MLB.com Challenge 7th Inning Stretch: What Are We Learning?

It’s a bit unusual for us to be following the story of a bunch of Syracuse University kids being given a long, overnight assignment to build a proposal for a next-generation Web application about Major League Baseball. Granted, our series is slowly gaining popularity, including some welcome coverage from The Wall Street Journal, and quite a bit of late trending among social news sites. But what’s our point, really?

We think – and by “we,” I mean the folks who create Web technologies, produce Web publications, teach Web methodologies, wear “Web” on our T-shirts – that we are creating the nucleus of the future economy. We have the nerve to believe that the world’s business, culture, entertainment, and communication will all take place through this twining together of hypertext. Here at last was an opportunity, in a mere 29 hours, to see if we’re right.

There are some striking truths that emerged last November 11 in Syracuse. And no, it’s not a recitation of Whitney Houston singing about kids and our future and leading the way. Here’s what I found out on the 11th that I did not know for sure on the 10th:

1. Facebook is as mortal as any other service. I’ve been around this business long enough to have collected a treasure trove of services and products that are “with us to stay.” MySpace is just one. There’s also Prodigy, AOL, MS-DOS, Telenet, Usenet, Gopher, XML, the phone modem, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and everything with the brand name “Atari.” There’s a moment in time when multiple members of a product’s target market agree with one another that “this product sucks.” And when that moment comes, I can hear it like a dog can smell a jailbreaker.

Facebook is still a principal tool used by almost every one of the students whom I witnessed with mobile devices. I did not conduct a “Facebook poll” among users; I merely listened to how Facebook was referenced among students who were designing concepts for apps that could be used remotely. None of them, not one, invoked Facebook as a positive example of design, functionality, or usability. Many invoked Facebook as a negative example. I heard “Facebook sucks” or similar language from at least eleven students. And when one designer (the “Saltine Warrior’s” Ariel) built prototype screens using Facebook’s color scheme, she then appeared to apply style changes to intentionally make her app look less like Facebook as time went on.

Students who love their iPhones don’t like Facebook. And students who have BlackBerrys don’t like Facebook either. I heard the same language five years ago applied to MySpace.

2. The extent to which resources such as server power, database size, and bandwidth are boundless, is over-estimated. You haven’t seen the presentations yet; they’re coming up in the “8th Inning.” But there were many proposals for Web apps and mobile apps that would rely upon colossal bandwidth, such as multiple simultaneous video feeds; as well as databases of statistics and graphics that would challenge any modern cloud. Imagine “every printed program from every MLB game played in the 20th century,” and you get the idea.

The back end, at least with respect to computing, is never the fun part. It’s fun to make apps for devices you can hold in your hand and scroll up and down, but accounting for all the back-end work that makes those apps possible is a process that, when not considered dull, is not considered at all. SU students did not have to demonstrate their knowledge or understanding of back-end services, though Prof. Jeffrey Rubin was listening to see if any of the kids would willingly incorporate a mention of back-end resources in their proposals to mock investors. None did, not one.

3. More colleges are teaching real-world problem solving as a basic skill. How do you demonstrate to someone that you have the skills necessary to solve a complex problem and build a new and viable system, when… well, when you don’t? Many of the students in the MLB.com Challenge were freshmen, some majoring in a course other than information systems. Fewer than half could actually develop code.

But that wasn’t the issue here; the judges and professors knew the students’ real-world qualifications, and no one was hiding anything. The real challenge here was for students to test their own skills in ascertaining what their future skills would need to be. Even if they’ve never hacked a single instruction line, could they identify the skillsets they would need to either learn or acquire by way of collaboration? I’m not just talking about learning Java or Ruby on Rails. I’m talking about cooperation, leadership, open-mindedness.

In every group in this challenge, natural leaders emerged through one route or another – some through their ability to teach skills, some by demonstrating skills the others needed to succeed, some through sheer charisma and even personal popularity. But not every participant needs to be a group leader to succeed. Some students embraced the principles that were proposed by others, and articulated them well enough. (Hey, it worked for Steve Jobs.)

Success has different routes. Real-world problem solving includes ascertaining which route will work best for oneself. When a person has that skill mastered, the later details of languages and protocols and methodologies will seem to solve themselves.

TOMORROW: After 21 solid hours, the presentations and the victor.

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