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From Spoj challenge to own startup. Short interview with Keshav Dhandhania

Spoj is online for over 12 years. After so many years our community has grown to almost 600,000 registered users. Within this group a huge amount of passionate coders were born, where are they now? We would like to invite you to a completely new series of short interviews with successful Spoj users, we will talk about their projects and their first steps in the world of coding. If you think that you have your own story that can inspire others, write to us!

We hereby present you our first interview with one of old Spoj users: Keshav Dhandhania, a co-founder at Compose Labs, a San Francisco-based company that has just released their first project Commonlounge (with a special community for Spoj users too!). You can read more about him by visiting his website and following him on Twitter


Spoj: You have created an online community, could you please tell us more about it.

Keshav Dhandhania: It’s basically similar to an open Facebook group. It came from the idea that all these people who take part in programming contests hardly talk to each other. Places like Spoj are just great for problem solving, but I find this community much more focused on competition and practicing. Here on Commonlounge we don’t want people to compete, we want them to talk, to share their knowledge, to help each other and therefore better understand things they do.

Commonlounge Spoj communitySo, it’s more of a supporting community.

Exactly. There are currently several tutorials, several problems and the solutions to these problems. Regarding practice and solutions, we have a new approach. The idea is: if you can’t solve a problem, you should not read the whole solution, you should only find the clue and go back to the problem. We have started three months ago but there is already a strong community and many people who have solved many problems and they are ready to help.

Your platform is online for a short time, but as I can see, there are already plenty of people using Commonlounge. Where are the users from?

The majority is from India but there are lots of people from Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Brazil, there are people from all over the world.

But they are here not only for one topic like coding or technology. Commonlounge doesn’t host just one community. I can even see the place for HBO’s Westworld fans!

Commonlounge - Westworld community

This is actually one of the most active ones, but the show has ended so I expect that the traffic will decrease in there as of now. Still, this is the proof how fast we are growing right now. He have already 2000 users right now, there were about 1000 only a month ago. So, it has doubled in a month. I am really thrilled how it would look like in coming weeks.

What was behind the idea to create such a platform. There are lots of social media platforms already in the web, is there something you expect to be different?

Lots of people love Facebook, but I don’t care much about this certain platform. My Internet social life was always more connected with places like Spoj or CodeChef (they also use Spoj’s Sphere Engine – author). It is not about who I know but what I do. I love programming and I love doing algorithms, so I choose places where I can do that. There are obviously people who are into poker or want to talk about TV show all day long, that’s what they do. So I wanted not a ‘Facebook’ centered around your social life but a ‘Facebook’ centered around what you do. It’s a bit closer to what you have on Reddit.

It’s a place with all these communities, you can join to the community you feel you are related to – you can join MIT Subreddit, India Subreddit, Poland Subreddit, there’s probably Spoj Subreddit. So they are focused around certain subject or activity. But Reddit is already +10 years old, they haven’t changed it at all, they are not doing it well.

Why is that?

In order to embed something on Reddit as well as manage community properly you need to use some code.

We as programmers find it easy, but there are people who are into cooking, to discuss movies, they are here for socializing and can find this coding part difficult. We can do all these things somewhere else – we can go to other website and play chess or poker, the others can decide that it’s better to visit Spoj and learn algorithm. But for those non-technical communities, the website must be plain and simple – let the people create content, talk to each other and enjoy building community.

Talking about community – how do you find your experience with Spoj, how did it help you to get to the place where you are now.

I learned about Spoj from the TopCoder forum, they wrote about high school programming competition. At that time there were no others contests. There were 6 months for the contest, one for each month, the prize was iPod – it was the newest one at that time. I practiced on Spoj and prepared for the contest. At the end of the month on the last day, I stayed up overnight and coded for 10 hours. Spoj had a policy of not updating the leaderboard in the last 24 hours. When the results came out after the contest ended, I was on top. It was really fun. After that I used Spoj for practice. When I went for my college school, which is MIT in Boston I don’t think they’d even consider my application without IOI (International Olympiad in Informatics).

Has this single programming contest really changed your life so much?

I cannot imagine my current life, doing my own startup now, without the things that happened earlier, without this practice and learning I had on Spoj. My life would be totally different without getting MIT. And I wouldn’t be on MIT without IOI, which would not happen without Spoj and TopCoder.

You said that after finishing MIT you’ve decided to work on your own startup, you didn’t want to move to some big company, big corporation, why startup?

I wanted to get some experience and preferred to be more independent. I don’t like to repeat things on a day-to-day basis. In startup you grow faster. Big companies, like Google are more like school – you know what to do, they tell you what to do, it gives me a school-like impression, maybe I am wrong but this is how I feel.

The interview was conducted over Skype in December 2016

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