I have been pondering whether or not to post anything about the Imagine Cup in Canada for some time now. I believe the competition is a wonderful idea and has great potential, but unfortunately the people in charge of the competition in Canada are destroying it. There are so many things wrong, I’m not even sure if it should all go into one post. Recently, I decided that it would be best to share my observations and analysis on the problems, in the hopes that they can be prevented in future years.
Let me first make it very clear that I have nothing against Microsoft whatsoever. I am one of the biggest Microsoft geeks you’ll find. I have been an MVP, I’m a member of the MSDN Canada Speakers Bureau, I’ve been the Student Ambassador to the University of Alberta for two straight years, I run the .NET user group in Edmonton, and most importantly, I won along with Dickson the first ever Imagine Cup competition in Canada back in 2003. I’m probably the last person that wants to see the Imagine Cup fail.
Perhaps to start, a little background. For those of you who are new to the Imagine Cup, it’s a worldwide student technology competition. The first competition was held in 2003, with the finals taking place in Barcelona, Spain. Last year the competition was expanded, and the finals moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil. This year, the competition was expanded again, to nine different invitationals and another three specifically for high school students. The finals will take place from July 27th until August 1st in Yokohama, Japan.
As I mentioned above, Dickson and I won the first ever Imagine Cup competition in Canada back in 2003. At the time, the only invitational was Software Design. Looking back, I can see that the Imagine Cup was run very informally in Canada, but given that it had never been done before, things went quite smoothly. Canadian participants were given a deadline by which to email their submissions. There was excellent communication between the organizers and the participants (I have the email logs if anyone wants proof). After our submission, judges even contacted us to ask questions as they were trying out our solution. After the competition was over, we were given a scorecard that showed exactly how our entry was judged. In fact, the only major problem in 2003 was that the judging in Canada was not consistent with the judging at the worldwide competition.
Let’s compare that to last year. Dickson and I again participated in the Software Design invitational, and we placed fifth – a ranking we only found out after hounding the organizer to tell us. Apparently, participants were no longer allowed to know where they finished, nor were we given a scorecard. While the submission process was handled very similarly to 2003, the judging was not. Judges did not contact us, nor were we told anything about the judges. We relied on server logs to determine if our solution was being accessed (it was). We had high hopes that 2004 would be a lot like 2003 with improved judging consistency to the worldwide competition, but it turned out to be a step backward.
If 2004 was a step backward for the Imagine Cup in Canada, 2005 is like dropping everything and running in reverse. The person in charge, Daniel Shapiro, Microsoft Canada’s Academic Program Manager, has made sure of that. Emails and instant messages have been ignored probably nine times out of ten. When we decided we wanted to participate, we contacted Daniel to find out about the competition, as we had some questions about the rules and regulations. Unfortunately, Daniel never got back to us, so we made some assumptions and proceeded anyway. There was virtually no information about what to submit before the deadline, nor was there any information about what would happen after submission. A few days after the submission, we were told that we’d be required to do a demo, so we needed to schedule a time. Finally, something that sounded like a step forward! Oh, how we were wrong. Scheduling that demo was like pulling teeth. We’d send an email, and the reply (usually like four days later) would be one line, and it was as if our email had not even been read. It was extremely frustrating. After finally getting the demo scheduled, we found that we were presenting not to judges, but to Daniel himself. Turns out, he thought it would be wise to get rid of judges this year, so he was the only judge. Daniel may be a smart man, but there are certain aspects of the competition that require appropriate qualifications to judge. Daniel is not a developer, how can he judge a programming competition? But what choice did we have? We went with the demo. It was clear that Daniel had not read our specification document. Additionally, just prior to the demo, Daniel mentioned that one of the Academic Developer Evangelists was also going to be a judge, yet he was not present at the demo, nor did we have any communication with him whatsoever. What followed was weeks of silence, ignored messages, and general frustration.
But wait, it gets worse!
We noticed things had been going bad, so when Dickson and I made our submission this year, we only attached the Design Specification document, and provided links to the code and other resources. We figured that so little was being shared about the judging in Canada, we’d at least give ourselves the server logs to determine if our solution was being accessed. It has now been over a month since we submitted, and guess how many times our submission has been downloaded? Zero. You can imagine how much faith I have in the judging. You can’t judge something you haven’t seen!
We finally got a hold of Daniel on Friday, and he assured us we’d find out about the competition this weekend. Well it is now very late Sunday night, and we’ve heard nothing. According to the Canada-specific timeline, the results should have been announced on May 1st. If we were forced to stick to the submission schedule, surely it’s not unreasonable to expect Daniel and his team to stick to the announcement schedule.
Problems in 2005
Let me make it a little easier to see the problems of this year for the Imagine Cup in Canada:
- Communication has been abysmal. Emails, instant messages, and phone calls are constantly ignored. There is no website to communicate Canadian specific information on.
- There are no judges. How can you have a competition with no judges?
- Judging criteria is not made public. How is the ONE judge determining who wins? There is not enough transparency.
Folding the Imagine Cup website into theSpoke was a terrible idea. theSpoke is just a very poor website, in all respects, and so it severely limits the usefulness of the Imagine Cup website. More importantly, Canada should have it’s own Imagine Cup website. With Canada-specific submission rules, judges, deadlines, etc, it only makes sense to have a website to communicate this information. As it stands right now, finding out anything specific to Canada requires emailing those in charge, and if you’ve read this far you know how effective that is.
As I said I’ve been a Student Ambassador for Microsoft Canada for the last two years. I am not going to get into the specifics of that, but I will say that I think the way Imagine Cup has been promoted has gone backwards as well. Why not learn by example? The United States has set an excellent example – they have a national competition, where the competing teams are flown to Redmond. Why not do something similar in Canada? I’m willing to bet interest would be much higher. More importantly, how can we promote something that is so very broken? Why would I want to subject another student to what I have dealt with as a participant?
Judging should be consistent across the board! The judging in Canada should be done in such a way that the best possible entry is selected to compete in the worlds – using the same criteria. There is no reason to have different criteria in each country.
I have absolutely no problem mentioning Daniel in this post by name. He has been given more than enough opportunities to make things right. What I’d like right now more than anything is for Daniel to reply with a comment or post of his own giving good reasons for everything that has happened. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely at all, because I don’t think there are any good reasons. At the very least, I hope by making this public a discussion will be started. In order for things to change, someone has to speak up and say “hey, we have a problem here.”
I hope at least some of you reading this are at Microsoft, and hopefully you can help. Whether Dickson and I win the competition this year or not, I’d really love to see the competition improved for the students who participate next year. Having said that, I would be completely in favor of delaying the results by a couple weeks to have the entries properly judged. I really believe the Imagine Cup is an excellent initiative – it gives students the chance to compete with and learn from their peers all over the world. I also hope some of you reading are students who have participated in the Imagine Cup, this year or in previous years. If you’re in Canada, I am sure you share my frustrations. If you’re in another country, what are things like there?
Basically, the Imagine Cup in Canada has been terribly run. It’s participants have been treated very poorly. Something has to change. Perhaps Microsoft Canada should outsource the managing of the competition – where can we submit a proposal? At the very least, let’s make sure things improve for students next year.
Read: Imagine Cup