I just returned from judging the world finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a programming contest for college students. The experience was transcendent.
I’d been a judge at the first worldwide finals, in Barcelona in 2003, and had written in “Why Software Sucks” about my experiences there. The contest has grown enormously since then, from 1,000 student entrants in regional- and country-level tourneys to more than 350,000 today. The finals have expanded from 16 teams in one division to 128 teams (yes, we geeks like our powers of two) across nine divisions; and evolved from an afterthought at Tech·Ed to its own separate conference, taking over the Times Square Marriott hotel in NYC.
The teams came from all over: stalwarts such as Japan and France, the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nipping at their heels, upcomers like Vietnam and Bangladesh nipping at theirs. Even sub-Saharan Africa is starting to enter, with teams from Uganda and Senegal.
The best projects are scary smart: Team Hermes from Ireland, with a system to help teenage drivers kill fewer of themselves and others; Team NoteTaker from the United States, with a note-taker system for visually handicapped students; Team Oasys from Jordan, with an assistance device that lets quadriplegics control PCs by moving their heads.
The raw brain power here is stunning. The ingenuity, the imagination, the incredible things that are possible when you haven’t yet learned what’s impossible. And also the blindness, the naiveté, the solving of the wrong problems when you haven’t yet learned what’s important and what isn’t, or what users really do rather than what they say they’ll do or you wish they’d do, or that your users are not like yourself. To my fellow instructors and me belongs the job of channeling that power, guiding it, shaping it for the benefit of humanity without squashing that spark. I found it humbling, and if you’ve read my columns, you know that I don’t humble easily.
My most moving experience was accompanying the students to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, in New York Harbor. About one-third of all Americans, including myself, have an ancestor who passed through the immigration station here, in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. It’s been renovated now, scrubbed way too clean. But you can still feel the ghosts as the sun sets and the city skyline lights up across the water, deepening the darkness on the island.
New York still welcomes immigrants who have the right skills. “Today over 40 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the awards presentation. “So when you finish your schooling, come join us. Bring your brains; we need them, and this is a great place to use them.”
On the boat I met the members of Team Hawk—Choman, Kosar and Enji—representing Iraq. Their entry was a system for quickly registering arrivals in a refugee camp. They’re a proud team from a proud country. “We’re the world’s oldest civilization,” Choman told me. “Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But somehow we lost our way, and we have to get it back. That’s what we’re doing here.”
The Statue of Liberty is a great place for that sort of thought. She represents to the world what’s best about America, a clear symbol of everything good that we have ever been or meant. The boat sails in front of her copper verdigris face and her eyes follow you, even though you know they can’t. If you can keep from misting up at that sight, you’re stronger than I am. Or maybe weaker, I’m not sure.
“Lift your head up,” her torch says. Life looks very different from that angle. Try it some time.
Enji was in heaven. “I’ve dreamed to see that statue since I was a child, and now I can’t believe I’m here. She’s so beautiful. I love you, My Lady,” and I heard the capital letters in her voice. I’m glad I could show it to her, to all of them, and glad they could show it to me, too.
The Members of Team Hawk Stand in Front of the Statue of Liberty
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
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