Imagine Cup Champs Talk Strategy, Tips, and Career Planning

Developers sometimes feel that when it comes to their career they have a choice to make: build solutions for the greater good or focus on bringing home the bacon. We don’t think you have to choose one or the other, and we tracked down last year’s Imagine Cup winners to prove our point for us. 

[Left to Right: Taylor Mullen, Keith Ayers, Matt Lesnak]

It’s been less than a year since the Drexel Dragons built an award-winning mobile app that is as educationally beneficial as it is fun to play. Not only did their MathDash app take home 1st place at last year’s Imagine Cup, it landed them roles at Microsoft where they are dreaming and building the next big thing. We picked the team’s collective brain to get some pointers for this year’s Imagine Cup contenders and gleaned lessons that mobile app developers can take to the bank along the way. 


How an Award Winning App Gets Started

Have you ever started a project and half way through decided to scrap it? Keep tabs on your mobile app graveyard – it worked for these guys. 

“A long time ago we made a Math game for K-4 kids in a class as a throw-away project and we noticed that everyone, even our older friends, loved it. The game wasn’t close to MathDash is now, but the basic operations were the same. We wanted to improve it, but didn’t have much time. Later, when we saw the opportunity to enter the Imagine Cup with our game, we jumped on it.” –Keith

Just because the Dragons had a good idea of what they wanted to create didn’t mean it was easy. But knowing their final product would be critiqued by investors and industry thought leaders provided all the motivation they needed to put in extra hours on the project. And many of those extra hours were spent doing things way outside their comfort zone.

Because of the small team size, all of us had to wear many hats throughout the project. For my contributions, I was the project manager, a programmer, one of two artists, and handled research on the educational component behind the game.” - Matt


Developers and Imagine Cup Contestants Everywhere: Heed This Advice

Competing in and winning Imagine Cup is much akin to launching a startup and getting funded, all in a matter of weeks. That’s precious experience that aspiring developers and entrepreneurs can learn from.

Don’t get too attached to any particular feature of your project. Sometimes, a feature that you design or implement yourself holds a special place in your heart and you’re reluctant to see it get changed. Instead, get attached to your project and be willing to make whatever change is going to make it that much better.”- Matt

“Start a project that has meaning to you.  Your passion for your project will shine in everything that you do, whether it be the development or even the presentation.  If you don’t believe in your project how can you make someone else believe in it?” –Taylor

As for Imagine Cup here’s one nugget of advice to live by: building something great is just the beginning. The team that holds the giant check and hoists the trophy over their heads knows how to get others excited about their idea, and make a beautiful user experience. 

“Game design was everything for us. We didn’t make the most technologically advanced game or the most content, the magic was the design – we had a game that was both fun and helped players with their math at the same time.”- Keith

Focus on your presentation. A great project is necessary to win the competition, but the key is to know how to present your project and get people excited about it. That generated excitement is what will differentiate the winning project from the rest of the pack.” - Matt


What Happens After You Ride into the Sunset?  

To make an impact in the tech industry and learn the latest and greatest technologies there’s no place better than Microsoft. Currently I’m developing prototypes in an IT research team where things are always busy and interesting. I’ve already made tons of friends and mentors, and I’m well on my way to spending a 6-month rotation in MS Studios doing gameplay programming.” -Keith

I am now working as a Producer in Microsoft Studios. This means that I help provide direction to the products I am working on and keep the team organized and focused on meeting the project’s goals. I decided to pursue working for Microsoft because it offered me the opportunity to break into the game industry and continue doing what I love to do.” -Matt

I am working on the ASP.NET SignalR team where we focus on making it easier to develop real-time communication enabled application for developers.  It’s been a blast so far and not too long ago I finished my HTML5 multiplayer game ShootR which was featured at Build, throughout real-time presentations across the U.S., and is one of two products used to demonstrate the power of SignalR. When it came to job searching after college I knew that I wanted to make an impact in the tech world and I felt that Microsoft was the perfect place for me to do that.” -Taylor  

Do you have an idea that could change the world for the better? Compete in Microsoft Imagine Cup 2013! Register now!  

Want to create a winning Windows Phone and/or Windows 8 app like MathDash? Sign up for Generation App to get the hands-on developer support and resources you need to take your app from idea to market in 30 days, at no cost. Get started today! 



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