Jumpstarting students’ 21st-century workforce skills

Getting the first job can often be the most challenging task new graduates face, even when the labor market is strong. For recent grads, it’s a Catch-22: to get a job, they need experience, but to get experience, they need a job.

That’s why the bachelor’s degree in computer information systems (CIS) culminates with a capstone course. It provides the tipping point for students from being a valuable technical resource under a professor’s guidance to a strategically aware contributor in an organization’s business environment.

While the CIS undergraduate program develops a strong technical skillset within students, and additional classes at the W. P. Carey School provide a solid foundation for contextualizing that skillset within a modern organization, “most information systems professionals would agree that there is still a learning curve when students graduate,” says Clinical Associate Professor Jason Nichols.

He explains that companies hire employees that can hit the ground running. They should be able to access a complex business landscape, isolate areas in that landscape where technology can be brought to bear for the benefit of the organization, convince potential stakeholders of the value that can be generated, and develop a robust technology solution that delivers on its value proposition.

“This is big-picture stuff,” says Nichols, who teaches the CIS capstone course. “It's the type of valuable experience that students often don’t get until they’re out in the field fending for themselves.”

Reaching that tipping point requires an environment that is as real as possible, and this is where the hands-on training with USAA comes to life. Nichols worked with USAA colleagues in his fall capstone course to identify a complex issue the financial services organization is facing, provided just enough organizational context for the students to dig into the issue, and then supported them on one of their first journeys from a loosely defined issue to a value-generating solution, complete with a business case to support their value proposition.

Because the business challenge was intentionally broad and complex, students ended up identifying a diverse range of opportunities to create value. “The resulting solutions they generated were unique from one another, yet were all positioned to improve some aspect of the same issue, and that’s where the competition came in,” Nichols says.

Schooled on SCRUM

From a curriculum standpoint, the CIS capstone course provides students with a contemporary methodology for team-based software development. “To get there,” says Nichols, “we quickly compare and contrast different approaches before landing on SCRUM as our agile software development methodology of choice.” He says the class spends time with the foundations of the methodology, learning roles and playing games that help them understand how to express a system in terms of the needs of its stakeholders. Then they estimate the work involved to translate those needs into functioning elements of a software solution.

 “A majority of the capstone wasn't just learning new technologies, but teaching our teammates the technologies that we had learned on our own,” says CIS student Antonio Paoletti.

With the concepts in place, the students sort into teams and then have the first round of development where they practice what they’ve learned. “This first round is an opportunity to iron out any issues that may arise as they practice SCRUM for the first time together,” says Nichols. “It’s also a chance to shore up their collaborative development environment and toolkit by introducing practical things like how to work with code repositories and version control.” Because it’s a practice round, the teams are allowed to choose anything they’d have fun building (so long as it’s complex enough to present a meaningful effort).

The first round of development turned out to be the best and most challenging part of the class for Paoletti. “My favorite part of the class was our ability to use any programming languages or technologies that we wanted,” he says. “I wasn't limited to a single language or a standard to follow when working on my project. This was fantastic because it allowed us to use technologies learned outside of class and languages that we had never seen before. We got more understanding of how different programming languages can be intertwined.

“Throughout our other classes, we had a guiding hand of what programming language to use and what we had to accomplish,” Paoletti continues. “With this class, we had no idea what exactly we had to make or what platform we would be using to create our project. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time, as we had to utilize our own knowledge to prepare and create a working application. It was a challenging process to work together as a team and figure out which skill sets to utilize and what technologies to learn in a relatively short time frame.”

The case competition

Nichols says the goal is to get the teams comfortable in the development methodology and clear of any technological roadblocks in advance of the next round of development: the case competition.

One of the USAA colleagues helped kick off the fall competition by presenting some organizational context to give them a place to start and a complex business issue: “The professional development for USAA employees is best achieved when effective networks and mentorships are built and cultivated. We are a relationship company. What is the best way to facilitate this at USAA?”

The teams were then responsible for both building a solution that created value within this issue space and wrapping the solution into a solid business case for why their approach is the most valuable.

The pattern for class time during development weeks is that each team has two major touch-points with Nichols: one to demonstrate progress from the last week’s development efforts and one to formally seek help if they get stuck as they are coding. “We also provided short packages of supplemental tips and guidance along the way,” he says. These topics can span from building business cases and delivering compelling presentations, to technical elements regarding system architecture and beyond. “The mindset is that these students already have all the pieces, and my goal is to help guide them and fill in any gaps as they practice putting it all together,” explains Nichols.

The USAA colleagues joined the class in the last week to judge the teams’ presentations and final solution, narrowing the competition from eight teams to three. From there, the class came back together as a classroom community and spent the next week supporting the top three teams as they polished up their business cases and solutions.

“I was most impressed with how passionate the students were about the experience and competition,” says one of the program judges Gabriel Gabaldon, USAA director of information technology.

USAA generously joined class the last week in fall, and switched roles from judges to mentors in a collaborative workshop for the top three teams, Nichols says. “This was an amazing opportunity for the entire class to see through the eyes of top-quality information systems professionals as they broke down each team’s presentation and solution to provide recommendations that would bump each team up to another level of competitiveness.”

All of this concluded in a final competition hosted at USAA’s Phoenix campus. The three teams presented their cases and solutions to a room of USAA executives, a winning team was selected, and the students had an opportunity to network with gracious members of the USAA family over dinner.

“From our first interaction with the students to when they presented onsite, the amount of growth and maturity was nothing short of astonishing,” Gabaldon says. “They came in bashful and left confident. The students’ ideas were initially only focused on the development aspect of the project, but evolved to consider all the business aspects associated with it.

“The capstone project gave the students a platform to succeed or fail on their own,” continues Gabaldon. “It required teamwork and collaboration to succeed and gave the students a glimpse of the real world and how to adapt and grow from constructive feedback. In addition to the feedback we supplied on the project, we emphasized the usefulness of their capstone project as a solid example of a resume artifact or the seed for their startup.”

Paoletti agrees with the benefits of the capstone course beyond graduation. “It gave me the opportunity to learn new languages, along with a real-world challenge to create a project in a short timeframe,” says Paoletti, who was on the winning team. “It helped me determine what I like and dislike about certain methodologies for organizing a project.”

USAA is on board to continue working with CIS through future case competitions, says Nichols. “I’ll be meeting with them shortly to go over lessons learned and make plans for the spring semester.”

“This was a fantastic program where we had the pleasure of seeing the ASU students grow their professional skillsets, says Gabaldon. “We look for these same professional skillsets in applicants when we hire people to join us in serving the military community and their families.”

Nichols hopes the students in his capstone course take away a sense that all of the skills they have acquired at ASU are interrelated. “I want them to understand that their greatest value is at the intersection of their technical prowess, their business acumen, and their innovative mindset,” he says.

“The capstone was by far my favorite class in the computer information systems program, Paoletti says, “not because we learned something new, but because we were challenged to teach our teammates something new. This project gave me a glimpse of the workforce, where we don't compete for grades but teach one another and build our skills as a group to accomplish great things.”