Undergrads get an early start on IT conference circuit

Hundreds of university students descended upon Toronto Thursday for the annual Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference, where students picked up pointers that they hoped will make them more stellar employees for their future employers in the IT sector.

The conference, which this year features keynotes from Google, Intel of Canada and Lenovo, has been going on since 2000. This year’s gathering had 500 students from all over the country (including from British Columbia and Newfoundland), with 100 more who were turned away due to capacity constraints at the event venue, the Toronto Hilton. The conference is run entirely by student volunteers.

High-level technology “platinum partner” sponsors like Lenovo/Intel and AMD, along with Microsoft, Infusion Development, Nortel, Research in Motion, and Business Objects fund the event through corporate sponsorship (students kick in a small delegate fee that is usually mostly subsidized by their universities).

The agenda includes TechExpo, which is the typical exhibition hall set-up where vendors can show off new technologies, but the event also allows them to squeeze in valuable networking time with potential future employees.

Another session, TechShop, is held in a breakout room filled with 55 laptops, where delegates can participate in tutorials on more obscure IT programs. “If we gave them a Java tutorial,” said conference co-chair and third-year software engineering student at Waterloo University Dmitriy Mitchev, “they’d get up and walk out!”

This year’s offerings included a Mac OSX programming tutorial, and a demonstration by AMD of its graphics cards that use physics to make graphics more interactive and realistic. Umar Ahmed, a third-year computer engineering student at McGill University, who attended the AMD TechShop conducted by AMD product specialist Mike Lui due to an interest in the company, said, “It was great to see the new technology. I like being able to see which direction they’re going in the future.”

The TechTeam challenge, meanwhile, provided students with the opportunity to tackle a real-world-style IT project. Waterloo’s Centre for Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology had students create an elevator pitch for a particular product, while Nortel got them working on a broadband application, and Lenovo offered an infrastructure case study.

Infusion Development had a case study involving the development of the concept for an enterprise system. Director Sheldon Fernandez said he was keen to reap the benefits of the TechTeam event. He said, “This event really gives us insight into what students are thinking and where academia has brought them so far. It gives us a powerful recruiting engine.”

He said that the TechTeam event was invaluable in showing students what is required of them in the real world. “They then know what’s happening and how what they’re learning will be applied and know what their employer is going to ask of them,” said Fernandez.

A fourth-year informational technology management student from Ryerson, Corrine Lambert, hoped attending would give her some real-world experience that would make her a more well-rounded graduate: “The classroom setting is all about theory-based learning, but in the real world, technology is always changing-the technology we use today: that’s essential.”

While there was a variety of keynote speakers and seminars to choose from (covering everything including nanotechnology, WiMAX technologies, helicopter IT infrastructure, and haptics research), many of the speeches centered on the business side of technology: a key theme of the conference was to inspire students to make their ideas reality so as to further Canadian technological innovation.

Mitchev said, “You have to bring the business angle in-technology is only as useful as its applications. We want to foster innovation, but also how you go about doing it. Books and theory are good up to a point, but you also need that different set of skills to survive.”

Simon Woodside of Semacode, a maker of software for reading barcodes with mobile phones, spoke about how to successfully start up your own IT company. “Business is what allows you to get your technology out to lots of people,” he said.

These kinds of seminars, in addition to the hands-on experience for students, is why the conference is a real asset when it comes to raising Canada’s IT innovation profile in the years to come, acclimating students to the technology-business hybrid and giving them their real-world chops early, said Fernandez. “I never had anything like this growing up, but now it’s really growing with these kinds of networks, along with government funding students, and research and development tax credits,” he said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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