Anthony Salcito speaking at a conference earlier in the year. Picture from blogs.msdn.com.

Full disclosure: Microsoft flew me out to Washington, D.C. for the weekend and put me up in a hotel.

I’m out in Washington, D.C., this weekend, hanging out at the U.S. Finals for the Imagine Cup. The Imagine Cup is an annual student software competition that pits students from around the world against each other. Microsoft backs the entire thing and they have quite the agenda set up for the students participating. (More on that in a later post.)

I had the opportunity to sit down with Anthony Salcito for an interview. He is the vice president of worldwide education at Microsoft. (Note: that’s a big deal.) I dare say he was the perfect candidate for a non-student HackCollege interview. We nerded out about the power of students, how education is drastically different and still changing, and what students should keep an eye out for.

Kelly: Where do you see the role of the student in the global picture today?

Anthony: First off, students represent 20% of the population in most countries. In countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, it’s closer to 30%. A lot of time we think about serving students because they have an impact on the future, but we also think students have tremendous insights for the society today.

We need to both nurture the opportunities that students can have along with expand the impact some of their ideas can have. One of the things that I like about Imagine Cup the most is that it combines both of these. Students generally have a greater connection to their world and exhibit that through their projects. They care about making the world a better place.

The student population is a huge engine: an engine for change, an engine for the future and an engine for us to serve as a society. As a technology company, it’s an engine for innovation.

Kelly: Recently, how has technology in education changed?

Anthony: In the old days—and when I say old days I mean 6 years ago—technology in education used to be the end stop for technology trends. You would see trends start in the industry and then move eventually into the education space.

Social media and the Internet changed all of that. Most of the innovation that’s happening is happening in education first. And now it’s influencing industries. For this reason, I think now is a very exciting time for students.

Kelly: What’s been your favorite project that stood out for the crowd?

Anthony: We’re starting to see people experiment with Natural User Interfaces. I love that. I love seeing the all-female teams competing in the Imagine Cup. It’s a trend we’re picking up on. Once we started adding the environmental and social requirements, we exposed the competition as much more than a technology competition. That opens up the appeal.

I see a lot of different projects from all over the world, and the ones that excite me the most aren’t typically the fanciest ones. They are the ones that are very connected to a specific social need. Project Soap helped farmers with irrigation issues and they won a few years ago. It’s very specific, but it was also very valuable to the group of farmers it was developed for.

We believe that the more serious or the more challenging problems we assign, the better the projects are. We need to continue pushing students to solve the difficult problems.

Kelly: If you had to give one piece of advice to a student graduating into a technical field, what would it be?

Anthony: People graduating with degrees in computer science and other technical degrees are faced with very diverse and very specialized opportunities. There’s tremendous value in bringing technology into fields that have typically been on the opposite end of the spectrum. Fantasy baseball is a great example of the overlap between technology and sports. It turns out to be a very lucrative one.

Any industry has an opportunity today to be reinvigorated. Find where your passions are and apply technology to that. If you’re interested in helping society or interested in finance, there are plenty of roles where technology can help.

We’re also at a point where we’re getting to the “next phase” in technology. We have become comfortable with technology automating certain things. Now we are expecting technology to change the experiences we have. We want new things that technology will provide. That creates huge opportunity for computer science graduates. Places like health care are looking at a huge inflection point.

What do you think about Anthony’s responses? Let us know in the comments!