by Prof Barry Dwolatzky
For those of you who don’t know about it, the Microsoft Imagine Cup is a bit of a “geek show”. University students – working in small groups – develop software applications and then compete for prizes. Microsoft runs national competitions, the winners of which are entered into the World Finals.
Over the past few years I’ve been involved in Imagine Cup South Africa as a judge. The competition always attracts a good cross-section of socially awkward technology obsessive South African youth. Race, religion, social background, gender – none of this matters. They all share a common “geek-ness”. From the SA competition we have always carefully selected the best team of local geeks and sent them off to compete in the World Finals. And here I am at the World Finals!!!
Over the past year 350,000 computer geeks from 183 countries have competed to represent their species at the Imagine Cup World Finals- the “Computer Nerds World Cup”. And here they are at the 40-storey New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. 124 competing teams from 40 countries together with 80 judges and 140 journalists. They come from every corner of the world. Most have never flown in an airplane. Some have never stepped onto an escalator … and yet they share something in common … a love for software technology.
Last night Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, opened the event. It’s the first time I’ve seen him live. If an alien from outer space came to earth looking for a good specimen of a “1970’s computer nerd” to send back home to a zoo in their distant planet, Steve Ballmer would be a wonderful choice. He is everything his generation (my generation?) represented – and more! When he announced that every contestant would receive an XBOX Kinect to take home with them, a cheer went up that must have been heard on the moon. (Thinking about it… the cheer wasn’t instantaneous .. It took about a minute for Ballmer’s announcement to be understood in 40 different languages.) In any other audience most people in the room would have been sitting there saying “what’s an XBOX Kinect, and what will I do with it?” My only regret is that I’m a judge and not a contestant.
There were also speeches from Jeffrey Sachs, Professor of Economics from Columbia University and special advisor to the UN on poverty alleviation, and from Dennis Crowley, co-founder of FourSquare [I admit to having to ask someone what "FourSquare" is]. Jeffrey Sachs was there because: (1) he was at nursery school with Steve Ballmer, and (2) the theme of Imagine Cup 2011 is “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the world’s toughest problems”. The challenges of the UN’s Millenium Development Goals are a particular focus for contestants.
Everywhere you look in the hotel there are groups of students dressed in their team t-shirts sitting around fiddling with devices – laptops, tablets, smart phones, fancy cameras, i-pods, etc. I can’t understand many of the conversations but I’m prepared to bet that its about the latest app, download or gadget.
Today I will be working hard. I’m a judge in the Software Design section. I will be listening to and marking presentations by the teams from Mexico, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia and Greece. By the end of today the top 18 groups will go through to round 2, which we will judge tomorrow. The final is on Tuesday and the winners will be announced at a gala event at the Lincoln Centre.
I’m in Geek Heaven!