Microsoft Imagine Cup

This was not a real position, Microsoft didn’t pay me to be a competitor. However, my friends, team-mates and I dedicated so many hours into this that I consider it part of my professional career.

In December 2011, my friend Pato Perez (future partner in Club de Gorras) told me about a competition from Microsoft. He was living in Salta, Argentina and I was in Mar del Plata, Argentina, more than 1100 miles away (1900 km).

Some basic rules about the competition were: develop some technology using any Microsoft tech stack, product/service/hardware. It needs to have a positive impact on the life of your customers and create a business model for it.

The Microsoft Imagine Cup allows teams to have up to four members. It requires teams to have one, and only one mentor that is part of the Microsoft community – but not a direct employee.

So we added two more friends to the team: Guillermo Dieguez (a friend of Pato) and Pedro Mutti (a friend of mine). Our mentor was Guillermo Bellmann, a Microsoft MVP.

We start working on our project in the summer. I was 16 years old at that time. Normally, in this kind of competition, you first need to know the rules and then build on that.

That was exactly what we did. Firstly, we made sure that we understood exactly what they expected from us. Then we started to think about what we could do. We came up with Boddy Music: our idea was to allow people to create music using our software. It was for all kinds of people, but focused especially on those who don’t have upper or lower extremities. Which means that it allowed people without hands to play the guitar with their feet, eyes, neck or with any other part of their body.

So basically with Boddy Music, people were able to play any instrument with any part of their body. That was our approach to covering the part about making a positive impact on our customers’ lives.

Then we had to look at the part about building something using Microsoft’s technology, that was really easy!. So we chose to develop everything using C#, Kinect, Azure, and Metro Design. Microsoft gave us free licenses for all our needs.

Finally, we thought about what would be a good business model. We decided that it was should be oriented to massive customers and enterprises. For the masses, it was going to be a freemium model, where you could use the software with all the features for free, but pay a subscription to get to deeper data and training materials for particular diseases. For the enterprise level, our ideal customer would be a hospital or muscle rehabilitation clinic, they would have full access to the software with the training material, the static system and exclusive support for multiple users inside the software, so they could keep track of the progress of their patients.

So we had the idea and we had a great team. It was time for the execution! So we started with the software development: research + coding. We didn’t have any expertise working with Kinect, which meant the very first thing to do was was to buy a Kinect for PCs.

Playing/coding with the Kinect SDK was really fun! We had a great time testing the software and developing. It was not a real job for us, but we had a lot of fun doing it. That was the greatest part of the competition, we were really passionate about what were doing!

After a few months of design and development, we had a MVP, so in theory, we were ready to compete in the first stage. Microsoft invites and pays for all the teams to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina for the first stage of the Microsoft Imagine Cup regional competition. That was the first time that all the teams were in front of a jury. It was also the first time that all our team worked together in person – we had been working using Skype, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp to communicate between us.

We were the youngest team. competing against people who were 10 or even 20 years older than us, some of them with a lot of experience in the real world.

At that stage of the competition, half of the teams would be sent home. This was part of the process to select teams to go to the next round which would take place two months later.

That March, our team was part of the half that went through to the next stage of the competition. In Argentina, school classes normally start during March. So we had to go to our classes every day, and we usually connected and worked on the project during the afternoon and at night.

We had just under two months until May, where we would have to go back to Buenos Aires for the final regional stage of the competition, so we needed to improve our product a lot in terms of development, design and business model, and also prepare some short presentations and practice.

As you know, time flies and it was in May. We met in person just a few days before the competition so finalize the details of the presentation and to practice in person. Also, we tested the software to avoid any errors during the presentation. If you like to watch live product presentations, you might know that something always fails – and to avoid this, you always need a Plan B.

It was May 3, the big day. We were really nervous and anxious. I can’t remember clearly the order that each team had to give their presentation. I think we were 3rd or 4th. One of the twelve teams didn’t attend, so there were eleven teams in total.

The presentation format was simple: all the competitors and judges were in the same office, all the teams had to present in front of the other teams, and then the judges took notes about every single presentation. After all the competitors presented their project and showed their advances, the teams had to leave the room for a while so the judges could discuss who would be the winner.

I think we entered Microsoft’s office at 8.30am, and we were in the main room with all the teams until 11am. At around 1pm we were asked to go back to the main room. At this point, we were no longer nervous. I think the fact that we had to give a presentation in front of the judges and other people was what made us nervous earlier.

The Judges started with 3rd place, then 2nd place and finally 1st place! I really can’t explain the joy and happiness that we faced at that moment. The mixed feelings we had that day were unforgettable, a real emotional roller coaster. From that day on, I began to believe that «hard work pays off. The great combination of talent, ambition, discipline, and constancy allowed us to win this competition.

From left to right: David Delgado (IT Director at Microsoft Eastern US, Canada and LATAM), Guillermo Bellmann, Matías Sanchez Moises, Patricio Perez, Minister Lino Barañao, Sandra Yachelini (Director at Microsoft Argentina and Uruguay), Guillermo Dieguez and Pedro Mutti.

On the same day after winning the competition, a lot of press came to Microsoft’s office to interview us. We had the honor of meeting the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovative Production of Argentina: Lino Barañao and Microsoft’s General Manager in South America: Sandra Yachelini.

The day after we were featured on the cover of some local newspapers, we were on the news on TV and a lot of people started contacting us to interview us. Also, some Universities asked us to speak at some events. It was really great!

A few weeks after, some people from Microsoft called us and told us that we needed to go back to Buenos Aires. They said that they couldn’t tell us the reason but mentioned that was really really important. They bought us some airplane tickets for the following day to Buenos Aires.

We didn’t understand what was going on. We arrived in Buenos Aires really early in the morning, and as a usual, a driver was waiting for us at the airport. After half an hour, we arrived at the hotel were some people from Microsoft were waiting for us. They then told us that we were going to meet them. They were: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was the president of Argentina at that time and former Microsoft COO, Kevin Turner.

From left to right: Guillermo Bellmann, Guillermo Dieguez, Matías Sanchez Moises, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Kevin Turner and Pedro Mutti.

The place of the meeting was the official presidential residence: Quinta de Olivos. The amount of security that we saw was insane! We had to go through a lot of security checkpoints in order to enter the residence. After a while inside, Kevin Turner arrived by helicopter and we finally met him and the president. It was a great experience – I was 17 and I had met a president in person! As well as the person responsible for helping Microsoft and Walmart scale up to the next level.

Between May and July that year, we continued the process of improving the product. We had great feedback from the judges and from some possible B2B customers. So it was time to make it a much better piece of software.

For the next phase of the competition, in Sydney, Australia, we knew that we had to make at least two presentations to different judges. This time our presentation had to be in English. I wasn’t a good English speaker at that time, so we practiced English a lot during our preparation in May and June, so that we could give a good presentation.

Now, looking back, I can see one of our mistakes was that we made, was to not check out the other teams or opponents were and what their projects were about. As you know, it’s easy to look back with hindsight.

July finally arrived, and it was time to go to Sydney, Australia. We met in Buenos Aires once more, and spent a night in the city before starting our journey to Sydney. After three planes and 15 hours in the air, we arrived in Sydney, although a few hours late.

We arrived on July 6, and the competition took place from July 7 to 10. There were three intense days of competition and presenting the project, not only to the judges for 15 minutes – we, and all the teams, had a stand in a convention center where a lot of worldwide press, companies, and people in technology walked by and asked us different questions.

I remember that a guy from MTV asked us some questions about the project while his colleague was recording us with a camera. We met a lot of interesting people, and the competition got featured in 100s of media.

On July 7, we had to present to a different group of international judges twice. Our first presentation was in the morning and the second one was in the afternoon. Between each presentation, we had to be at our stand in the Sydney Convention Center.

The day after, on July 8, 2012, we had to check a screen to see if we were through to the next phase or not. Sadly for us, we didn’t make it to the next round. In the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition, the teams don’t receive a rank – except for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners. Therefore, we didn’t make it to the 2nd or 3rd phases of the competition.

Being a competitor in the Microsoft Imagine Cup, and also being the youngest one, was really important for my career. I was 17 and had such an awesome experience, meeting a lot of people around the globe from 72 countries, being able to talk with the press and other competitors, presenting my product and seeing what they had been working on was a blessing for me.

This event was extremely important in my life as a developer, as an entrepreneur, and as a human being. It woke up my desire to travel and see the world. It showed me that what I had been doing my whole life is real and there is a enormous community behind it. But most importantly, it proved that it is possible to do what you love and that it can be appreciated by other people.