A week or so ago Nick Ellery (still can't find a blog for him but he made a ballsy comment about Women in IT on the Academic blog), the new academic intern with the DPE team here in Australia, asked me to comment on some of my experiences with the Imagine Cup worldwide finals. I was a finalist judge in 2004 (Brazil) and 2005 (Japan) and I cannot rave enough about the level of this competition.
If you are a student who is in the process of entering this years Imagine Cup please feel free to comment on this post and I'll try and answer any questions you might have regarding the finals process (or at least based on what they were in the past - no guarantee they will be the same this year)
The format usually consists of three phases:
- Introductory round (not judged): In this round the contestants are given their first opportunity to meet with the judges for approximately 10 minutes to give overview of their entry. This round is typically held the day before the main event and in the two years that I was involved varied between a booth setup (where contestants gave an overview/demo of their product at an exhibition style booth) and a presentation room. I would suggest that there is a high correlation between the groups that made effective use of this round with those that make the finals round. Some pointers for this round:
- Think “elevator pitch” – this round is short and sharp. Get started on time, don’t waste time with power point and you don’t all need to present. Some groups insisted on having all participants talking – not necessary in this round.
- Jazz it up as much as possible – this round is where you get to wow the judges into coming back to see more. If they aren’t interested the first time round you are going to struggle to convince them of the merit of your entry in the next round
- Get to know your judges – make sure you introduce everyone in the team but don’t do over kill (you’ll have more time in the next round); simple name, area of interest will probably suffice. Listen to what the judges have to say!!!!! This includes where they are from (academic or industry), the questions they ask and their body language. Take notes at the end of this round based on the judges (they will be doing the same about you) so that you can tailor your presentation to address their interests
- Main round: In the main round each team is given 25 minutes (5 minutes allocated for transition) to present their entry. The teams will present to the same set of judges they saw in the introductory round so they can assume that the judges haven’t forgotten everything (ie don’t spend too long on the same things). Presentations are held in a separate presentation room so make sure you can move in, get setup and ready to go within a couple of minutes. Although there are 5 minutes allocated, don’t be surprised if the previous group goes overtime or takes a minute or two to get off the stage – the less setup you have to do the better. Some pointers for this round:
- Make the most of the time – The competition is NOT about who you are or what you have done, so don’t waste too much time on your background. The competition IS about your entry – focus on background to the problem, your approach and the entry itself
- Keep up the interest – In the opening round you will have hopefully captured the attention of the judges. In this round you need to renew and foster this interest. Do this by integrating “boring” content between bits of “interesting” content. The reality is that you do have to cover things like the architecture of the solution, but you need to present it in a way that will maintain the interest of the judges.
- Your application is not just a 3tier architecture – Don’t just drop hype words into your architecture – particularly if you don’t understand them and/or you aren’t using that technology. Focus on what differentiates your solution and the areas where you are pushing the boundaries of any technology.
- Who is the target market – This competition is NOT about building a commercial product BUT it needs to have a target market. Who’s going to use the product? What’s the research behind the market demand? Have you thought about how the entry could be commercialised? Is your solution ready to go, or does it need packaging or to be added into existing products?
- Finals round: From the main round a number of teams (I think 6 or so) are selected to go through to the finals round. In 2004 this was done in the same presentation room as the main round with the difference being that the other competitors get to sit in and watch and that they were presenting to the other judges. In 2005 this was done in a massive conference hall with hundreds of guests invited and to a select group of finalist judges (myself included). Some pointers for this round:
- Introduce yourself – remember not all the judges will have met you in the earlier rounds and given their busy schedule they probably won’t have had an opportunity to look at your entry. This is a little harder than the main round as you don’t know the background of the new judges. If you can perhaps ask some of the other teams what the judges are like, what their questions were etc as this can give you a heads up as to the questions they might ask of you.
- Get it right – if your demos had issues in the earlier rounds then make sure you fix them up and practice, practice, practice. The winning entry will not only be good, they will present well too. Take a look at previous winning entries and see how well polished they are.
- Be entertaining – make the audience laugh and/or empathise with what you have done. Make sure they aren’t laughing at you, rather with you!
- Find the balance – you must present the technical details of your application but remember that this tends to be the dry part of your presentation so you need to focus on the parts that make your entry stand out from the pack. Once you have identified them get someone with a keen graphical eye to present the information in an eye catching, yet meaningful, way.
- Don’t use Powerpoint – Powerpoint is for those people who can’t present. If you must use powerpoint then keep it minimalistic and avoid using the standard templates.
Remember unlike the earlier rounds the finals competition is multi-stage. Get to the venue early for ALL sessions. Know what the schedule is, where you have to be places, how to get there and when your turn is going to be. Don't think - I've just got to get through this round and then I can worry about the next round - take some time at the beginning to plan your campaign.
Most of all - don't forget to have fun, meet as many people as you can and make sure you stay in contact with them. The Imagine Cup is guaranteed to unlock doors - you just need to open them ;-)