Thursday, July 12, 2012


Today was departure day. All the students packing up, checking out, heading to the buses for the airport.

Many of the students included a "future" slide in their presentations. They spoke about their plans for their product, next steps for their business aspirations, and where they wanted to take their ideas. All were full of hope and optimism.

The question is how many teams will be around next year? We heard from a number of former contestants who had turned their project into a viable business over the past ten years. No doubt there are more. And many could benefit humanitarian work and help change the world. Yet it was clear that great ideas take incredible persistence to become great businesses.

We learned through Steve Jobs that insanely great products are all important. It was something our business schools overlooked. But the adage that great products without marketing and sales are great shelf-ware is also true, as is under-funding will kill the product. The smart teams had a marketing person on their team, and the best ones were high-energy sales people. And they had done their homework on the financials.

One of the signs about Imagine Cup posted in the conference center said "No DREAM too BIG".

One of the hallmarks of Microsoft is to think big. Passing this on to students is a natural. I heard a quip once that set "all things come to he who waits... as long as you work like hell in the meantime." As others have said, the competition is the beginning of a journey, not the end. I look forward to seeing what next year brings. See you in St. Petersburg!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, July 9, 2012


Today we saw the final six teams compete for the software design awards at Imagine Cup. These were the best of the best, cool technology and well rehearsed presentations. Today, all of the demo's worked.

During one presentation, the speaker blanked on one of the slides. It was an awkward moment of silence. Then something special happened. One of his teammates asked him a leading question. The speaker replied and was back on track.

This was a simple and brilliant move. It's a variation on improv theatre, where one actor plays on another's line and extends it in a way that appears seamless.

It's also a great example of teamwork. No member of a team has a solo part. We are all completing each other's sentences.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Juggling the Demo

During a break between demos at Imagine Cup, I stepped outside for some fresh air. On the promenade, a crowd had gathered around a juggler. I stepped up to the circle and watched him toss an assortment of knives and one-liners. At one point he dropped a knife, and immediately shifted to some on-the-ground "juggling", which he did slowly, knives on the pavement, so we would not miss a turn. "I don't need your pity," he barked with a cheshire grin!

Of the nine teams I saw at the Imagine Cup, the demo's for more than half failed at some point. The angle of the Kinect box was off for one, a battery pack had drained for another, a laptop failed, an Internet connection was painfully slow, a slide did not build with its image, and so on.

There are a few lessons from our juggler that apply to the software demo. To start, practice, practice, practice. The juggler made sure we knew he had been at his craft for twenty years. He had obviously tossed these knives a few times before.

Plan on something failing. As Murphy's Law states "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." A knife will fall. How will you handle that? (Pun intended :-)

Have a "b-plan". When your first plan fails, what will you do instead? Do you have an on-the-ground demo you can substitute?

Last but not least, use some humor! Nothing cuts the stress of the moment like some levity.

I received an update flag on my iPad today for the Yelp app I have installed. The explanation was priceless: "Fixed a bug causing the iPad app to crash for Italian users. No bosons were harmed during this collision." No less a software design judge, instead of being annoyed, I was entertained.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Anticipation, [an-tis-uh-pey-sh uh n], noun
2. realisation in advance; foretaste.
3. expectation or hope.

Sitting in Starbucks sipping a reminder from the US, I watch the contestants walking by on the harbour promenade. They are on their way from the hotel to the convention center. The first round of the Imagine Cup competition begins soon and will run into the evening.  There is an urgency in their stride.

I see the Italian team in the coffee shop and say hello. They are nervous, and eye my badge. I ask about their universities.  They are from three cities, scattered across Italy.  I won't be seeing them today.  They are relieved.

We were told yesterday that the teams have been preparing for weeks, getting their presentations down to a rhythm, anticipating the questions we will ask.  Anticipating has a double edge.  As Pasteur reminded us, "chance favours the prepared mind".  Like the athletes in the summer games soon to start in London, there are months of conditioning and rehearsal.  A colleague challenges leaders to imagine the end of the movie, how this will play out.   Anticipating the ending, is rattled by the anticipation in the stomach for it to begin. Many of the teams take a deep breath then start.

The imagination that began the idea that got them here, is also needed for imagining what the audience will hear.  That is beyond the judges to the customers and users of their solutions and products.   Can they imagine the satisfaction, the "ah hah" of their audience.  

This is often an unnatural act for technology wizards, for whom the solution is "obvious". They know the end of the story.  But it is those who can tell the story in the words of their listeners, who will bring their audience along.  They will win the day.   

Tonight we selected 20 students from 72 amazing entries for software design, that in turn beat out almost 400,000 ideas from an equal number of applicants who registered on the site a year ago. The teams in the Sydney auditorium were aching with anticipation. Those that told the good stories of why, how and for how much, anticiapated what their audience needed to hear. Their solutions were, by and large, the best.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Ultimate Mash-up

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the tenth annual Microsoft Imagine Cup, the world's largest student competition for software. Here is an article I sent to Microsoft Europe.

The Ultimate Mash-up

The prospects for Europe's youth were never bleaker; the prospects were never brighter. You cannot pick up a local paper or magazine without reading about the staggering unemployment and growing frustration among youth in European countries.  Even the best educated have had to ratchet down their expectations to find work, and even then there a few guarantees.  We could stop the story here and allow pessimism to win the day.

But the lessons of the Imagine Cup tell another story.  Team after team with project after project defy the odds with innovation.  I have often counted off the "no's" of Imagine Cup students:

1) No business experience
2) No marketing experience
3) No money
4) No time
5) No sense of limitation

It is that last one that makes all the difference. The contestants I have listened to over the past five years as a software design  judge are not limited by statements like "that will never work here".  They just "do" with whatever means they have within their reach, and then some. And their enthusiasm for their solutions is contagious.

This results in some interesting discoveries that are what I call the "three mash-ups". The first is mashing-up common components in new ways. For example, the team from Jordan, a winner in 2011, duct-taped a WII box to a monitor, pulled the diode from a TV remote and mounted it on a baseball cap, and wrote software so that a young paraplegic woman could simulate a mouse and operate a cursor on a PC by tilting her head and pausing to click.   Watching the team's video is a moving experience (See  In her words, the OaSys System gave her back her life. Notice the technology pieces that were used; nothing new or extraordinary; but the connection of the parts is brilliant.  The innovation is in the mash-up of the everyday tech.

The second mash-up is in the opportunity for one team to join up with another at the Imagine Cup finals and talk about combining their projects.  At the 2009 competition, I saw an amazing application from the team from Poland that translated music to braille and back again.  The software and use of a Windows phone was extraordinary.  But the braille reader component they used was expensive. The team from China, on the other hand, had invented a braille reader from off-the-shelf components for a tenth of the cost.  At the showcase, I introduced the China team to the Poland team and asked them to do a demo for each other.  The conversation began for how they may combine efforts, mashing up their solutions, if you will, for something that could reach more people.  The key is to find each other and work together.

The third mash-up is combining the inventor-entrepreneur with humanitarian work. The Imagine Cup has encouraged students to write solutions that address the UN Millennium Development Goals.  Each team must demonstrate how their application addresses one of the MDGs.  Most teams focus on improving health or the environment. And the solutions are creative indeed, as shown by the examples above.  Going forward, there is an opportunity for Imagine Cup finalists to take their ideas to scale at humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.  Perhaps as volunteers, or interns or employees of the future.  That is my wish, and something for which I continue to advocate.  I believe this will be the ultimate mash-up of talent and need for the greater good in the world.

What are the three most important words in this article? Find, mash-up, and together.  I can think of nothing more optimistic in my conversations with students at the Imagine cup finals in Sydney this week.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."