Randy Guthrie – Microsoft Technology Evangelist
Over my career at Microsoft I have coached and mentored a lot of Imagine Cup teams; some of which have gone on to win at the US and World Finals. I have also seen teams that had great ideas and projects not make it as far in the competition that could have (I did not say deserved on purpose), because they didn’t emphasize the right things in their competition submissions. Judges are not mind-readers, nor can they be experts in every knowledge domain or technology. It is up to the team to tell the judges what they need to hear in order to accurately and fairly assess the quality of the project. Teams that do this really well deserve to win. Those that don’t, don’t. In this post, I hope to share some best practices for creating winning submissions gleaned from both mentoring teams and being an Imagine Cup judge.
Know Why The Imagine Cup Exists
Many students mistakenly think that companies run technology competitions because they are motivated by philanthropic aspirations. Unless you are dealing with a government agency this likely isn’t true. In the case of Microsoft, the Imagine Cup is a marketing program. It’s underlying message is “look at what cool things students are capable of using our technology”. It is a soft sell for sure, but the sell is definitely there. The winners will be chosen because their invention/project puts Microsoft’s tools and technologies in the best light. Finalists are often given opportunities to appear on television, newspapers, blogs and other news outlets, and the scoring rubric/judging criteria and our own marketing department is ultimately looking at your project through that lens. Even if you use a variety of tools and platforms, how you show off Microsoft’s part of your project will largely determine if you end up on the podium or clapping for someone else.
Know the Scoring Rubric
Each Imagine Cup competition has a published scoring rubric that identifies the different dimensions that your project will be evaluated against. Usually the judging categories are given different weights so teams know how to prioritize their deliverables, but there are some nuances to judging that make strictly relying on those weights perilous. And just because something isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it can’t be an influence.
Try to address each area of the rubric in each and every deliverable. Even in game-play instructions you can mentions things like “to see this really interesting part of the game play do this and that…” and that interesting part showcases some part of the judging criteria. Yes, you will be repeating yourself and that is exactly the point. As I explain below, the judges rarely see 100% of everything you submit, and depending on their learning style or a lot of other factors, one or more of your deliverables might not be viewable in an optimal way, so it is best if you try to make sure the judges can evaluate every criteria even if some of your deliverables have technical issues or don’t get the full attention of the judges.
Know the Other Requirements
Each Imagine Cup competition has other mandatory requirements that are not mentioned in the scoring rubric that do impact how your project will be judged or whether it will even be judged. These requirements are binary pass/fail, and if you don’t meet these you will be disqualified. They include things like you must use Microsoft technologies as either platform or infrastructure/back-end service, maximum team size of four, and that the team has to own or have legal rights or a license to use all intellectual property in the project, etc.
Every Deliverable Stands Alone
In most of the Imagine Cup competitions, you will have multiple deliverables such as a Business Plan, Game Description, and Demo Video. You will usually have to submit a copy of the actual software at some point, ostensibly so the judges can “try out” your software and see how it works. Because of this, you might be tempted to assume that since you covered a certain topic in the Business Plan, or that your interface is so intuitive, etc. that you don’t have to mention it elsewhere, particularly in the video. This is a big mistake and here is why: different people have different learning styles. What if your judge is not a “reader” and prefers to learn visually? Then your Business Plan, which is likely a Microsoft Word document isn’t going to be nearly as impactful as your video. That is why every deliverable (where it makes sense at least) needs to attempt to address the entire judging rubric. Another reality is that even if a judge actually does figure out how to install your software and get it to work (doubtful), she/he isn’t going to know how to use it even if your “instructions” are better than average (also doubtful). Judges are not going to spend 20 or 30 minutes trying to install and learn to use your software. They might click around a bit just to make sure your demo wasn’t faked, but watching YOU use your software smoothly and effortlessly in a video is going to make the greatest impression of it’s potential.
How Judging Really Works
First, judges will read your business plan just get the gist of what you are building and if you have a clue about what creating a real business would take. Next we’ll watch your video. At that point the judge makes a decision whether to keep looking or quit. If the deliverable’s quality and messaging is well below that of other projects, the judge may decide to save time and fill out the scoring rubric based on those two inputs alone. They won’t be rock solid in every category, but since you won’t see the actual scores it won’t matter, as long as score is significantly below the better projects. If the project has made a good impression, the judge will look at the rest of the documentation and may try to install the software and use it. But if, for example, you made an iPhone app that runs on Azure, and the judge doesn’t have an iPhone, they likely are not going to try to find a phone to test your app. If they do try to use it, they won’t be an expert; they won’t really know how it works, and so their personal hands-on experience will at best be mediocre. The reality is that very seldom is a judge able to use the code you submitted, so if you don’t do a great job showing it in-use in your video, it is quite unlikely the judges will see it in use at all.
Be Business Professional
You don’t have to act excited in your videos and in-person presentations to be exciting. I have seen audiences burst into spontaneous applause in the middle of an Imagine Cup competition presentation because the project, or at least the point being made was awesome; not because the team was presenting like they were on reality TV or on a game show. I have even seen a standing ovation at then end of a presentation at the World Finals. You want to be that team. Pretend you are presenting in front of a group of potential investors that are not only judging the value of your invention, but also assessing your experience, maturity, and ability to run a company successfully; because you won’t really be pretending. Imagine Cup judges are judging you as if you were going to be starting a company and asking for funding. Besides the cost of prizes, Microsoft is also hoping to invest marketing, promotion, and employee time to help winners be successful to amplify the impact (remember why the Imagine Cup exists as discussed above). So be calm, prepared, and articulate in a mature, restrained way.
When it comes to attire, you don’t have to go suit and tie (unless that is your vibe). Team Poli’ Ahu from the University of Hawaii emphasized their unique cultural and geographic situational awareness with Aloha Shirts and leis. Their project helped Hawaiian residents identify and report damage and dangers from natural disasters that are almost a weekly occurrence in Hawaii. Many teams compete in team “uniforms” whether it be matching school polo shirts, or even matching tee-shirts. In my opinion consistency in appearance is a plus. You don’t have to formal, but overly casual or sloppy is definitely not a good idea.
Use and Highlight Microsoft Products
This may seem obvious by now, but a lot of students miss this one, especially when their project uses several different platforms and the visible part isn’t Microsoft. For example, if you are making an app that runs on iPhone but are using Windows Azure as the back-end, then your presentation, video, Business Plan, etc. better spend considerable time explaining how Azure is amazing and makes the iPhone (or any other phone) do things it couldn’t otherwise do. Don’t just list the Microsoft technologies you are using; show how you are using them and what they do for you that other technologies don’t. Even if your project is a Windows/Windows Phone based, make sure we know what advantages our platform offers relative to other platforms that you might have chosen. If you are using a lot of different Microsoft technologies, then don’t gloss over, say, the Visual Studio contribution. Explain how Visual Studio saved you time, and how you used Visual Studio online for versioning, check-in/check-out, sharing the project remotely, etc. . Same with Azure, Server 2012, etc.
Be The Expert
Far and away the best example of “being an expert was David Hayden and Team Notetaker’s “Notetaker” Imagine Cup project. The project was designed to help partially-sighted students take notes and copy the chalkboard just as easily as fully-sighted students. David is legally-blind and he developed the project so he could pass his math and computer science courses (he is finishing his PhD at MIT right now so yeah, it worked). Any time David was talking about his project he was the undisputed expert in the room. There was no question about vision assistive technologies in general, or potential competitors, or the blind audience that any judge could ask that David didn’t know about. Not only was he well aware of the limitations of competing technology solutions, but he was also very sharp on the economics and potential audience for his device. His obvious expertise “sold” his project as much as what it could do; particularly in the early stages of the competition when his prototypes were fairly simple (like the camera built on a Skippy Peanut Butter Jar).
You need to be that expert. If you are making a physics-based shooter, you better be an expert on physics-based shooters and know about every popular game out there including levels, company profiles, published articles about them, etc. You need to know your competitors not only from a game-play perspective, but also from a business perspective as well. You need to know why your project is different in positive ways from the other technologies like yours, or designed to do similar things. This will make all the difference when you are in front of judges and they start asking questions; some of which may surprise you because the judge is coming from a different set of personal experiences. Even worse is if the judge is an expert and expects you to be but you aren’t. You don’t want to be submitting an Angry Bird clone and have Tobiah Marks as your judge and not be an expert on physics-based shooters, because he is; his game Blast Monkeys was the top free game in the Android marketplace in 2011; and Tobiah could quite likely be a judge this year.
Get Expert Help and Mentoring
While on that path to becoming an expert, a common mistake that some teams make is that they assume that reading a few Internet articles, or having a little experience from a school assignment makes them an expert in a particular problem domain. One time I asked a student team about potential competitors to their project and they confidently stated that there weren’t any; despite the fact there was a huge billboard out at the freeway onramp a block away from their school advertising a competing solution. On the other hand, I love to hear students say they have been working closely with one or more agencies that would potentially be customers of their solution. Getting the advice of experienced experts and professionals is invaluable, particularly in the early stages of your project development. At some later time you might acquire real expertise on your own, but at least in the beginning, partner with mentors and professionals who are experts. You will save a lot of time, and could end up creating a solution that actually could end up getting used.
How to you get expert help? The first place to look is to ask your professors if they have any contacts they could introduce you to. If they are local, arrange a meeting at their office, dress sharp and go there with your team ready to take lots of notes.
Alternatively, do an Internet search for local companies or agencies and make an introductory phone call, not an e-mail, and try to arrange a thirty-minute meeting to ask some questions. Keep that initial meeting short and be respectful. If you manage the time well, you’ll probably get invited to “call if you have more questions”. Try to have at least two, even better, three agencies that you are working with so you get a variety of perspectives.
Rehearse Your Presentation (over and over and over)
My favorite example of this is the “Flash Food” Imagine Cup team from Arizona State University a few years back. This team was created as part of an Engineering social entrepreneurship program. Before their first in-person presentation in the Imagine Cup, the team had already received a number of big cash awards from other competitions, and they estimate that they had already given live presentations of their project in front of judges over 75 times before the Imagine Cup finals. Needless to say their presentation was very polished and smooth, and they had lots of experience answering questions. So even though I have seen projects that were potentially more “exciting” or “innovative”, I have never seen a team that was better at delivering their message, and they won the US Finals very easily because of their preparation and experience in front of judges where money was on the line.
Practice and preparation will make a huge difference. One technique that works well is to put together one or more “mock judging panels” with professors from your school and local industry professionals with domain expertise. Give them the judging rubric and practice giving your 20-minute pitch (or whatever the time is) to them and have them score you. Trust me, you’ll be terrible the first time, but better that happen in practice than in front of the real judges. Also, one of the most important things you get out of a mock panel are the questions that they ask. Those questions show you where the holes are in your presentation, and where you can either add content, or at least be prepared with solid answers in case you get asked that question again.
Don’t Give Up
Lastly, just because you don’t get as far into the competition as you would have wished doesn’t mean it is over. If you haven’t won, there is no rule saying that you can’t submit the same project again in the next wave of submissions. A little known secret is that a lot of teams run out of time in the Fall and push off submittal until the Winter round, thereby making the Fall Round easier to win because the pool of candidate projects is smaller. If you don’t make in in Fall or Spring, then just regroup, fill the missing role on your team, and get ready to submit again the next competition cycle.