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Microsoft interns and top AppHack finishers (l-r) Melody Kim from UC San Diego; Nick Barnwell from University of Washington; Mateusz Cichenski of Poznan University of Technology in Poland; and Peter Zieske of Cornell.

Cornell University student Peter Zieske likes to doze off on bus rides, and he has created an app to help others do the same — without missing their stops.

Bus Alarm, Zieske’s original creation for Windows Phone, is an alarm clock designed to wake users up when they arrive at their stop — using integrated public transit routes and GPS technology. Just type a bus route, select a stop, and zone out for the rest of the ride. There’s even integrated voice recognition, so a user can simply say, “Bus Alarm, set alarm for [preferred stop].”

“It allows you to take naps on the bus without worrying, ‘Oh, am I going to miss my stop?’ ” said Zieske, explaining that he came up with the idea one day when he was stuck behind a drawbridge on a bus.

The app is available now in the Windows Phone Marketplace. Zieske developed it while working this summer as a Microsoft intern, and it was the winning entrant in the company’s recent Microsoft intern hackathon.

The event, known as the “AppHack,” was one of the highlights of the Microsoft summer internship program, giving college-aged interns the opportunity to design and produce original Windows Phone apps under the guidance of professional developers.

Approximately 400 interns—all of whom participated in the hackathon voluntarily—spent anywhere from two months to a couple of weeks on their projects, and the results were impressive: the contest yielded 40 submissions, and ultimately brought 37 app submissions to the Windows Phone Marketplace, including a digital graphing calculator, an app designed to manage personal finances, and a musical loop pedal.

busalarm“We received a wide range of submissions,” said Anthony Rotoli, a Microsoft technical recruiter involved with the Hackathon. “There’s still some room to push out apps that we may not have seen on the Windows Phone or (that may not have) done really well on the Windows Phone, so I think the interns really took advantage of that.”

Rotoli explains that the judges selected Bus Alarm as the winner because “it is very much finished. It’s polished and it looks like a ready-to-go, easy-to-follow app.” As his prize, Zieske won an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the 2014 South by Southwest interactive festival.

Each summer, Microsoft recruits more than 1,000 college students from all over the world—and in all levels of higher education—to intern at its various locations for twelve weeks. The vast majority of the interns work from the Redmond campus, but can be found at campuses across the country. These students work in all Microsoft businesses, from Windows Phone to marketing to gaming, and each is aligned with a full-time employee.

“A lot of what they’re working on isn’t trivial stuff—it’s real products, and they’re shipping along with our employees,” Rotoli explains. “That’s something the interns definitely appreciate.”

The interns also enjoy a long list of events put on for their benefit. At the Redmond campus, leaders of different business divisions regularly present to all the interns and, during their culminating “Signature Week,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave a closed talk to just the interns, which ended with an in-depth Q&A about leadership and business development.

That’s not the only perk. Part of Signature Week is a big surprise party, which is always shrouded in speculation. This year, Microsoft drove the interns to Boeing Field, where Macklemore and Deadmau5 gave private performances. On the way out, each intern received a free Surface Pro.

If all of this sounds a little outlandish, there’s a reason: These interns include some of the most promising young computer scientists in the country, at a time of intense competition for engineering talent across the industry, from companies including Microsoft, Google, Facebook and many startups. A significant number of interns end up working for Microsoft as full-time employees.

The AppHack — organized by Rotoli and two colleagues, technical recruiters Kelly Eng and Drew Pryor-Miller — seems reflect the broader internship program: it combines the playful, creative aspects of the summer intern culture with the innovation and professionalism of a major technology company.

Professional developers helped guide the interns through every stage of the competition and held crash courses on app creation. There were four total training sessions on two major topics: “The first was more general, just how to develop on Windows Phone,” explains Pryor-Miller, “and the second was more design-focused: how to make beautiful apps and optimize your solutions.”

Mateusz Cichenski’s app, Squared, is also available in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

To find developers to teach these sessions, the organizers looked for winners of past Microsoft app contests for full-time employees. “We reached out directly to them and said, ‘We see you made this beautiful app for the Windows Phone, can you come show our interns how to make something like that?’” says Rotoli. “They were all pretty eager to do so.”

Rotoli notes that Microsoft made sure that all of the interns, not the company, would retain rights to their hackathon projects.

Forty apps were submitted to the contest, and the first-round judges—mainly developers who taught the training workshops—picked eight finalists. Of the finalists, three were selected as winners by the “celebrity judge” panel. The judges were Joe Belfiore, the VP of Windows Phone Program Management, Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb of Xbox Live, James Whittaker, a principal Technical Evangelist and popular blogger, and Matt Booty, the GM of Microsoft’s Redmond Games Studios. Regardless of the winners, the judges gave feedback on the apps after each presentation.

In terms of criteria, according to Pryor-Miller, “they were looking at completeness of the app at its current stage, they were looking at creativity, and they were also looking at widespread usage of the app—whether it was targeting a niche market or if it could be used by a large majority of people.” The judges also took into account how well the app utilized the features of the Windows Phone.

Mateusz Cichenski, a student at the Poznan University of Technology in Poland, won third place for his app, a puzzle game called “Squared.” His was the only game that made it to either of the final rounds. Squared is simple but addictive, involving primary-colored squares that the user attempts to line up, somewhat like a simplified, faster-paced version of Bejeweled. Cichenski designed 78 levels of the game in two weeks, and if a user completes all of the levels, he or she can join the online list of high scores. There is also a quick-play mode for beginners.

When asked about the inspiration behind this idea, Cichenski explains that “in April, before my exams, I had some time, and decided to create a board game. So I literally printed out graphics I made, and sat down with my mom, dad, and brother to try to play it.” With a laugh, he concedes that version of the game “was much too complicated and not fun at all.”

Once exams started, he abandoned the idea of creating a game. He says that when he heard about the intern hackathon, however, “I thought I would try to put my idea into a [digital] game, and maybe simplify it a little bit to make it more accessible.” Cichenski won a $2,000 prize in the hackathon.

elect-home-embedThe second-place app, created by Nick Barnwell from the University of Washington and Melody Kim from UC San Diego, is called “Elect.” This app simplifies the process of voting by digitizing voter pamphlets and consolidating information about political candidates and referenda into a single app.

“The inspiration for the app came about because personally, I had a hard time feeling equipped or ready to cast an informed vote when elections came around,” Kim explains. “We did some user research, and one of the biggest issues was that people weren’t able to obtain all of the information they wanted to about referenda and candidates, so we tried to make it as easy as possible for people to do research before they vote.”

In addition to listing names of candidates and referenda, Elect also allows users to filter information by topic, to find a candidate’s stated view on a specific issue—say, immigration or abortion.

The app is not yet in the Windows Marketplace, because Barnwell and Kim hope to expand the range of the app.

“I’m hoping to collaborate with the local government—at least King County—to get the information in a more official form,” says Barnwell. In addition to incorporating more sources of information, the ultimate goal is to enable users to actually cast votes from their phones.

Barnwell explains that they’re planning to “[work] with some of the research teams, both here and in academia, to try to find a future for it that maybe starts in King County and expands from there.” Barnwell and Kim won a $3,000 prize for their app.

Cecilia Wilson is a Seattle-area high school student interning at GeekWire this summer.

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