Craig Caryl is a self-described “business ninja,” a seasoned production executive and master marketer whose entrepreneurial spirit knows no bounds. He has co-founded multiple startups, produced more than two dozen documentaries and worked in a variety of industries, partnering with companies ranging from Activision to Hasbro to Nike. So when Caryl reached out to Hadar Ziv, faculty director of capstone programs in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), it presented a win-win opportunity.
“I had been ‘ideating’ a project called GetMentored,” recalls Caryl. He envisioned the online platform helping students explore careers of interest, connect with mentors and find open positions. “I had been thinking about the idea for some time but didn’t have the resources to build it,” he says. That’s when a mutual colleague, David Ochi, connected Caryl to Ziv. Ochi regularly teaches topics such as innovation and entrepreneurship at UCI and coordinates the annual ICS Butterworth Product Development Competition, so he was well aware of Ziv’s “menu of offerings” for team-based project courses in ICS.
That was back in 2022. Since then, Caryl has sponsored multiple projects — GetMentored, World Wisdom and Leonardo247.com — and he expects to line up a third ICS team to continue working on GetMentored for fall 2023. “I love the energy and enthusiasm the ICS students bring to the concept,” he says. “They have a fresh outlook and often bring ideas and concepts to bear that I had not even considered. I just love their passion and can-do attitude.”
Gaining Real-World Experience
The ICS Capstone Program represents a unique collaboration between academia and industry. It provides students with hands-on experience in managing a real-world project while giving program sponsors support for under-resourced projects and opportunities for recruitment.
“The benefits are multiple,” says Caryl. “Primarily, it’s a chance to tap into some pretty darn smart young people who will absolutely approach your idea with many different filters,” he says. “For industry, that type of youthful creative energy can deliver amazing results.”
Caryl adds that tapping into ICS talent to create a proof of concept without draining company resources helps him better sell his ideas to a board of directors (BOD) or investors. “If I can work on the side with an ICS team and develop the idea as almost a functional white board or proof of concept, I can now take that [concept] to my investors or BOD [and] people can play with it and see it,” he says. “That’s where capstone and the ICS students deliver incredible value.”
For example, although GetMentored isn’t yet live, the alpha platform has been built with rule-based authentication and offers access to more than 1,500 career-exploring videos.
Learning Essential Soft Skills
During the capstone course, students gain not only practical, hands-on experience but also important nontechnical skills that you can’t always learn in the classroom.
“Working with me is not simply building a project based on a set of tasks,” explains Caryl. He works hard to bring students into the team fold and to share his leadership expertise. “I have been blessed to work in an entrepreneurial capacity within a number of different industries, which has forced me to develop a unique set of ‘tools,’” he says. “This toolset includes verbal and written communication skills as well as the ability to analyze situations very quickly and develop long-term strategies.” He helps students learn how to make real-time decisions and gain buy-in from others.
“You need to be able to communicate effectively within a variety of different environments, egos and agendas,” he explains. “You need to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. When it becomes clear that you zigged when you should have zagged, you have to be able to check your ego at the door, own the problem, and lead the team in a new direction and keep everyone motivated and excited,” he says. “This is harder than it may sound and something I try and teach my ICS students.”
Caryl does this by involving the students throughout the entire process, expanding their understanding of the business side of working in technology.
“He would invite people to meetings — investors and other people from industry — and it was really nerve-wracking in the beginning, because we didn’t know what to expect,” says Pranaya Sinha, who worked with Caryl on GetMentored 2.0 and graduated in 2023. “But he’s good at introducing people and making the room flow, so once you get used to it, it all works out.” Sinha adds that the experience of regularly presenting the team’s progress in front of others helped prepare him for job interviews, and he’s now a cybersecurity intern at Prancer.
Sinha describes his capstone experience as being like a bridge between college and professional life. “It’s a really good transition,” he says. “You basically do what your job would be, so it was a really fun and exciting process. It was one of the most fun classes I took at UCI.”
Given how much students gain from the experience, it’s no wonder the ICS Capstone Program has grown in leaps and bounds since Ziv taught his first capstone class back in 2009. Now, ICS offers undergraduate capstone courses for its informatics, computer science and data science majors as well as for several of its masters-level professional programs.
“Our Capstone Program prides itself on establishing long-term relationships and retaining amazing project partners such as Craig Caryl,” says Ziv. “Caryl connects with students on project teams on a level that goes beyond simply ‘getting the project done.’ He also mentors students about important soft skills such as professional communication and time and team management.”
Helping students transition into their professional lives also helps build strong bridges between academia and industry more generally, creating a testing ground for new ideas and a win-win situation for all stakeholders.
“I love the capstone projects and I am very grateful to be involved with such a terrific group of students and professors,” says Caryl. “I feel very blessed to be able to contribute to the growth of these students’ minds and skill sets. Hopefully one day one of them will offer me a job!”
— Shani Murray