Hands-on in the software economy

July 19, 2013

Microsoft Developer Evangelist Michael Palermo helps CIS student Brandie Roy with her Microsoft 8 app.

 

Before business tourism major Vi Tranle (below) took Matt McCarthy’s CIS 105 class she thought she wanted to be a wedding planner, but when Microsoft Technical Evangelist Randy Guthrie visited class and taught students how to build apps for Windows 8 phones she began to see other possibilities.

This came as no surprise to Guthrie, whose purpose in visiting the W. P. Carey School was to give students hands-on experience with the software economy. For a week and a half this spring, Guthrie and Microsoft colleague Michael Palermo, whose title is Developer Evangelist, helped the 900-odd students in McCarthy’s class build apps and load them into the Windows 8 store.

CIS 105 – a requirement for all business students – is designed to introduce freshmen to the basic information technology knowledge they will need no matter what major they choose. But it is also a taste of what the CIS major is all about, since many students arrive at ASU not knowing that an information systems career is not the same as computer science. The Microsoft apps project definitely turned some heads and those students are taking a closer look at CIS, but it gave all students something immediately valuable. On their resumes they can now say they developed and marketed an app: in other words, they started businesses.

Department Chairman Michael Goul said the experience for students was “remarkable.” Some of the coaching went on in the CIS tutoring office down the hall from several faculty offices. “Normally our office suite is quiet, and when there is lots of noise, faculty often come out of their offices to quiet things down,” Goul said.”Not so this semester! The excitement of the students working on this project was contagious. We all enjoyed hearing what they asked Randy. We watched and learned from the way he encouraged and inspired them. We were inspired by the way he helped them leverage their own ideas to want to learn more.”

Applicable exercise

Guthrie has been a speaker in CIS 105 for 16-straight semesters, McCarthy said, and he plans to have him back to repeat the Windows 8 exercise in the fall. The project was a late addition to the syllabus this spring, and re-tooling the course to fit it in was a risk. “People kinda go crazy when you change the syllabus in the middle of the semester,” McCarthy said. But Guthrie convinced him the project would be worthwhile, and McCarthy agreed. “I thought it might be over the students’ heads, but after Guthrie showed it to me, I said not only can they do it – they should do it.”

“Should” because of what students learned about the latest in software product development. IS departments are sometimes criticized for not teaching students about the latest from industry, McCarthy said, but apps are part of the vanguard.

And, after working with Guthrie, students expanded their idea of what current technology makes possible. “They hear about some kid who makes an app and they think: I can’t do that. I’m not a programmer,” McCarthy said. But the Windows 8 software, which employs drag-and-drop techniques that most computer users understand, does not require programming expertise.

What is required is planning and creativity – the basics of systems development life cycles (SDLC). “They found out you can’t just drag-and-drop pictures, you have to be thoughtful and imaginative and plan it all out,” McCarthy said. And the imagination they brought to the project was impressive, he said.

Backwards Hat

Guthrie and Palermo worked personally with hundreds of students during their residency with CIS 105. One of the first steps, Guthrie said, was creating the developer account: the public name that would identify their products in the app store. “They were actually naming their companies,” Guthrie said, tackling a business question every entrepreneur must answer. Flummoxed, some took cues from standard undergraduate attire and came up with fun monikers: Backwards Hat, Tan Sandals, Black Socks.

Each student was asked to build two apps using a template Guthrie and Palermo provided that walked them through decisions about product design and operability. “These are real design issues that software developers really face,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie said the students were at varying levels of technical expertise. Some were satisfied working out a design then relying on the Microsoft pros to actually build the app, but some wanted to upgrade to Windows 8 so they could use the tools themselves. When the apps were ready, Guthrie and Palermo helped students load them into the Windows 8 store. The apps are free, but many are carrying ads and are earning money for their creators. Students were excited about that.

“It’s an amazing sense of fulfillment when you see your app running on a computer,” he said.

“We think this program will turn out to be the most insightful assignment they had in this class,” Guthrie stated. At the end, Guthrie hoped at least some of the students would consider IS as a career. “If this was the coolest project they did this semester, then they need to think about their majors,” he said.

Partnership

Goul explains that the syllabus for CIS 105 is packed. Students must leave the class with some fundamental IS skills and they must be aware of the major landmarks at the edge of tech innovation. Accomplishing all this, given the level of IS knowledge typical in freshmen, is both a challenge and an opportunity, Goul said.

But, Guthrie indicated, it’s worth the effort. ASU is one of the few universities that require students to take a class like CIS 105 so early, he noted: usually schools wait until students are engaged in their major. For many students, however, delaying a class like CIS 105 would mean missing an opportunity to discover a satisfying career. Goul says that some students switch majors after taking CIS 105 and many more add it as a second major. The synergies between CIS and the other majors give students competitive edge at graduation time.

Microsoft partners with ASU and W. P. Carey because “they’re open to innovation and are not afraid to try new things,” Guthrie added. That open-mindedness goes for the students, too, he said.