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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Day of the competition

Breakfast at Tiffany's...oops Microsoft

Once again an early starter at 7:30am. We came down to Marriott from where we were shuttled to the Microsoft Main Campus. At breakfast, Kevin briefed us about the various events for the day. Essentially the 31 teams that had come down were divided into 9 regions.
  1. West Region
  2. Southeast Region
  3. Mid-Atlantic Region
  4. Northeast Region
  5. South Region
  6. Mid-America Region
  7. Midwest Region
  8. Rocky Mountain Region
  9. Northwest Region
We were in the SouthEast region. One winner would be selected from each region and the 9 winner would then compete for the top 3 positions. We were all assembled at the Briefing center and one by one the teams were called for the Presentations. Now each team will be judged by 2 Microsoft employees in a small conference room. The presentation would be 20 minutes including QA. Fortunately it did not count the setup and teardown.

Once our team was called we were escorted by Kevin to Building 42. We went to floor 1 for the conference room. Our 2 judges were Nikhil Manchanda and Brian (forgot the last name). The presentation went off pretty well and we were happy with our performance. The judges gave a blank look throughout and that did not give us much confidence. But then Thomas tells us that this is how judges are supposed to be. I guess he is right. Because of our numerous iterations over the presentation we finished well in time and was almost a class act. The demo ran flawlessly and we batted all questions well. I guess our preparation was well rounded. We had made a document of all conceivable questions and pretty much that is what the judges asked. Preparation does matter a lot.

Back to Briefing center

Once we were out, Kevin brought us back to the Briefing center where we assembled for lunch. The big plasma screen in front was playing videos of the new XBox games and it was real cool. I wished I had XBox 360. We all were pretty clueless about how the presentation went. Though we knew we pulled a good one, the general feeling was still was: "I don't know". Once all the teams got back, the lunch carried on for half hour more. After that we were moved to Cascade, the dark room conference center. This was again a cool place with a huge screen in front and nice seating arrangement in waterfall. Now the suspense was rising. This was the time when Kevin would spill the beans about the 9 National Finalists. In our region we had competition from Stanford University and University of Washington. We were not sure how we performed given the reputation of the other 2 universities.

When the Southeast region was being announced, we were almost going crazy. They started in back order. 3rd was Stanford University. Great. 2nd University of Washington. Excellent. That was it. We were in the National finals: The top 9 teams that would compete for the coveted 3 positions. It was an exhilirating feeling. A great feeling to have to come this far with all the circumstances I have had during the semester. The stage was now set. In the same room we would be presenting a short while from now. This again is grand since we would be facing Microsoft Employees and defending our product.

Kevin also gave out the feedback forms from our previous 2 judges. When we looked at the grading, we were pleasantly delighted. Some of their comments:
I knew visuals were important but this proves the point even more. You may be having the world's best algorithm to solve the problem but without enough icing, even a good idea can be disregarded. I remember my previous CEO quoting: "Execution of the Idea is more important than the Idea itself".

The finals

When Kevin announced the finalists he also gave the order of presentation. We were to go 7th of the 9 teams. That was good since it would give us some idea of how we should be fine tuning our presentation. We sat for the first one and realized that we need to make some corrections to our own presentation. We went out of the Cascade and discussed about the minor corrections. We sat for rest of the presentations. General idea is that the presentations looked more like a course project presentation. I did not find any of them professionally done. The software demo was pretty broken without any user scenario. I was hoping that the judges would take all this into account.

When our turn came it went pretty well. The talk and the demo was perfectly synchronized. The videos, sound and the presentation went very well. In all we pulled it off pretty well. It was great to stand in front of the Microsoft crowd and give a presentation. That gave a different kind of feeling. The Cascade, the auditorium where we gave our presentation was also called the Dark Room.

After all the presentations we got back to the briefing center. We had our dinner, which was mostly Mexican food. Atlast the time came when the top 3 teams were announced. I was sad not to our team in the top. It was difficult to understand what really went wrong. Kevin said he would be mailing all of us the feedback from the judges.

We boarded the bus back to Residence Inn. After getting back Thomas decided that we should visit the Town center. One more team from California was also interested in going there. We got together and chatted. There we went to the Coffee bar and had a good time till 12:30 pm.

We leave

The next day we had to get up early since our shuttle was scheduled to leave from the Marriott at 8:30am. We had our breakfast at 8 and were all set. The shuttle was supposed to pick one more person from the Homestead suites. That person happened to be one of our judges from the yesterday's event. He told us that we lagged in the innovation and probably should have done more research on existing products. Although I don't completely agree with him, he may have a subtle point there. He also suggested that we start looking into Avalon and Indigo, the Graphics and Communication system for the Windows Longhorn Operating System. He said if we delved deeply, he may have a project for us.

To wrap up, the experience was out of the world. I always wanted to see Microsoft from inside and this was definitely a great opportunity. Talking to many of the Microsoft employees was great and I liked the work culture that they have here. I hope to get back here for Imagine Cup 2006!

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