This is one of those columns where I betray what a technological troglodyte I am.
It’s about a 15-year-old Great Falls inventor named Liam McKinley who beat 250 older techies across 10 time zones to win an international botathon earlier this month.
That’s what I said.
A bot — short for web robot — is a piece of software that is programmed to accomplish tasks. Pizza Hut is rolling out a bot to order a pizza. Sometimes it asks you by voice, sometimes by text. Your Uber bot, you guessed it, finds a private car. There’s a Hipmunk bot that locates cheap flights, hotels and cars.
“It’s a robot that only exists in software,” explained Liam’s father, John. “You interact with it by texting sentences, getting responses and getting a payoff. The payoff can be anything.”
A botathon is the bot version of a marathon, where competitors work nonstop to create a really cool — and in this case, practical — bot.
Liam McKinley and his team, including his accomplished father, built SkoolBot.
Liam’s SkoolBot is a shortcut to Google Classroom for kids and parents. The combination is a clean tool that can be used to understand grades, find out when homework is due, when a quiz is coming up, communicate with teachers, share ideas and notes with fellow students, and a ton of other stuff.
I always write about businesses big and small around Washington and the people behind them. But this little SkoolBot is a future business, the McKinleys said. They are going to get it up and running this fall and incorporate. They already have inquiries from at least one prominent investor, whom they declined to name. The botathon was sponsored by VentureBeat, an online media company.
The fact that a suburban Washington teenager with a love for drones and a knack for building stuff beat more than 250 participants from India, Australia, Israel and Europe is something. His team even beat a big contingent of bot creators from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which is ground zero for the digital world.
Young McKinley was the only kid who entered the event, and he had to make a three-minute video pitch, carried live on Skype, in front of several prestigious judges and venture capitalists. Then he had to answer three minutes of questions, such as how he was going to make money off the bot or what was Plan B if Google did the same thing.
Liam is comfortable with technology, but it is hardly his only passion. He also happens to be a serious fencer.
He had decided earlier this summer that he wanted to dig deeper into the world of bots and their use as a tool to more fully exploit Google Classroom, a resource he had been using for two years.
“I wanted to do some technology project over the summer, and I didn’t have a lot planned aside from training for the U.S. Fencing National Championships,” said Liam, a rising sophomore at the Potomac School in McLean, Va. “There was lots of code writing and lots of late nights.”
When I was 15, the closest I got to a summer technology romp was using the AM radio on the car ride to McDonald’s.
In Liam’s case, a chance to enter the idea in a botathon provided extra motivation.
“This became a forcing function for us,” John McKinley said, speaking in software engineer-ese.
Father and son pulled 18-hour days for a couple of days, fueled by adrenaline, pizza and Indian takeout. They mostly worked in John’s home office in their Great Falls residence.
“I inhaled massive amounts of Diet Coke,” said John, 58, who worked as a technology executive for General Electric, News Corp., AOL and Merrill Lynch during his career. He also worked on some successful start-ups and sits on the board of directors of Equifax, a consumer credit reporting agency. The McKinleys communicated via Skype with partner and family friend Miko Borys, who contributed to the SkoolBot from Tokyo.
“The hardest part was trying to find what key features needed to be working and pull it off in a couple of days,” Liam said.
The competition was held July 9-10 through live presentations in San Francisco, New York, Melbourne and Tel Aviv. Groups of judges were assigned by location. There was also an online competition, which Liam participated in from home through live video presentations on Google Hangouts.
Each entrant had to first pitch an idea just to get invited to the botathon.
No problem, said the teenager, who is an experienced classroom debater from his grammar-school days. “I have had a fair amount of speaking experience.”
Once accepted, next came the division championships. Each bot team had two days to pull together their bot and pitch to judges, who narrowed 60 groups down to six.
Once he made the final six divisional championships, Liam again pitched SkoolBot, this time to senior judges. One of the judges was Robert Hoffer, one of the pioneers of the bot world. Another judge was a partner at Sequoia Capital, one of two or three premier venture-capital firms in Silicon Valley.
The next day, he received notification online that he should be near the computer between 6:45 and 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I think this is a good thing,” John told his son.
Around 7:30 p.m., the head of VentureBeat brought Liam up on stage via Google Hangouts and delivered the good news. He had won.
Judges picked winners based on if they thought people would really use the bot. There was no money, but there is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and a great résumé line item.
“It was a blast,” Liam said. “It’s a really fun experience to have a concept and nothing else, and work from there and look back and see how far you’ve come.”
John McKinley was wishing for something more tangible.
“I was hoping money, college scholarship or an internship at Facebook, at least. It was a lot of work.”
Still, John said inventing SkoolBot was a way to give his son a firsthand dose of what it is like to be an entrepreneur.
“Every dollar matters. Every hour matters,” he said. “Schedule and time is paramount. You find people doing really creative things with really smart teams. I want him to know the level of commitment it takes to build a business.”
And who knows? The McKinleys have already heard from one venture-capital firm that wants to invest in SkoolBot, the company.
And Washington investor Raul Fernandez, who has partnered with and known John McKinley for more than two decades, is circling. “Seeing his son charge onto the tech stage in such a global and competitive way is amazing,” Fernandez said. “I have already sent Liam a term sheet to fund his business. But it looks like I have to first negotiate with the boy’s manager.”
That would be Liam’s father, John.