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Tu Nguyen
Tu Nguyen's experience helped him design a computer application that eliminated the communication barrier and dramatically increased efficiency at his family's Vietnamese restaurant. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Student's Wireless Application Earns Him $25,000 Price from Microsoft

fall 2004

Working in his family's Vietnamese restaurant in West Omaha wasn't Tu Nguyen's ultimate career goal. The UNO Information Science & Technology student had always had his eye on working at Microsoft. But he pitched in at the restaurant, serving as a translator between the English-speaking wait staff and Vietnamese-speaking chefs. Nguyen's experience gave him the idea to design a computer application that would eliminate the communication barrier and automatically translate a food order into each person's native language.

The Point of Delivery Systems application he created runs on a wireless personal digital assistant (PDA). When an order is entered into the device, it's transmitted to a computer server, which then translates the order into the appropriate language for the recipient. The order arrives in the kitchen and is displayed on a monitor. Once the order is ready, the wait staff receives a signal on their PDA.

It was an idea that dramatically improved efficiencies at the family restaurant, says Nguyen (pronounced "win"). Orders were processed sooner and problems with messy handwriting or misread orders were eliminated. "It only took two weeks for everyone to adjust to using the handheld device," he notes. "My mom said it was such a relief to have the application. Everyone was extremely excited."

Nguyen was excited about his application, too, and thought others might be interested in his invention. He submitted his idea in Microsoft's 2003 Imagine Cup competition. The first-annual contest encouraged students to use Web services and Microsoft's .NET technology to build technology solutions connecting people, information, systems and devices. Soon, Nguyen was invited to present his project at the national competition as one of 12 student teams from around the United States. As a team of only one, he found himself competing among six- and eight-member teams. But his presentation and his application made a strong impression on the judges.

In June 2003, he was chosen as one of two students to represent the U.S. at the international competition in Barcelona, where his project would be judged against those from 14 other countries. Nguyen also made a strong impression on the Microsoft managers he met at the competition. He was quickly offered a 13-week internship at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The student packed his bags, headed to the Northwest and watched the Imagine Cup international competition via satellite from Redmond—right down to the moment when they announced his name as the winner of the 2003 Imagine Cup. The honor has given the 24-year-old a jump-start on his chosen career, as well as a $25,000 prize that he plans to invest in his business idea. He's applied for a patent for his application, now called HOT Pad, short for Handheld Order Taking Pad. Nguyen will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in Management Information Systems. "Everything in the last couple of years has caught me by surprise," Nguyen says. "Working at Microsoft was my five-year goal. I happened to get it earlier—so I was really happy."

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