Student Programmers Square Off, Gain Real World Experience in Microsoft Competition

REDMOND, Wash., July 23, 2001 — Michael Wyman certainly doesn’t want to knock his college education. But the 20-year-old senior at the University of Minnesota says the theory taught in classrooms can’t touch the practical experience he gained earlier this year as an entrant in Microsoft’s first Pocket PC Programming Competition for university students and again as an intern this summer for the Redmond-based software maker.

University of Minnesota students Julian Selman (L) and Michael Wyman (R), won $25,000 in Microsoft’s first Pocket PC programming competition for university students, and are pictured here with Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Research at Microsoft.

“The University of Minnesota is a very heavy theory place in its pure science department,” Wyman says. “But here at Microsoft, they’re drilling me in good programming experience.”

All of the real-world applications apparently have paid off. Wyman and his teammate, Julian Selman, a fellow University of Minnesota student, wound up submitting the $25,000-winning contest entry: Slither, a game they created for the Pocket PC. Patterned after a Nibbles game, Slither requires moving a worm through a map, making it grab as many apples as possible before being eaten by enemy snakes.

More than 100 students entered the competition, and the winners will receive their prize money and learn of their placement in an awards ceremony today at Microsoft’s Redmond campus. The contest was open to students enrolled in colleges or universities that are involved in the Microsoft Research University Relations Student Consultant Program.

All of the finalists say placing well in the programming competition created career opportunities for them and opened their eyes to the development possibilities for the Pocket PC. That is precisely what Microsoft officials had in mind when they launched the competition, which ran from December 2000 to April 2001.

“Mobile devices are ubiquitous, and the demand for new applications and functionality for these devices is of course growing to meet the surging popularity of PDAs,” explains Kamal Athwal, Microsoft’s student outreach program manager. “By putting together this competition, we hoped to increase the number of students learning to develop applications for the Pocket PC.”

Athwal describes the Pocket PC Programming Competition as part of Microsoft’s ongoing university-outreach program and the company’s overall efforts to generate excitement among young developers. Microsoft continually keeps the channels of communication open with university faculty, students and researchers to determine interest tracks among students and help support computer science and engineering curriculums.

Competition entrants such as Peter Griffin say advancement is already evident on their campuses. Griffin, a senior at Minnesota State University in Mankato, says he and fellow Minnesota State entrant, freshman Scott Canham, jumped at the chance to enter the Pocket PC competition. Griffin says he especially felt it would fit nicely into the career niche he hopes to carve out for himself. Griffin is spending this summer working several internships at Minnesota State — one involving programming for the Pocket PC.

“I’ve always been interested in mobile computing,” Griffin says. “I’d kind of considered developing cell phones, but there’s really only so much you can do with a cell phone. Basically it’s black and white text, which is pretty much all that you can do with a Palm OS, too. But the Pocket PC is a beautiful thing. You can do everything that you want to do. Anything that’s on a desktop or a laptop can be done on a Pocket PC. It’s just got to be simplified a bit.”

Other applicants repeated praise for the device, particularly compared to other PDA operating systems, which they complained lack the multimedia, sound and graphics capabilities they say everyone from students to small-business owners will appreciate. Although none had experience programming with Palm, they say their knowledge of Windows made Pocket PC programming relatively easy.

Griffin and Canham’s entry — Pocket Point, a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation application — captured third place in the contest, earning the pair a $15,000 prize. The money might make up for the many long nights and they say they had in putting their entry together.

“We initially had a third teammate who wanted to do a universal remote control,” Griffin says, “but we didn’t think that served any purpose, so when he bailed, we came up with PowerPoint. It’s such a huge application for Microsoft, and since they don’t have one for the Pocket PC, there’s an immediate, huge market for it.”

Even though he entered the competition with the intent of winning the prize money, Griffin says the education he received and relationships he cultivated were worth even more.

Second-place finisher Shawntelle Madison from Iowa State University echoes those sentiments.

“It gave me an opportunity to make something real and definite, from only me. I spent a great deal of time on this project, including major ‘crunch time’ in the end,” Madison says. “My submission was not fully complete, in my opinion. But I learned more about Windows and the development process involved. Even if I would not have won, I still learned something valuable that I can use later in a future employment setting.”

Madison, a Russian Studies major, combined her love of programming and language to develop a study and learning tool she could use herself: PocketRussian. It offers three small modules to teach the alphabet, the numbers 1 through 100 and simple phrases in Russian. Users can listen to the letters and phrases at the touch of a button. Madison says she initially wanted to create a game, but couldn’t find the time.

Alan Grow and Ryan Spatz of the University of Nebraska submitted the fourth-place entry, “Scheduling,” which assists in class scheduling. Spatz, a 20-year-old junior, says he entered mainly for the thrill of competing.

“The prizes for the contest looked good, but mostly, I entered just for the competition,” Spatz says. “In the last half hour before the project was due, things were pretty intense as we tried to finish things up. That’s why I enjoy competitions like this — for the intensity.”

Rounding out the top five were John Lambert and Ken Alverson of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Their entry, called CEflow, provides Pocket PC users with information about traffic congestion, accidents and scheduled closures over a low-bandwidth network connection.

Lambert would love to launch his career working for Microsoft, a goal he shares with most of his competitors.

Microsoft’s Athwal says that employment is a possibility. Microsoft always looks for the best and the brightest, and Athwal says the contest was a decent indicator of student capabilities. “I have to say I’m impressed with the caliber of work they did. The students took this platform and really ran with it. I know they’re all taking hard courses — they don’t have a lot of time, but they pulled off some pretty cool stuff.”

Microsoft recruiting manager Andrew Gramley appreciates the opportunity to connect with talented and motivated young developers. “This contest benefits both sides, as it offers students a great opportunity to showcase their programming knowledge and skills in a high-profile fashion,” Gramley says. “And it gives Microsoft the chance to meet these bright students and explore employment opportunities with them — something we’re definitely doing.”

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