Four Computer Science students went to California in 2018 to start their industrial placements. They returned to Kent a year later as stars of the international developer community, having caught Apple’s attention by launching an unofficial player for Apple Music.
Their player, Musish, had attracted 200,000 users in its first 10 months. It had been ‘starred’ 2,200 times by GitHub’s hard-to-please tech audience in the same period, and the story was picked up by specialist media around the world. This was success on a scale way beyond their expectations.
But how did they do it?
First, they needed to get to Silicon Valley.
For the four students – James Jarvis, Raphaël Vigée, Brychan Bennett-Odlum and Filip Grebowski (l-r in photo) – the attractions of the region were obvious. It’s home to many of the world’s largest high-tech companies, plus thousands of start-ups. Naturally, it draws in a huge community of like-minded people.
“For people in the tech industry, it’s the place to be,” says Filip. “So we wanted to go there and experience it.”
The location and lifestyle were a big pull as well. The area is bordered by mountains and ocean and enjoys long warm summers – a recipe for fun and adventure.
“I wasn’t just about work,” adds Raphaël. “It was about the whole experience, and travelling.”
The students all secured placements with Cisco, thanks to the School of Computing’s strong links with the San Jose-headquartered firm. While it was up to each of the students to secure their own internship, the School supported them all the way.
Filip says: “What stands out at Kent is how the School of Computing manages everything to do with the year in industry, and how much support they give you.”
The quartet touched down in the States in August 2018, emerging into the Californian sunshine and a very different lifestyle.
Their shared apartments, courtesy of Cisco, included access to a gym, pool and Jacuzzi.
The Cisco complex, known as the campus, was equally well appointed.
James says: “When you’re on campus, it’s a stereotypical Silicon Valley thing where you really could live there. There are showers provided, breakfast, lunch and even dinner sometimes. That’s Silicon Valley life.”
The students all worked in different teams at Cisco, and quickly got to grips with their roles. They were impressed by how much responsibility they were given right from the start.
“That made me feel very encouraged and trusted,” says Filip.
Brychan adds: “They definitely treat you as an equal.”
Before arriving at Cisco, the four students had known each other through their degree programmes, but they hadn’t been close friends. Working at Cisco turned them into a team. In their spare time, they started collaborating on a personal project – Musish.
The idea for Musish was born out of necessity – the friends needed an idea for a Major League Hackathon taking place in San Francisco in December 2018. They would have eight hours to develop a basic proof of concept.
Brychan says: “I was watching Apple’s worldwide developer conference and I saw that they released their API, a toolkit to make a product using their Apple Music service. We thought it’d be funny to create an Apple product before they did.”
All keen Apple Music users, the students had been frustrated by its inflexibility. If you wanted to listen, you had to have an iPhone or a Mac with iTunes installed. Musish, as a web-based service, would allow users to sign in and access their account on any device.
It would also be open source, so users could access and audit the code as well as adding their own contributions.
Their concept won the hackathon, and the four continued working on Musish in their free time through the rest of December. As their day at Cisco drew to a close, they would meet up and carry on working – until midnight, some nights.
Meanwhile, competitors had started to release their versions of an Apple Music player. The students knew they had to release Musish soon, to make the most of their hackathon success. They were on holiday in New York in early January 2019, and decided to release it there and then.
They sent press release emails to tech sites, and to tech blogs focusing on Apple such as MacRumors.
But it was Reddit, the social news aggregation and discussion website, that really helped Musish take off.
Raphaël says: “On the first day of launching it on Reddit, we had 15,000 users. It became viral!”
As word spread, the numbers rose and rose, way past the team’s predictions. More people used Musish, and more developers starred the project on GitHub. The students aimed to get 800 stars, like some of their competitors. Their numbers soon went way beyond that.
Filip says: “We got to the point where we had 1,000 stars and we thought ‘surely it’s not going to keep going this fast’. And then every day we woke up and there would be another 100 stars. It just kept going.”
Musish got to number two on GitHub’s trending page, which James says is "like YouTube trending, but for nerds".
Filip says: “We knew there was a use case for Musish. But what was most surprising was how quickly we gained a reputation for it.”
Musish had also caught the eye of Apple directors who, in a rare move, invited the team to meeting at their headquarters in Cupertino, California.
The students met directors and engineers who work on Apple Music. Although the details of the meeting remain private, Raphaël says it was "very interesting, because they don't usually collect developer feedback".
Walking around the campus, they also met Apple staff who were fans of Musish.
Apple has since launched its own web player in beta version. Musish lost a few users in the days after it launched, but the numbers have gone back up since.
“I think we expected it,” says Filip of the Apple launch. “What’s good is that we were the first to do it. Four guys managed to out-compete Apple with their own product. It’s a great feeling.”
The four students returned to their programmes at Kent in autumn 2019. At the same time, they were included in Business Insider’s UK Tech 100 list of the most influential people shaping British technology.
“We were surprised, but it was very humbling and very cool,” says James.
The Musish user base has continued to grow. As the project is open source it’s now self-sustaining, with the team overseeing the player and approving other people’s development suggestions or ‘pull requests’.
Brychan says: “People can fix small bugs or add more languages. Someone added Chinese the other day, someone else added Russian. That helps with global appeal, to help people feel more attached to the product.”
Filip adds: “Because of the community and their ideas, we’ve gained a lot of insight into how we could expand. What kind of third-party software we could use to allow for a better user experience. So there were things like Genius, which allows us to get lyrics.”
The team have also had requests to integrate Musish with the music site last.fm, something they wouldn’t have thought of without the community.
Now in the final year of their degree programmes, James, Raphaël, Brychan and Filip are busier than ever with a variety of projects. As well as coursework and Musish they’re all working part-time for Cisco, developing their personal projects, and thinking about what comes next.
They’re all agreed on one thing – that they want to work in tech.
James says: “Before going on placement, you’re not really sure whether you should go into engineering, operations or whatever else. After your year in industry you get a solid view on what you want to do and how you can do it.”
After graduating, Raphaël and Filip will return to work at Cisco. James and Brychan are keeping their options open. None of the four is likely to be short of job offers.
The students are at the beginning of their careers, and are still figuring out exactly what they want to do and where they want to be. But one thing’s for sure, they’re off to a great start.
Team: James Jarvis, Filip Grebowski, Raphaël Vigée (Computer Science (AI) with a Year in Industry); Brychan Bennett-Odlum (Computer Science with a Year in Industry).
Project URL: https://musi.sh
Front end framework: ReactJS
Hosting: GitHub pages
Back-end architecture: AWS Lambda’s
The School of Computing helps more than 100 of its students to secure an industrial placement every year.