From maker projects to $2-million social impact initiatives, this student created his own path to innovation
Photo courtesy Ali Hamdy
When Ali Hamdy was a young child, he looked at the outside world and saw it as a place that was held together by rigid structures, with solidified bonds that could not be broken. In this world, things happened, businesses operated, and the world functioned because these structures had a path for their inner workings to follow.
As he got older and started dabbling with robotics, software, and creative thinking, that view changed.
Learning how things work, he realized the world is actually more like an elementary school art project, where even the best work can be held together with glue, tape, and even the odd bit of bowtie pasta and bubble gum.
Hamdy came to learn that there are plenty of people who work really hard to create the world, and the things, and the businesses around us.
And that lit a fire in him.
“The people holding things together work really hard day and night, and those people are just regular people like me,” says Hamdy. “So I wanted to take things into my own hands, make a change in myself and go from saying ‘It would be really cool if someone were to do this’ to saying, ‘Hey, let’s just do this ourselves’.”
Today the 24-year-old is an engineering student at McMaster University who is IBM-certified in Enterprise Design Thinking, and he has a portfolio of projects he’s worked on including a robotic hand and a sorting device that organizes M&M candies by their colour. He’s also resourceful; when $40 sensors for robotic arms became too expensive to buy at scale, Hamdy sourced parts to make them himself for twenty cents each.
Hamdy didn’t stop there. He pursued entrepreneurship, instructed other students in class-run talks, started DIY workshops (where he turned an $8,000 university budget into $80,000 in revenue to run classes for bigger groups), and eventually landed an internship as a S.W.A.T. developer with IBM Canada’s Advanced Studies team.
It was working with the Advanced Studies team that opened Hamdy’s eyes, as it offered a unique environment where everyone’s voice is heard and some of the world’s biggest challenges are tackled.
What happens when students are given the opportunity to learn by doing
If you’re an undergrad and the head of a student group, it might feel intimidating walking into a professional setting at a big company like IBM Canada to share your ideas and talk about your future.
Hamdy was meeting with the Advanced Studies team to pitch them on giving students at his university access to IBM’s enterprise-level software. While he says it was indeed a bit scary at first, that feeling changed as soon as he walked in the door.
“It was my first time dealing with industry on a one-on-one basis and to propose a partnership,” he recalls. Hamdy was met with open arms at IBM, and his university also came to the table to discuss ways the groups could work together.
The exchange was everything he hoped it would be, and meeting the head of Advanced Studied, Marcellus Mindel, was part of a foundational takeaway for Hamdy: relationships are everything when it comes to the professional world.
“Treating people fairly, and making sure that everyone wins in the process of you moving forward is critical,” he says, reflecting on his first encounters with IBM. “It’s about making sure that everyone gains out of the things you create.”
Hamdy ended up signing on to a 16-month internship at Advanced Studies where he acted as a liaison between IBM Canada and fellow students who were working on web development, and he began teaching other undergrads how to use IBM’s technology.
It was here he became certified in Enterprise Design Thinking, an approach to solving business problems that frame issues in a human-centric way, where solutions are prioritized for the end-user.
Hamdy recalls his first project with Advanced Studies and an IBM Garage (essentially a business accelerator) called Precision Cities, which set out to find a solution to shelters not having enough food to feed everyone.
With the end-users in mind, Hamdy and his team interviewed people from all sides, starting with shelter personnel. As they had more conversations about how the food delivery system worked, the group learned that it wasn’t a lack of food that was the problem.
Instead, they discovered it was a communication problem between stakeholders and end-users, and they learned that organizations were sending too much food to areas that didn’t need it all, and not enough food to areas that did.
The solution proposed was a communication platform for all shelters to actually talk to one another and organize where resources would go.
The importance of communication and giving everyone a voice in a problem-solving situation ended up being another foundational lesson Hamdy took away from the project, and it is something he does to this day.
Moving from maker projects to large-scale social impact initiatives
Earlier this year he moved to Victoria, BC to work with professor and software engineer Dr. Daniela Damien on INSPIRE projects, a $2 million IBM-backed project that aims to give students who are underrepresented in technology (or those who lack technical skills) the chance to innovate and get experience.
“Dr. Damien told me about this idea of bringing everyone who is underprivileged together and giving them a chance, and giving them a voice, teaching them how to innovate and showing them that they do belong in the fields of engineering, and science, or STEM in general. And that sounded awesome to me.”
Today Hamdy continues to pursue his undergraduate degree while taking breaks to complete projects and work assignments. He will share the outcomes of his INSPIRE Apprentice Garage Program, and what it’s like to be a student working in a hands-on environment at the WeaveSphere conference this November in Toronto.
WeaveSphere offers students a journey to innovation
WeaveSphere is a familiar place for Hamdy. When interning with IBM Canada’s Advanced Studies team, he helped organize parts of the event, which was previously called CASCON.
Taking place in Toronto November 15-17, 2022, WeaveSphere is an innovation event that attracts industry leaders, academics, developers, and students who come together to “weave” diverse perspectives with real-world problem-solving opportunities.
The goal is to accelerate innovation by creating relationships between stakeholders who don’t always get the chance to collaborate in the business world.
Hamdy says WeaveSphere presents a unique opportunity for students who are able to interact with senior business leaders and world-class researchers.
“It was cool having a voice among people who are way more experienced than me and way more educated than me. And it was cool for them to actually sit down and actually listen to me and respond.”
So, what can students take away from the WeaveSphere?
Without hesitation, Hamdy says the event offers incredible inspiration. Secondly, it’s contacts, as people who attend are all interested in making connections. Finally, Hamdy says the event offers the chance for students to find confidence.
“I always feared being rejected, or not having enough experience, or not having the knowledge base. But the funny thing is, you just hop right in and you start learning as you go. WeaveSphere is a place where you could find many, many opportunities to actually change the world.”
Digital Journal is an official media partner for WeaveSphere. We will share updates leading up to the event, and we’ll be live on location from November 15-17,2022. Join us and get your tickets at weavesphere.co.