here in Prague because there are so many interesting projects on which people can work. It’s challenging stuff,” says Tomáš. “But now I had the privilege of selecting from hundreds of talented volunteers who wanted to give their weekends up and work for free- so the completely opposite situation.”
In the end, the team managed to complete the original scope of the project – Tomáš points out that the lack of government integrations and access to confidential or secret information and systems meant that they were limited in what they were able to tackle. But the government was thrilled with the result and the team are working on finishing up the project.
Surprisingly, even government-employed IT workers have backed Tomáš, fed up as they are with a lack of understanding from politicians. “I have participated in several public discussions afterwards with state employees and most of them supported me too – they have had their fill of these overly complicated, politically-manipulated projects. They want to do things right. They want to make services that really help people.”
Months later and Tomáš is still being recognised in the street, in shops, in restaurants by people who remember him from the hackathon. The developers are, he said, incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved. And Tomáš? He’s proud too – but he’s also energised and feels liberated.
“To me, the biggest learning is you don’t need any official sanction or army of people supporting you. You can do it,” he says. “If you build something that is not OK, not correct like this, without structure or politicians or bureaucrats behind you, you can do it. Everybody can do it.”