Friday, 5:00 p.m.
The students, about two dozen of them, sit in rapt attention as Ray Sharma explains how they too can create the next Cows Versus Aliens.
Mr. Sharma, the head of Toronto-based mobile game developer XMG studio, is the opening speaker at this year's Great Canadian Appathon, the largest and most lucrative app-building competition for Canadian students. Over the next 48 hours, more than 500 students across the country will pull a marathon coding session in the hopes of creating the most compelling smartphone or tablet game and taking home the competition's $25,000 first place prize.
They will also, in the process, learn a few valuable lessons about the state of the modern technology industry, where startup culture and intense competition make brutal working hours and ultra-tight deadlines the norm, not the exception.
Many of these contestants will spend the next weekend riding Red Bull-fuelled roller coasters; some will start the competition with grand visions of building the next Angry Birds in a weekend, and will instead burn out before the reaching finish line; others will conceive prize-winning and even ultimately profitable apps, and may well land a job with XMG or some other developer as a result. Virtually all the competitors will demonstrate Herculean feats of code-writing and bug-fixing, driven consciously or subconsciously by the same ideological thesis statement that drives the industry they hope to join: that all it takes to succeed in tech is a good idea and a tolerance for hard work.
If you want to observe first-hand a microcosm of the tech industry's fastest-growing sub-sector, go to an appathon.
Mr. Sharma is speaking at the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson, one of about 40 colleges across the country that have signed on for this year's Great Canadian Appathon. The DMZ is what tech-heads call an incubation chamber – instead of premature babies, it helps tiny startups get better. The DMZ offices are located on the fifth floor of a landmark building in the heart of downtown Toronto. A glass wall that runs along the office's south-facing side offers a fantastic view of Yonge-Dundas square. On most days, entrepreneurs from about 30 companies sit around the open-concept tables chained to their computers, slowly building the next Facebook or LinkedIn or Fruit Ninja. The atmosphere is not all that different from most corporate workplaces, except with more whiteboards.
This weekend, however, the occupants of the DMZ will be mostly students ranging in age from about 20 to 30. This is the third year XMG has hosted the appathon (this year, the Globe and Mail is one of the sponsors) – during that time, the number of participants has almost doubled. (You can download the winner of the first Appathon – “Super Punch” – if you have a Windows Phone.)
To an outside observer oblivious to the details of the two-day event, the DMZ would appear to have been outfitted for a spectacle at once intense and thoroughly tame. Near the rows of high-end laptops sit bowls of lolipops. The whiteboards are full of inspirational but somewhat vague quotes, such as, “On the other side of fear is freedom” and “Celebrate the journey.”
There’s also a slight undercurrent of the tech industry’s “bro-gramming” subculture – a term used derisively to describe male programmers who spend most of their working time around other male programmers and say and do the kinds of things you’d expect in a mostly male environment. Participants are given swag bags full of hoodies, T-shirts and buttons that say things like, “I've got 99 problems but a glitch ain't one.” There are only two women among the two dozen or so contestants at the Ryerson hub, and it is unlikely the ratio is skewed heavily in the favour of women at any one of the other GCA contest sites around the country. A couple of young women who appear to have been hired by Red Bull are handing out Red Bull cans retrieved from backpacks that are themselves shaped like Red Bull cans. The most commonly uttered words over the next 48 hours will be Red and Bull.
The theme for this year's contest is “Retro,” hearkening back to the days of Nintendo cartridges and 8-bit heart icons and the original Mario Bros. On the surface, it seems a somewhat cruel choice, given that many of the contestants were not born when these cultural icons first made their mark (indeed, it isn't long before one of the teams adds “look up def. of retro” to their whiteboard To-Do list).