Tuesday, April 8, 2008

IBM Tech Trek and Columbia Icefield

So after most of the teams arrived yesterday (I know only of two Iranian teams that couldn't get visas -- sad story!) we had our first full day of activities today. Before I go any further though I must mention how simply amazing our hotel is. I think this is the first time I have a king bed all to myself. The bath has air jets and the shower nossel can be set to massage you! And the overall style of the hotel is wonderful.

If you want to see more pictures of what's going on in Banff they have hundreds up on the official website over here. They're also doing a daily video clip -- here's the first of them:

After a short sleep last night (we had to wake up at 07:00) we were served a good breakfast. I'm really loving the teas they have and that's saying a lot considering I'm far more a coffee person. I met some more IBMers again. They tried convincing me to try get South Africa to host the world finals, but as I told them money is the major issue holding us back (we had a serious look into it last year).

After breakfast we attended the IBM TechTrek, which is a series of presentations by IBM. Doug Heintzman was the lead speaker as always. I used to find him rather boring, but he's definitely improved over time and this year he was rather interesting to listen to. He talked mostly about how the software development methodologies at IBM were changing quite drasitically from the classical model. He ended off by touching on Jazz -- an interesting IBM project that allows for collaboration via IM from within Eclipse. What makes it appear to be so effective is the ease of starting a conversation with the person who wrote the piece of code you're interested in and how well everything is integrated.

The first speaker up was Jean-Francois Barsoum. After some fairly nasty technical difficulties (when will people learn to test out their laptops on the projector before giving a talk?) he delved into Web 2.0. His main focus was on whether or not Web 2.0 will survive and that we now require Human 2.0. Then Li-Te Cheng took the stage to talk to us on three examples of how students have joined IBM as interns and made an impact. He had changed his topic overnight since his original topic of Jazz was being displayed in the evenings at the CyberCafe anyway. He also touched on an internal social networking site they use which has now got over 20,000 users (out of a total of 360,000 employees).

Finally someone who's name I cannot remember talked on IBM's Extreme Blue internship program. They give a talk on it every year, but this was the first time I actually listened as I might be interested in applying. To summarise briefly they get three technical students and one business student to work together in a team, which they find works better than giving the students their own project to work on. This is only for their top 200 interns so it's difficult to get into. An ex-intern who now works full-time for IBM went up on stage to give a brief history of her experience on the project.

After two and a half hours of listening to the talks we started the first excursion. We were given a choice of a trip to either the Columbia Icefield or Lake Louise. We chose the former, which it seemed most other teams also went for. It was a long three hour bus ride to the icefield, but it was very scenic and we had a guide telling us some history behind the area and telling us about the surrounding mountains. I think the pictures will describe the beauty of the scenery far better than I could ever describe. So here's a small selection of the mountains on the way to the icefield:

About two hours into the journey we stopped over at Bow Lake. It was amazing how the lake was completely frozen and then covered with a thick layer of snow in such a way that it no longer looks like there's a lake there. If you haven't caught the drift yet, we're not used to snow in South Africa at all so this is quite an experience! Here's a picture of us standing on the lake:

Soon after that stop-over we arrived at the icefield. We were all simply in awe. In front of us was the largest icefield south of the Arctic totalling at around 325km² of glaciers. Below is a shot of the main glacier, the Athabasca Glacier. A lot of the glacier in the shot is below snow. It stretches from just past the road all the way to the edge of the picture and continues for about 6km ranging from 90 to 300 meters deep!

Glaciers are formed by compacted snow turning into ice. Over time the ice builds up and is so strong and large that it carves through the mountains! Apparently it's the glaciers that formed the valley between the mountains and make some of the mountain peaks smooth on top. These glaciers are melting gradually over the years and they used to be much, much larger. Below you can see us standing on the thickest part of the glacier with the three "steps" of the glacier in the background. If you look closely we are standing on a portion of the glacier exposed through the snow. We had to take a snowcoach to get out onto the glacier and it goes down the steepest slope in North America at a 32% gradient.

The icefield is made up of many hundreds of glaciers, with the one we were on being the largest. In the picture below you can see another glacier just below the top of the mountain. The glaciers all feed on one another as crevasses form and huge chunks break off and smash into another glacier.

That was the Columbia Icefield. Upon our return we had dinner waiting for us, which was delicious yet again. If the food is this good now I can't imagine what the final dinner is going to be like as they usually spoil us on the last day! After dinner I went to have a chat with the Extreme Blue team and I'm going to follow up with them later. I then played a little bit of Wii tennis which we lost.

Tomorrow is the opening ceremony, which should hopefully have some great Canadian bands, followed by the practice sessions and the second excursion. The practice sessions are always amusing as the judges make interesting decisions such as the one on graph paper in the past. My team chose to take the gondola up the mountains for tomorrow's excursion, while I chose the more relaxing hot springs. Hopefully both live up to expectations.


  1. -quote- (when will people learn to test out their laptops on the projector before giving a talk? -quote-

    In my own defense... I had only arrived just before the presentation so did not have a chance to test out the equipment. Besides, a blue screen is not something you can test for, it usually just bumps you on the head when you least expect it! But I hope you liked the 2.0 presentation that followed nonetheless :-)

    Congrats on making it into that select group -- it was a privilege to get to address that audience!

    -Jean-Francois Barsoum

  2. Don't take my comment too seriously. :) I enjoyed your talk and still remember bits of it.

  3. wow marco! looks awesome, im in germany at the moment, similar scenary, what you up to now?
    micheal wells