If you are a NUS student, you must have heard of NUSmods. It is more likely that NUSmods has become such a big part of your life that you can’t even live without it. But one thing you wouldn’t be able to figure out is that this immensely useful web application is actually built by students! Surprise! (ok, at least for NTU student like me!) Digital Senior is very privileged to speak to the man behind NUSmods, Yang Shun and let you have a peek behind the scenes.
Tell us more about yourself
I’m a year 5 student from NUS. I was initially a mechanical engineering student who switched course in year 2 to computer science after I found out that mechanical engineering isn’t what I imagined it to be. Since then, I was involved in iPhone application, went to NOC in Standford, Silicon vally. I came back and did Web development, mods tutoring. I joined NUSmods in June of last year.
How did NUSmods came about?
NUSmods was started by this senior, Beng who is currently working in Google. The school’s timetable builder wasn’t satisfactory. There were previous solutions in the form of window desktop client which is not universal because many people are using Mac. NUSmods, a web client which is cross platform, is then built.
After I joined the team, we revamp the interface and push out more features. Since August , Beng has graduated and the responsibility of maintaining and expanding NUSmods lies with me now. I try to align NUSmods with my school projects so that I could spend more time on it.
How did you get involved?
NUSmods is the largest students initated project in the school that everyone knows about.
Before NUSmods, I founded this website called Coursepedia which aims to show statistics of the modules in NUS. NTU uses fastest-finger-first system whereas NUS modules system functions like a stock market. In Coursepedia, we consolidate past statistics of the bid points of each module. School releases it in semester-ly format. What we did was to present it in a format that makes more sense by comparing it across semesters for one module. One of the first few things I did was to integrate Coursepedia into NUSmods.
Can you share some user Stats of NUSmods ?
From Analytics, there are 64k different devices accessing it. I can safely say that we have 36k users which covers almost the entire population of the school. Seniors recommend it to freshies during freshmen camp as well.
What are the selling points of NUSmods that attracts so many users ?
There simply isn’t any better alternative to help students plan their time. Current one requires a lot of clicks and refreshes of pages, whereas NUSmods has a drag and drop interface which makes the experience really smooth. We also make it a one stop platform by scrapping off publicly available information and presenting them in a very easily consumable fashion. It includes module information that you can get from the school’s websites such as lecturer, description, prerequisites etc. It is hard to find your way around the school’s website because they don’t have a search bar, maybe they have but its obscure. Our search bar is on every page, like a Google search bar. We have module reviews by students as well.
Speaking of module reviews, there were a couple of other review sites that are no longer in operation because it is too challenging to put that together. How did you all overcome that challenge?
Many people would find it intimidating to write a review because they think that for it to be meaningful, it has to be at least 3-4 paragraphs long, which puts them off. What we have done is to encourage students to write “micro-reviews” , like what foursquare is doing with places reviews. One or two lines is fine, as long as it is truthful and useful.
In this semester break itself, we received over 200 over reviews, partly because I ran a modules reviews competition within the school. People who write the best reviews will win something. We look for most creative review etc, and judge by quantity and quality. Personally I review every module that I have taken. For our module review function, I use the discus plugin where you can embed picture/videos in it and comes with a moderator feature as well. It is good.
How does NUSmods work ?
All information of NUSmods is taken from the school’s official source. If there is any information that is outdated, we cant do anything about it. We are just getting it from them.
Users don’t have to set up an account to use. Data stored locally within your browser. We understand that some people may not be so comfortable with revealing their personal information. To do more meaningful stuff however, you can’t run away from user accounts in the future.
We implement automatic scrapping. We wrote web crawlers to automatically access websites to retrieve the information. We update it hourly on weekdays so that everyone can get the latest information soonest possible. It runs on its own perfectly well, unless the school’s website changes it format. However it is unlikely.
What did you all do to market NUSmods ?
It spreads by itself. Our user base comes mainly through word of mouth. It is purely organic. Some lecturers link to NUSmods from their sites as well. We use mainly Facebook to reach out to people.
Who are the people working on NUSmods now?
I managed to find some very talented freshmen. Because our code is open sourced, our issues are also public. They can see which issues they are interested in fixing and they can submit a patch. You can check out http://nusmods.com/contribute/developers for a whole list of people who have contributed to NUSmods. There is no monetary incentive involved.
We have difficulties getting contributors because web development wasn’t taught in school ( now, we have some modules on it). People who want to step forward can’t do it because they don’t have such knowledge. I personally pick it up during my internship in a startup. Web development skill is highly valued in the startup world.
What motivates you to work on NUSmods ?
A passion for building things and creating cool stuff. Its satisfying to build something that people use.
Is NUSmods making money ? If not, do you plan to do so ?
We don’t want to serve ads as it will decrease the efficiency of the application with the bombarding of irrelevant information. We haven’t come out with a viable business plan. And the user base isn’t expected to grow, unless we expand to other schools. However I’m not sure if other schools have the same problem ? Having funding will be good.
What plans do u have for NUSmods
Improve as much as possible before I graduate.
First thing would be User login. This is so that we can store their time tables in our servers and they can view it across devices, even on their phones
Next, support for timetable merging is a highly requested feature. It would allow users to coordinate project meetings. It does so by saving your friend’s timetable and viewing their free time slots.
After which, we are considering forum and a more customized module review system.
We face the restriction of not being able to tap into schools official data.i.e. module materials otherwise we can do more things.
Many people are now discouraged from joining computer science because a lot of programming work is outsourced to overseas contractors. Would you recommend juniors to join Computer science ?
There is a market for local developers. You can’t guarantee the standards of outsourced development work. For example, our school came out with a de-stress quiz for us which was programmed by an outsourced team in India. The security was so bad that many of us hacked into to the system to award points to ourselves. The maximum points was 1000 but we ended up having few million points. At the end of the day, companies will still hire from within the country so as to ensure the reliability and quality of the system they want to build. For juniors who are considering this course, there is definitely a demand for local computer science graduates.
Whats more, when you do computer science, its not only to get a job, you get to train your thinking to be more systematic.
What will you do when you graduate ?
Join a startup. A big company is slow to implement changes. I like to make quick changes within a company. For example, in NUSmods, if I think of something I want to improve within the system, I can work on it immediately and it will be up the next day. A startup offers that kind of experience.
Can you image the entire NUS population using the student-built NUSmods and not the official timetable builder? This is unprecedented and unheard of, at least in NTU and other universities. The story of NUSmods has proven that we students have the potential to build something worthy and useful to the world(at least in NUS). It is a question of whether we choose to unleash it by doing something to utilize our talents or allow in to remain dormant forever ?
Not every have this grand idea of how to change the world. You dont have to. You can make a big difference by contributing to an existing mission. Like programming ? Join NUSmods. Like writing ? Join Digital Senior ! ( pardon the advertisement by us) The practical experience will enhance your theoretical learning in school and take it to the next level, which is why many chose to work before joining university. Click here to learn more about contributing to Digital Senior.