Adam Burden: Technology Leader & Odyssey of the Mind Coach

Accenture wrote this story featuring Adam Burden and his role as coach of a St. John’s Episcopal School’s Odyssey of the Mind Team for their Technology Talent Hub. Thank you, Adam, for sharing!

For more than 35 years, Odyssey of the Mind (OM) has taught students from around the world team-oriented creative problem-solving skills. With millions of alumni from 25 countries around the world, many “OMers” are now also Accenture employees who participated in the school-year long problem solving competitions. Adam Burden, the global lead for Advanced Technology & Architecture at Accenture, himself an OM alumni from 25 years ago, has been a judge and is now a coach for teams from St. John’s Episcopal School in Tampa, Florida. One of the teams Adam coached this school year made it through Florida regional and state tournaments and advanced to the 2014 World Finals held Iowa State University where they competed among 850 teams, placing 10th in their problem/division. Read on to find out more about Adam’s contribution.

Tell us about your journey at Accenture.
I recently celebrated my twenty-second anniversary with Accenture where I have spent most of my career working in technology oriented roles. In addition to client responsibilities and leading our Tampa Bay, Florida location, I am responsible for our global ATA organization. ATA is focused on developing world-class technology architects in support of delivery across platforms and operating groups, in addition to deeply skilled specialists in the development and deployment of complex technology solutions. We also help incubate next-generation capabilities to help our clients adopt disruptive technologies. With all the change occurring in our industry, I’ve never been more excited about the opportunity we have to #GoForGrowth in Accenture Technology and am thrilled to be at the helm of our ATA group.

How did you get involved in the Odyssey of the Mind competition?
I competed on teams in my high school over a quarter center ago. Since then I have been actively involved as a volunteer and a judge. In 2012, I convinced my daughter’s school to start a team and volunteered as coach of the St. John’s Episcopal School team.

Your team did really well this year. Tell us about the competition.
Odyssey of the Mind is the creative problem solving program that provides students with opportunities to develop, use, and improve their creative thinking skills. Teams competing in the OM competitions consist of up to seven members. The teams work together the entire school year to develop a solution to a “long-term” problem.

Each year there are five “long term” problems in categories of vehicle, technical, balsa-wood structures, performing arts and classics. Teams are judged on the creativity of their solutions and the quality of their presentation. Teams must also solve a “spontaneous” problem requiring them to think and respond quickly to a situation as creatively as possible. They only receive this “spontaneous” problem a few minutes before they are required to solve it.

Our team decided to solve the “vehicle” category of “long-term” problem this year. The problem entailed building a vehicle that could carry a driver and would perform a driving test. The solution requirements were challenging— among other restrictions, peddling not allowed and the team needed different propulsion systems to move the vehicle backward and forward. Our team developed an air-pressure based propulsion system to move the vehicle forward using a dual-action cylinder similar to what you would find on an automatic door closer, an 11-gallon air pressure tank and an actuator. To travel in reverse, they adapted a DC electric motor from a conveyor belt to propel the rear wheels.

In presenting their solution, this team also developed a theme which stitched together the various elements of the solution parameters into a story – in their case, they developed a story of the Village People disco band running a driving school in retirement using an old VW Bus, one of the pictures shows the team outfitted in their costumes with the VW Bus. It was a really entertaining story – they even made up their own disco song and played it on instruments.

As a consequence of the competition, is your daughter keen to get involved in technology or engineering?
My daughter has always has an interest in technology and engineering. What this has done has encouraged her to develop skills about how to work as a team on solving problems – leveraging creativity, minding budget & schedule and evenly distributing the work among members. Sounds a lot like our technology projects sometimes doesn’t it? No wonder we have so many alumni at Accenture who benefitted from the OM program in their schools.

As a coach, what advice did you give to the team?
As a coach, you can encourage your team, make sure what they are doing is safe and help manage the schedule and logistics – but all the work is actually in the student’s hands. I think that’s one of the magical things about OM, the students fail (sometimes a lot) – the really successful ones try sometimes dozens of different ways to solve problems. My advice to them was that they shouldn’t assume that the first answer is the right answer. I also really stress that they must think out-of-the-box and should not be afraid to try new things.

Is anyone else in your team or office involved in the competition?
Accenture has many employees who are alumni of the OM program – while at World Finals this year, I met other parents and coaches who are part of our firm as well. That’s really not surprising – the type of challenges we thrive on solving for our clients have a lot of similarities to the competition problems being solved by these students. I guess it is in our DNA.

Would you recommend involvement to others and what have you taken away from it?
Absolutely – OM is a really rewarding program for students and volunteers and I would definitely encourage others to be involved as it is a great way to further demonstrate Accenture’s commitment to corporate citizenship. It is also genuinely inspiring to see how students apply what they learn in school to help solve real problems in interesting and novel ways; often I am struck by the pure genius/creativity of the students I work with in the remarkable answers they develop as a team. It’s a lot of work to coach teams, but absolutely worth every minute.


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