Chess Players Create Better Apps – An Interview With Tony Phillips

We reached out to Tony Phillips for a few questions concerning some of the greatest challenges in modern app development and lucky for us, he was happy to share his views. The result is a great piece of innovative thinking.


Tony Phillips Hack Reactor

Tony Phillips is the CEO & Co-Founder of Hack Reactor (@HackReactor) – an advanced JS immersive software engineering program that provides exceptional full stack software engineers with a skill set built for top engineering teams.

His experience includes heaps of versatile entrepreneurial initiatives, from designing language curriculums in South Korea to self-learning Ruby on Rails, Javascript, HTML and CSS to founding Hack Reactor in 2012.

Tony’s approach to software development and problem solving is a unique one – simple, yet creative.

Drawing from his hobbies – practicing languages and Chess – Tony provides fascinating insights and methods to both holistic and efficient application development.


Tony, at Hack Reactor you put a lot of emphasis on collaboration. How important is it in modern app development?

An important aspect of app development is to have strong empathy for the needs and problems of the user. It’s why it is important to build your apps in an active community instead of as an individual island.

Collaboration with others in a classroom or incubator allows people to get a diverse understanding of what their customers’ pain points are and how to address them.


collaborate to create better apps


Application development always requires serious prioritizing, but for indie-developers it’s vital. What is your advice to developers who find themselves contemplating which different components to develop? Is there a winning formula?

I like the approach of building an entire version of your app in every production cycle. I know that sounds nuts, but that’s how you find out if everything hangs together, and it saves you from spending long hours working on functionality that doesn’t matter that much.

It’s okay to focus more heavily on certain elements during a particular production cycle. This process has the side benefit of helping you maintain a holistic view of your app at a technical level, so the various parts are more likely to play well together.


Most indie app developers are finding it harder than ever to acquire and retain an active user base, leading to the inevitable downfall of their app. What are some key differentiators you recognize in successful apps out there?

It’s hard to be more than a fad if you aren’t solving a problem. The best apps identify a user frustration or a store of untapped value. A lot of apps entertain or amuse, and they can get a lot of initial users, but are they going to keep coming back after a month, let alone a year? Unlikely. But if you solve a problem that’s going to come up again and again, you’re golden.

And if you think all the problems have been solved, start asking yourself the question “why not?”

Why aren’t I making connections with people while I wait in line for coffee? Why aren’t there health records that any hospital can access if I have some kind of emergency? Why are businesses still getting their data hacked all the time?

Most of these questions won’t lead you to an app idea, but some of them will. Think about the why-nots that led to AirBnB.


create better mobile application


What are your favorite resources for inspiration and innovative ideas?

Foreign languages and chess. Really anything that gets my mind out of my normal mode and gets me thinking with different rules and metaphors.

Studying languages and playing chess are two of my loves that work very different parts of my brain. They also get me into a state of flow.

Languages in particular are amazing because they force you to adopt some of the empathy skills I mentioned above. Languages force a beginners mind.


Where do you think the software world is heading with all the buzz about AI, VR and IoT?

Keep in mind that processing power keeps getting better and better, so ideas that might not have been feasible last year might be the hot thing next year.

VR is especially interesting to us because much of our business in particular is predicated on natural-feeling, human-to-human relations. We are on the verge of experiencing authentic human interactions over the internet for the first time in history and it will open up an intense number of possibilities.


WalkMe Apps - Create better applications


So let’s sum up the main insights from Tony:

  • Collaboration is key. Build your apps in an active community instead of as individuals. It will allow you to better understand and solve your users’ needs and preferences.
  • Ask yourself “why not?” when brainstorming ideas for apps. In general, you should keep asking questions and looking for better solutions to everyday problems.
  • Having a passion is great for breaking down thought barriers. Tony’s happens to be languages and chess, but the important thing is to be able to adopt different ways of thinking to approach new challenges. Alternative angles may be the foundation for that one truly innovative idea – find it.


We would like to thank Tony for dedicating time to this interview and for sharing his knowledge with us and our readers. Also, a special thanks goes to Victoria Williamson for making this happen.

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