Imagine Cup 2013 Evaluation Experience

Like last year, I was invited by Microsoft Pakistan to evaluate the software competition entries for Microsoft Imagine Cup 2013. It’s a great opportunity to see how our academia is doing in terms of the output they produce and see how new talent is doing.

In Islamabad, we evaluated around 20 projects from various Universities such as FAST-NUCES, University of Karachi, NEDUET, NUST etc. I think looking back to our academic life and comparing with the projects students are doing these days I think they are doing a remarkable work. Students today are utilizing technology much more than we used to do. The recent boom of small form factor devices and mobile apps ecosystem has also provided developers opportunity and exposure which was not available previously. Plus I appreciate Microsoft Pakistan in providing direct opportunities to students in the form of Hackathons, App competitions, student partners, hardware support etc.

However, the bar set for Imagine Cup software competition is much high as students from around the globe compete and ultimately only one entry will win from Pakistan. So each entry was evaluated considering following factors:

  • Concept
  • Market Opportunity
  • Team Communication Skills
  • Technology Usage
  • WOW Factor

 

I believe our students have great potential but they somehow lack completeness in projects and need good preparation to win. With my recent evaluation experience, I would like to share some tips to student competing in global competitions. This is on top of tips and suggestion I shared previously as I think they are really important to go through. If you haven’t read my earlier post and you are competing, I highly recommend you read it.

Prepare for Completeness

One of the key factor is that all participants must consider every evaluation criteria when presenting, submitting documents, recording video etc. You must be able to demonstrate your idea in few minutes, show some market opportunity and competitor analysis followed by technology usage. Answer some of the great questions like why would anyone use it? who needs it? Have you talked to any potential customer? Show how your solution would create a difference and leave the floor with excitement. Demonstrating only solution or technology or project output may raise some red flags. If your project is not complete show the judges what are you planning and HOW you are going to achieve future milestones.

Be a Product Manager

In addition to the point above, one of your team member have to be a Product Manager. Spend some time thinking how you are going to productize your work. You must have some plan how would you market it, how would you launch it, how much it would cost, what features other similar products offer, who is your customer, why would anyone buy it? if its a world citizenship category project, have you talked to any concern NGO?

Usability Matters

As your project evolves, set aside some time to think about usability and user experience. Especially if your target audience is physically challenged people, you need to think how they will actually end up using your product. For example, If you are targeting someone who is unable to see but can listen, then how he is going to launch your app, how he is going to provide input etc. Is your app really easy to use for your target audience?

Connect with Industry Experts

Take advantage of your alumni, connect with industry experts, request them favor to review your work, practice presenting (online and offline). Get their guidance.

Take it Serious

Competitions like Imagine Cup provides tons of opportunities to students. Not only you can get cash support to really convert your project into product but also you can have chance to interact with potential investors, researchers and international industry links. So if you are IN, take it real serious and participate only to WIN.
All the Best!

Imagine Cup Tips and Evaluation Experience

Imagine Cup LogoLast week I was invited by Microsoft Pakistan team to be part of panel for the evaluation of entries for Microsoft Imagine Cup (Regional/Pakistan). As always, it’s good to have interaction with academia and students.
The Microsoft Imagine Cup is the world’s premier student technology competition. We invite all eligible students to use their imagination and passion to create a technology solution that addresses the Imagine Cup 2012 theme: Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems
Panel
In this blog post, I am going to share some of the tips and things to consider for participants of Microsoft Imagine Cup, especially from Pakistan. I am not a winner from past, back then I really didn’t know anything about Imagine Cup and wish I was that good as well, However from my professional experience along with recent observation as evaluator of Imagine cup projects, I would like to help you WIN!
While this post is focused for Imagine Cup, most of the tips are applicable to other software competitions as well. 

Global Competition and Themes

Realize the fact that you are competing on international level with some of the most passionate students around the globe. In 2011, Around 358,000 students from 183 countries/regions registered for Imagine Cup and more than 400 students from 70 countries participated in the Worldwide Finals. Your idea and solution must be solid enough to compete at that level.
“Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems” – Imagine Cup 2012 theme
The theme of competition is to guide you what they are expecting from you and you can either solve local (to your community/country/region) problems or you can choose to solve global issues such as targeting one of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals. At the end, it’s all about looking problems in new ways and leveraging technology capabilities to provide simple and practical solutions to answer them.

Evaluation Criteria in Every Step

Familiarize yourself with the imagine cup evaluation criteria, which they must have told you. It is important in a sense that you will be evaluated on these criteria, so while working on your idea or design or solution or presentation, make sure you consider these criteria and address them.
Criteria Weighting
Problem Definition 10%
Solution Design & Innovation 35%
Technical Architecture & User Experience 30%
Business Viability 15%
Presentation 10%
Note that ideas and innovation is more important here rather than just technology. Utilization and integration of what can be achieved through platforms, tools and technology available today is key to success here.

Know your Customers and Competitors

In every real life projects, we typically start projects by interacting with customers or actual users to get understanding of their problems and discuss possible solution with them. Most of the successful projects are those who have meet and know their user/association which ultimately gives benefit to the team as their problem and solutions are mature and more practical.
Plus it’s always important to analyze what already exists in market and your competitors. It is important to get answers of following questions:
  • Who are my customers?
    • Connect with concern people!
    • Understand their problems
  • Competitors?
    • What are other application addressing similar problems?
    • What feature set they are providing?
    • Cost/Benefit analysis?
    • Is there any problem due to which customers are not happy with the existing product?
  • What your solutions will provide?
    • Some of the gaps which you would like to cater in your product?
    • Practical roll out of your solution
Once you implemented part of the solution, connect with your customer and get their feedback, see what they think about the project and how this will solve their problem.

Present to WIN

The way you present your work really matters A LOT. Half of the time there are students who have done good work but are not able to pitch it the way it should be. You will get really short amount of time (15-20 minutes) so PLAN IT WELL and demonstrate areas that are significant and important. I have seen students highlighting less relevant item, for example, contact us form on your application is something which no one be interested in until or unless it’s your problem area main area.
Evaluators are mostly interested in YOUR CONTRIBUTION. For example, if you are using speech recognition SDK, panel would be interested in knowing how you have utilized the SDK or perhaps how you have utilized already built-in features to address real world problem or have creating something above that APIs.
Consider following points for your presentation:
  • Engage Audience
    • Creating attractive presentation by demonstrating crux of your project
    • Create few sample scenarios of your projects to be demonstrated
    • Try to create some WOW factor in your demo
    • Too much verbose in your presentation slides will lose the interest of audience
    • Try to address evaluation criteria indirectly in your presentations
    • Videos are good for providing background but make sure they are short and concise
  • Brand
    • Branding starts from naming your project
    • Create a logo for your project or perhaps a good idea will be to wear shirts containing logos and theme/design
    • Consistent styling across application with relevant theme and user experience
    • Presentation template and styling matters
  • Be prepared
    • It’s always good to visit early and get familiarize with the environment
    • Connect with projector/display and make sure your content is viewable
    • Practice demos!
    • Do a rehearsal with whole team
  • Q & A
    • Your team must be prepared to answer possible questions from panel
    • Divide areas among yourself and reply a well formed answer
    • It’s always better to rephrasing question to clear up understanding and at the same time give yourself time to think on answer 

Future plan

Your future plan must focus more on business viability or commercialization or roll out with any relative association. Talk about if you have been connected with actual users or associations or NGOs that will eventually help you in actual roll out of your solution.
There are funds associated with top entries that are business viable, even if they are not winning solutions.

Connect with Local Mentors

From start to end, try to get connected with local mentors, Microsoft team, industry experts, MVPs. Request for their help on periodic basis and create a continuous feedback channel, may be once in a month or whatever sounds good to both sides.

Start Early (For Prospective Participants)

It is always recommended to start as early as possible. If you are currently enrolled in University program and are about to enroll for final year project, it’s good to align your project with global competitions and bring cup home!
To get started, visit www.imaginecup.com. Connect with local Microsoft team and/or refer to your local country/region Competition Rules for instructions on how to submit your entry. For students in Pakistan, visit www.imaginecup.com/PK/SD.aspx for rules and guidelines for software design competition.
Finally, don’t forget to check out Imagine Cup history to know about previous inspirational winners.
Good Luck!

Final Year Project (FYP) Suggestions and Ideas

From time to time, I receive emails and concerns of students regarding Final Year Project (FYP). And we even get request for organizing events on FYP. At the start of the year, it’s mostly NEDians that ping us and in summer, students from FAST-NUCES, University of Karachi, Bahria University send us their queries.

And mostly these queries are related to

  • What we should do in the FYP
  • Can you give us any idea?
  • What if we want to participate in Imagine Cup?
  • We want to do something good in FYP.
  • Tell us the technology on which we develop Final Year Project

So I thought maybe its good time to write a detail post on blog about what I feel about FYP and answer to some of the common concerns student raise.

Why Final Year Project Matters?

I always emphasize on the importance of Final Year Project (FYP) and we can say it’s one of the most important aspects of your degree. It is the point where you can apply knowledge or what you have been learning in the past few years. It is the point that creates an ordinary graduate vs. an entrepreneur. It is the point that creates meaning of your degree and your existence as an engineer. It is the way of getting exposure and experience of what real world problems are, if done properly. It will inevitably be used as a gateway to industry and to discriminate YOU among your peers.

What you can do in FYP?

Final year project usually span across 6 months to 1 year. I recommend you to take it seriously and do something hard, so don’t do just simple websites or simple ABC management system. Do something which you are passionate about and that makes you exciting, don’t get afraid, and accept big challenges. Utilize technology and go beyond what was not achievable before time.

Make a meaning: Try to solve real life issues, it might be big or small, but at the end of the project it must contribute in some manner to the society. Also, don’t delay it till the end of semester/year to work on FYP because in that case it will be nearly a piece of garbage not creating any meaning.

From my experience, I have observed that mostly highly praised projects are somewhat

  • An implementation of research paper (after all computer scientist/engineer)
  • A combination of hardware + software to solve a real world problem
  • Project following Imagine cup theme and level
  • Newest trend/buzz word/paradigm in the industry
  • Working with organization to solve a problem, more than just an ordinary ABC Management System (Make sure you deliver them your project at the end)
  • Integrate with online platform such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Google Code, Live etc to solve a great problem
  • Unleash computing/storage power by utilizing cloud platform and achieve something that was not possible before Cloud/Grid

Also make sure the material and guide related to your project in available online, you may also refer to IEEE or ACM libraries and digital content.

Which Technology/Platform you should use?

Now this is very famous question. Computer Science/Engineering students keep asking about what technology/platform we should use such as Sun Java, Microsoft .NET or C++ etc. and it is pretty interesting question.

The answer to this question is that it depends on what you want to do in future. Perhaps at many occasion, I have instructed students to taste several platforms before graduation and let final year project be on platform which you like most. For example, Starting from a procedural language in first semester such as C, move to learn OOP in C++ and then in third year make a project such as networking and database using .NET and Java.

So what I mean from “It depends on what you want to do in future” is basically number of factors that you want to

  • Continue your career in particular platform (probably because you like it or there are more job opportunities in it)
  • Participate in any Software competition that might have some requirement. For example, if you want to participate in Imagine Cup you probably should go for .NET platform

Whatever reason be it for selecting platform, it’s always better to have your interest in it 🙂

I guess that’s all for this post. I will write few more posts on FYP such as participating in Imagine Cup, about FYP Presentation and some other FYP ideas you can work on. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to ask I will include them in upcoming post.

Till then, have a great time!