In the October issue of MSDN Magazine, Don't Get Me Started columnist David Platt wrote about his experience acting as a judge at the Imagine Cup finals held in New York City. As David recounts, the global competition did more than simply attract some of the best and brightest young minds in software development. It offered a telling glimpse into the unique human stories behind the entries. I asked David about the column and his experience as a judge.

Michael Desmond: You were a judge at the first-ever Imagine Cup Finals in Barcelona, back in 2003. Clearly the Imagine Cup is much bigger now than it was in 2003. But what else about the competition has changed since then?

David Platt: It reminds me of the Olympics, in a way. You have the very best from all over the world. A relatively small number are in serious competition for the top prizes. The rest are there to celebrate being the best in their own country, to measure themselves against the world’s best, to rub elbows and inhale the atmosphere, to get inspired and bring that inspiration home to spread around.

That last might be the biggest one. My younger daughter is a gymnast, currently Level 4 at the local YMCA. She and her teammates are bouncing off the walls (always dangerous with gymnasts) with plans to watch the Summer Olympics gymnastic this summer. I doubt she’ll ever reach Olympic caliber (though I certainly don’t tell her this). But the inspiration from those top gymnasts teaches her to strive, to take care of herself, to work hard even when it’s difficult, and so on. I’m more proud of her being voted by her teammates as most improved gymnast last year than of damn near anything, Olympic gold included. (Although I’d love to see a college scholarship, but we digress.)

I think that’s the biggest change in the Imagine Cup. Not necessarily the finals themselves. But this larger finals event causes 300,000 budding geeks (up from 1000 at the first Imagine Cup) to think and analyze, to strive for something, to fall and get up again. You can’t see these roots from the treetop of the finals. But by the height of that treetop, you know they must be mighty.

 

MD: Can you describe your role as an Imagine Cup judge? How do you go about reviewing each team's entry? And what kind of interaction do you have with the teams themselves?

DP: There were only 16 entrants in the first finals, so every judge could view every entry. It made for a busy day, but we each ranked them in order, and the winners were clear. With so many entrants, we now have to split up the judging pool, with each judge randomly assigned 6 entrants. We use normalization and scaling factors to maintain consistency between judges.

We watch video presentations before arriving, then watch live presentations of the teams to which we are assigned. We ask questions at the end of the presentation. We rank them on architecture, on user interface, business model, and presentation. We often deliberate among ourselves, did you see this? How did you like that? And so on. Each judge assigns his or her individual scores, it’s not a consensus thing.

In general, I stay away from all the teams until I’m finished my judging, to avoid any possible appearance of impropriety. I’m happy to talk to them after I’m finished -- what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I think they should do to advance in future rounds, or to move their project towards commercialization. The students tell me that this is interaction is one of their favorite parts of the contest.

The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island party was fabulous for that -- except they didn’t serve any beer, which always enhances such conversations. All these college students and no beer? Sheesh. I wonder what the drinking age is in Sydney, Australia, which is where next year’s finals are.

I’m honored when students bring me copies of my "Why Software Sucks" book to sign, especially in foreign language translations. I always wonder how much of my original tone comes through the translator.

 

MD: In the column, you describe both the technical brilliance and youthful naiveté of the teams. What advice might you offer prospective contestants as they embark on an Imagine Cup project?

DP: Know thy user, for he is not thee. Please them, not yourselves, and you will do well in this contest, and this industry, and in life itself. (Are you seeing a pattern in this?)

 

MD: Having read some of the responses to your October column, it's clear the article struck a chord. What is it about this story that is so compelling?

DP: I’m just such a great writer it’s not even funny. What can I say? ;-)

But seriously, the late sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing a column is easy. All you have to do is open your veins and bleed.” October’s vein might have been closer to the surface. Or maybe seeing all these youngsters made me dig the lancet in a little deeper.

 

MD: Have you heard from anyone from Team Hawk -- Choman, Kosar and Enji -- since the story went live?

DP: Just chatted a little. They were pleased, of course. They study at the American University of Iraq, which is in the northern region, where many people are ethnic Kurds. Might be interesting to teach there some day. I wonder if they have any money.