CIS 236: A challenging crash course in reality

As an undergraduate student in Arizona State University's Computer Information Systems program, David Woody often imagined what his career — and his day-to-day work life during that career — might be like. He had a pretty good vision in his head, too.

Then he started working.

And he realized his vision was pretty much completely off the mark.

"When you're in school and you haven't experienced the real world yet, it's very hard to imagine what your job is actually going to be like," says Woody. "And in the end, it's not what you think it will be."

In his role as a vice president with the American Express Technologies group in Phoenix, Woody has witnessed countless young CIS professionals make that same transition — the transition from the academic practice of CIS to the real-world practice of CIS. And while most of those young professionals ultimately survive in the corporate world, the process isn't always easy. The reason, of course, is simple: No matter how strong a CIS academic curriculum is — and Woody is quick to point out that the W. P. Carey School's curriculum is, in fact, very strong — students can't fully grasp the realities of CIS in the real world until they're actually in the real world.

A new partnership aims to finally tackle that problem — or, at the very least, help make that transition to the real world somewhat less jarring.

Along with several of his colleagues at American Express, Woody has joined up with Sule Balkan, a clinical assistant professor in W. P. Carey's Department of Information Systems, to create a new and unique CIS honors course. The new course, CIS 236, not only introduces some of W. P. Carey's brightest business students (both CIS majors and non-CIS majors) to the intricacies of CIS practice, but also brings them face to face with how that practice translates to the day-to-day realities of a Fortune 500 powerhouse, namely American Express. Along with a semester's worth of more typical coursework, CIS 236 also includes in-person interaction — presentations and a Q&A session — with Woody and his fellow American Express vice presidents.

In short, CIS 236 is a crash course in reality, and a challenging crash course, at that.

"When we first agreed to do this, we asked: 'What are we going to do for this course. Case studies. Presentations?'" recalls Woody. "But ultimately what we agreed was, along with Sule, to build a course around the real-world experience. We took that idea back to American Express and formulated a curriculum about what we're doing in CIS today, what we're actually doing about these day-to-day challenges that the students learning about in the classroom."

Adds Balkan: "The idea was, 'OK, these are honors students so what can we do to make the material appealing to them?' I ended up having 19 students who learned about the course and registered, and of course they were very bright, very curious students. It's a better way of introducing CIS to both CIS majors and other business majors."

That's an important introduction to make, Woody says, because companies of all kinds are constantly on the lookout for talented young technology minds. That includes American Express, which realized that while it has prospered for a good long time thanks to the contributions of its current generation of CIS professionals, it is critical to develop a sustainable pipeline of new talent.

Finding students intellectually capable of tackling that challenge is hard enough, Woody says. It's even more difficult to find students who are ready to dig right in and, upon launching their careers, make an immediate contribution.

In a small way, CIS 236 could help solve that problem. And that's what could make the course so valuable in the long run.

"I think when you're in your first couple of years of school, trying to imagine what the job is going to be, I think many students think that they'll be sitting behind a computer with blinders on," he says. "But that's not it. There's so much more to being a programmer or systems analyst. It's also about being able to work and interact using interpersonal skills and the ability to work in a highly matrixed environment. Everything is integrated. So what we asked ourselves was: How can we help these students understand what the real world is like? And how can we best prepare them for the real world? We know what the curriculum is, and we like a lot of it, but there's more, too."

The 19 students who took Balkan's first CIS 236 class learned at least that much, because, as it turned out, CIS 236 is just one tough course.

Both Balkan and Woody said that while the CIS majors were able to easily grasp many of the concepts presented during the course, the non-CIS majors — very accomplished, very intelligent students in their own right — found the finer details of the CIS world a bit challenging. Woody says he recalls seeing a few "deer-in-headlights" stares when he and his colleagues dove into the deep layers of technology underlying their business.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing, Balkan says.

What's important, she says, is that these students accepted the challenge and, ultimately, met it.

"Some of the students said that it was the hardest course they had ever taken," Balkan says. "But I think that's because when you're first being introduced to an information systems class, it's almost like learning a new language. There are words that maybe you've heard before but not in this context. So we helped them learn the content and what it exactly means in the realm of information systems. They were not only learning the concepts but also the basic tools. In the end, I was very impressed with the students' growth and how they were able to use what they learned."

Balkan is now in the midst of teaching her second CIS 236 course, and she says she will constantly be seeking new ways to make the course more relevant and more informative.

That being said, the general idea behind the course — the basic premise on which it was built — will remain the same: To give some of ASU's brightest students a revealing, eye-opening and extremely challenging look at how and why information systems are so crucially important to business today.

How important?

"When we took the students over to American Express one of the students asked, 'So how important, really, is CIS?'" Balkan says. "And David Woody replied: CIS (Information Technology) is at the core of American Express business processes, and it is critical to achieving the company's Vision, to become the world's most respected service brand. I think when students understood the importance of CIS to a company like American Express, that was a big eye-opener for them."