Posted by Bill Buxton

Imagine Cup 2013 logo

Editor’s note: Bill Buxton, a principal researcher for Microsoft Research and a relentless advocate for innovation and effective design, is sharing his experience as a judge for the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals. See Part Two and Part Three.

While the Fourth of July is not a holiday in Canada (our national day is on July 1), for me, this year the day is nevertheless not your usual day: I flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, to act as one of the judges in the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals. Given how much time I spend traveling, one could be forgiven for asking, “So what’s the big deal?” The answer is not as simple as the question.

The first “big deal” (at least the stress level that it gave rise to made it feel that way) was getting a Russian visa. In this, there were a couple of challenges. The first—which is a sorry reflection on what passes for my life—was finding an adequately long period of time in which I could be without my passport, which needed to be submitted with my application. The second was the form. Let’s just say that listing every country that I have visited in the past 10 years, along with dates, was not something done over a coffee. But with the help of the Imagine Cup team—including (literally) last-minute visa-saving heroics by them—and the helpful support of the Russian Consulate in Toronto, my visa was processed in record time (and just in time) for me to take off on time.

The second “big deal” is that St. Petersburg is a city I have always wanted to visit—with its State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace—and yet one that is off the beaten tourist path. In short, it is a perfect place to bring some of the most creative and talented young people from around the world for a week of technological competition.

This leads to the third “big deal,” the reason for going: the Imagine Cup. If anyone asks me why I am at Microsoft, a typical reply involves something around “its values.” Its commitment to supporting the academic community, such as conferences, and its commitment to supporting basic research are two good answers. But the Imagine Cup is right up there, as well. It is literally an investment in the creativity, education, and enthusiasm of the next generation. My first direct involvement with the Imagine Cup resulted from my being invited to give keynote talks during the U.S. finals in 2011 and 2012. Sure, I knew about the program. But these events led to my first direct encounter with the event, the students, and their work. I was as amazed by what I saw as I was humbled. Some may think that my being there was to stimulate and encourage the student participants. Well, from my perspective, just the opposite is the case: At 64, I derive huge stimulation, motivation, energy, and pleasure from their work. There is nothing like excellence, manifest in the young, to help keep your own bar set high.

Anyhow, things continued this year. I was asked to be one of the judges for the Canadian finals,  which in itself was challenging, given the consistently high standard of the work. But as difficult (but rewarding) as that was, it was equally welcome in terms of preparation for what is to come in St. Petersburg.

I arrived in St. Petersburg a couple days early. Partially, I had been warned how much work judging is going to be. Hence, I want to make sure that I don’t have to factor jet lag into the equation. Also, given how much I have been away from home, I am bringing my wife, Liz, with me. She is a painter—and there are a few things I have sworn not to do for the first time without her. Visiting the Hermitage is one of them.

Visa, ticket, and wife in hand, I’m off to judge—sans jet lag, and having spent a couple of days submerged in one of the great art collections in the world.

I’m ready—champing at the bit, in fact.