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Esko native places among top 50 in Google's Android Developer Challenge

A few months ago, when he probably should have been working nonstop on his master's thesis, Montana State University computer science student Jeff Sharkey decided to take on a side project.

A few months ago, when he probably should have been working nonstop on his master's thesis, Montana State University computer science student Jeff Sharkey decided to take on a side project.

The Esko native entered Google's Android Developer Challenge, a contest designed to get software developers working on programs for Android, Google's soon-to-be-released cell phone operating system.

After several weeks of brainstorming and two weeks of actual programming work, Sharkey, 22, sent in his entry and returned full attention to his thesis. It was the last he heard of the contest until the day before commencement when he received an unexpected graduation present: $25,000.

Out of nearly 1,800 entries, Google chose Sharkey's program as one of the contest's top 50, earning the newly minted MSU grad a cash prize, national recognition and a place in the contest's second round. Sharkey's application will now vie against the other 49 finalists for one of several $275,000 grand prizes.

Sharkey's program, dubbed "AndroidScan" or simply "Scan," uses a cell phone's camera to read the barcode on any product. Through the phone's Internet connection, Scan then searches more than a dozen Web sites for information about that product, such as reviews, prices, excerpts, online vendors and nearby stores selling that item.

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Sharkey, who began college in Minnesota at age 15, found time for his AndroidScan idea between his research into intelligent, radio-based rural transportation networks and his work as a student fellow at MSU's Western Transportation Institute.

Google asked for an application that was original, effective, polished and indispensible. Sharkey took his inspiration from a documentary about the barcode scanners used in major retail stores, which can pull up all sorts of information about products.

"Part of the documentary was showing how valuable that was for them, so why can't everyone have something like that on an even wider scale?" Sharkey said.

Doug Galarus, Sharkey's supervisor at the Western Transportation Institute, said Sharkey gave AndroidScan a lot of careful thought before submitting it to Google.

"What I think was a strength of what he did on that project is that he looked at what would be beneficial as an application for this phone," said Galarus, who works in WTI's systems engineering division. "It was a combination of his technical skills and his insight into how this technology might be used."

Since Google released the list of the top 50 entries in May, Sharkey's program has received a lot of attention from blogs and the press. Sharkey was interviewed for an article in Forbes magazine, and a story about AndroidScan made the front page of Digg.com, a popular news site.

"All of a sudden I got people saying that 'I was working on something like that' or 'our company's doing that,'" Sharkey said. "After winning, I had something like 150 e-mails just with job offers," some from major technology companies.

Ideally, Sharkey said he would like to work in a dynamic office where he would have the opportunity to do a variety of tasks.

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"I'd really love to work in a startup environment because, in those companies, work needs to be done and someone has to do it," he said. "People just jump in wherever they can help. You might go from writing an enormous database script to sweeping the floor right after one another. I'm excited about stuff like that."

Before he commits to a career path, Sharkey plans on spending the summer polishing AndroidScan for the second round of the Google competition - winners should be announced in July - as well as working on any other personal projects that come along.

It's the perfect summer for a multi-tasker like Sharkey, who, when asked to name his specialty, had to think for a full minute before responding.

"An everything-ist?"

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