Capstone project: The messiness of execution

April 08, 2013

Among the many differences between college and career is the simple matter of neatness. In class the questions and answers are usually straight forward, but on the job it’s a different situation. Things can get messy, and that’s one of the big lessons students learn during the capstone project, a requirement of Computer Information Systems majors.

“We want students to experience the messiness of execution,” said clinical assistant professor Timothy Olsen, who teaches the capstone class. “When we teach students concepts in classes, most of the homework and test assignments are pretty clear-cut and there are fairly good directions. But in the real world, there are political problems and integration problems and learning curves, and lots of reasons why execution is difficult.”

The capstone project gives the students experience in dealing with the messiness of execution, when working with a client who might change his mind often, or dealing with incomplete requirements. “Having that sort of experience is one of the more valuable lessons that comes out of this project,” Olsen said.

In the capstone project, CIS seniors break into teams and work on a project for a real company for one semester. In the past all of the teams worked on the same project, officially or unofficially competing to find the best solution. But Olsen has reconfigured the program. Seniors still work in teams, but now each team works with a different company on a specialized project.

“There’s more weight riding on the success of the project in this new model,” Olsen said. “In the past, I don’t think it was quite as authentic because six groups were doing the same work. In this model, if your group fails, then the whole project will fail and there are not five other groups whose projects could succeed.”

Also, by broadening the number of companies that can participate, organizations from startups and nonprofits to Fortune 500s can utilize the skills of the CIS students.

That in turn brings a variety of projects. For example, Olsen said some projects involve building websites for companies, others require recommendations on what software or solution to purchase and how to integrate that solution into the organization’s existing systems, while still other projects involve social media strategies where teams developed recommendations on what type of technology to use.

“There is quite a different variety of topics, and I like that because our program is quite broad,” Olsen said. “Most students are interested in technical and code-related projects; other students are much more interested in the process analysis, the business analysis. I try to get a number of different types of projects so that each of the students and their interests can be covered.”

The Pitch

To get the program rolling, Olsen brought in representatives from a number of area companies interested in sponsoring capstone projects. Company representatives then made their project pitches to the students. After hearing the pitches, the students selected their first, second and third choices. The working teams were soon assembled.

During the fall semester, seniors Jessica Tran and Andy Dao found themselves on the same team working on a gamification project for Avnet, the Fortune 500 technology distribution company based in Phoenix. Gamification is the use of game thinking and game playing in work environments to find solutions to problems. The first step for Tran, Dao and the rest of their team was to delve into research on gamification.

“Avnet wanted to learn more about this concept and see if it was worth it to implement into their company,” Tran said. “They specifically wanted us to focus on finding ways in which gamification can be integrated in their training programs, because they wanted to increase retention and motivation in their employees.”

Tran and Dao shouldered the task of finding a third-party solution for Avnet to implement.

Danielle Clarke’s team is working on a project a bit closer to home this spring. ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning was asked by the mayor of Mesa to help create a sustainable and innovative community in the Downtown Plaza area. The school then asked Clarke’s team to create an interactive, simple and user-friendly website for the project in order to help promote the designs, ideas and innovations of the geographical sciences and urban planning students.

“For this Mesa project, I am currently the project manager,” Clarke said. “I am in charge of all the communication with the client and within the group. I make sure the group is on schedule for presenting deliverables to the client. I am also in charge of the design of the website and the way it is seen by the user according to our client’s requirements.”

Robert Bruce and his team worked for a nonprofit. Last fall, Bruce helped the Arizona chapter of the Society for Information Management to create its own online presence.

“The requisites for the project were to have a self-sustained website that allows them to manage users, events and payments — all in a one-stop solution that was aesthetically pleasing,” said Bruce, who graduated in the fall. “My role in the group was as the team lead/project manager for the development of the content management system we configured for the site.”

A Dose of Reality

As the students embark on their projects, Olsen already knows what eye-opening experiences are headed their way; they will discover a little more about what it’s like to be in the workplace.

Team Avnet was confronted with the reality of dealing with a Fortune 500 company almost from day one. In all, the team had only two face-to-face meetings with busy Avnet managers. Most communication took place via email.

“It was difficult at first because we could not schedule a meeting with them until two weeks into the project,” Tran said. “At our first meeting, we just asked what they were expecting and what information they were seeking. The second meeting was our team presenting our findings, as well as learning about Avnet's project management process.”

The team members also discovered that the concepts and methodologies they learned in class differed from Avnet’s. The team was learning about agile methodology, while Avnet uses waterfall methodology.

Still, it all came together and Team Avnet was able to deliver three gamification options to the company — and the team members made their final presentations to the company’s chief information officer.

In contrast, Clarke’s team has weekly, hour-long meetings where they discuss progress and receive feedback. Clarke’s team has learned to deal quickly and effectively with client feedback.

“One of the strengths of my group is that we communicate effectively with each other,” Clarke said. “For instance, a recent issue came up with the website from the client and we were able to sit down as group, my team, and come up with a variety of solutions. Clients do not always know what they want. So, instead of trying to figure out what they want and read their minds, the best thing I would recommend is putting a prototype together that includes their requirements or any other wishes they requested.”

Managing a project also proved a learning curve for Bruce’s team. Due to the limited time the team had, Bruce soon realized that as project manager he had to sit down with his team and give precedence to his client’s “must haves” and address the “would like” features if there was time.

The Takeaway

Olsen’s main goal for his capstone project students is that they take away experience and knowledge that will help them to face the real world and get jobs.

“The students are surprised that they can teach themselves the technology and pick up the things they need in order to accomplish the project,” he said. “That’s something I have been surprised with as well; how students rise to the occasion. It’s a fun thing to witness students who are novices in a certain technology become experts in a short amount of time and are able to complete the technical project and do something in which they had no experience with before. They can do it because they have that ambition and drive that comes with being an amateur.”

Dao agreed that working with real clients upped his game and “got me more engaged.”

“I am going to apply all of this experience, such as working with a team of my peers, meeting strict deadlines and presenting solid work to my future career,” Dao said.

As project manager, Bruce learned the multitasking that comes with being the boss.

“This project helped me to learn how to effectively manage a development team by organizing the great ideas the team came up with and distributing tasks depending on the skill set of each individual member of the team,” he said. “A big takeaway from this project was also the client relationship I had to nurture throughout the development of the website, to make sure we delivered what the client had in mind.”

Bottom Line

  • Under the old CIS capstone project model, teams of students in one class worked with the same company on the same project. The revamped program has each student team working with a different company on a different project.
  • More and varied companies are able to utilize the skills of CIS students under the new capstone project.
  • The reconfigured CIS capstone project began in the fall 2012 semester and continues this semester. Students are currently working on 19 projects for 17 local organizations.
  • Students received real-life experiences in dealing with busy clients, quickly learning new concepts for a project and delivering solutions under strict deadlines.