“In a nutshell, the kind of people who work in a team on something like an Imagine Cup project are the kind of people that companies want and these skills will put you ahead of the other people with technical skills just as good as yours who applied for the same job.” – Calum Cawley, Imagine Cup alumni

Calum Cawley was a member of Team Hermes in Ireland in 2010, in this guest post he shares his experience with Imagine Cup and how it changed his career path. Take it away Calum!

I first heard about the Imagine Cup back in 2010 when I was starting a project for the 3rd year of my Bachelors in Mechatronic Engineering. During a brainstorming session, a friend said to me “You should enter the Imagine Cup next year.” To which I replied “Yeah, ok. What is it?” At that time and for quite a while afterwards, I don’t think I fully grasped what I had signed myself up for.

That Conversation took place here, at the Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland:

clip_image002After that passing comment from a friend, I went on to get a team, Team Hermes, and competed in the Irish Imagine Cup finals. And everything kind of snowballed from there! To say that the Imagine Cup has brought me on a journey is a massive understatement. After months of hard work on our project, my team went on to win our national finals in Dublin. From there, we travelled to the 2011 world finals in New York City.

Imagine Cup events tend to make students, who are mentally exhausted after months of hard work on their projects, feel like celebrities. Even at the Irish finals that year, the competition was held in Microsoft’s European Development Centre and we had a party in a corporate box of a huge soccer stadium. Getting a chance to see behind the scenes of a technology giant like Microsoft is a huge treat for any techie. I remember there was a whole floor of a building with blacked out windows because they were doing work on the Kinect for Xbox which was top secret at the time. To me, that was cool to see and I remember feeling, even before we were announced as winners, like all the hard work gone into our project had been worth it. Just for that experience. It kind of goes without saying, but New York just blew that out of the water!

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An Imagine Cup world finals event is something that can’t really be put into words. The energy, the ideas, the people. It’s simply inspiring. This competition attracts people from all around the world who all believe they can change the world with technology, people who are determined to make their mark on the world, and the Imagine Cup gives them an excuse to do it. This might make it sound like the Imagine Cup is just a load of delusional students thinking they can save the world and become millionaires with a few hundred lines of code. But is that really such a bad thing? A lot of today’s tech giants were founded by students, including Microsoft, so really the Imagine Cup just gives you that little bit of credibility that lets you call yourself a tech start-up founder rather than a mad scientist!

So, my team went on to win 1st place in New York. From the moment I first heard about the Imagine Cup to then, my life had been frantic. Every spare moment of each team member had been poured into our project. Obviously we had done something right during that time, we won, but it was only after then that the madness really started…

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Over the next few months it was just like surfing a wave of press, publicity and conferences; presenting to thousands of people at conferences, talking to press from all around the world and even appearing on Irish TV. At that stage, the only thing that seemed reasonable to do was to start a company to commercialise our project. So we did! In Febuary 2012, Clevermiles was founded. The Hermes project, in the space of less than 18 months, had gone from a college in the west of Ireland, half way around the world and back again to land in Dublin at Startup Bootcamp, a start-up accelerator.

If I had to describe myself concisely, I’d have to say I was a petrolheaded geek. My passions are cars, technology and ideally, I love working on some intersection of the two. I started with the Hermes project as an excuse to play with cars as part of my degree, I pursued that passion and it had landed me as co-founder of a company before I had even graduated. However, I took it one step further. I realised pretty quickly that having my own company wasn’t for me. My passion is the technology, but when you are one of three people in the company you aren’t just an engineer; you are the salesman, the accountant and the graphic designer. Some people love that, I didn’t. So, by the time I had graduated, I had won awards for my project, presented it to an audience of 15,000, started a company and left it! That experience made looking for a job pretty easy, but I managed to find one that fit me like a glove.

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I currently work for MIRA Ltd, in England. We are an independent vehicle engineering consultancy, with over 100km of test tracks on site we work with companies from all over the world to shape the future of transport. Just a year before I took a job here, I didn’t even know places like this existed. Now I work on research projects around the next generation of vehicles, including self-driving cars. Having the experience of the Imagine Cup behind me allowed me to punch above my weight when it came to looking for jobs, my degree alone definitely wouldn’t have even got me an interview with the places I really wanted to work for. The fact I had won did raise a few eyebrows, but the thing that interviewers were always interested in was the soft skills that working on a project for this competition brings you. In a nutshell, the kind of people who work in a team on something like an Imagine Cup project are the kind of people that companies want and these skills will put you ahead of the other people with technical skills just as good as yours who applied for the same job.

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I liked it so much I came back as a mentor. If you haven’t guessed by now, this competition left quite an impression on me, I actually do love it. In April 2013, I went down to London to the UK finals and I met some guys who had developed a phone app called SoundSynk. They won that day and they would be going to St. Petersbug, Russia in July for the 2013 world finals. A few weeks later I got a message from Ed, one of the guys on the team, asking if I’d be able to mentor them. After a few months of working with the team, we were sitting in the glamorous Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg nervously sitting through the awards ceremony to find out if they’d won anything. They had. They had come 1st! It was slightly surreal to see them up on stage, collecting their giant cheque and going through the same emotional rollercoaster I had been on, on the other side of the world, two years ago. I was like a proud parent! (Of three people barely younger than me and one person older than me). It was like everything had come full circle and yet it seemed like no time at all since I hadn’t even heard of the Imagine Cup.

I said that this competition had brought me on a journey, and it has, both figuratively and literally. I’ve ended up getting paid to do the things I would want to do as a hobby anyway, something which I only dreamed of before I started on this amazing journey. All it takes to get started on a journey like this is a “why not?” attitude. If you have an idea you believe will change the world, then go out and get a team and with enough perseverance, you’ll end up with something awesome.

Related Links

SoundSynk

MIRA

Calum Cawley on LinkedIn

ImagineCup 2014 Competition