Capitalizing on the Capstone Experience

June 25, 2019

Capstone courses give students the opportunity to put their skills to the test by letting them work with local organizations to solve real-world problems. The two-quarter Informatics 191 A and B Senior Design Project course in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) presents a win-win situation, as hands-on learning for the students can result in practical solutions for the sponsoring company. For a few students and companies, however, the benefits extend even beyond impressive portfolios and innovative prototypes.

ID TECH Taps New Talent
“I remember the day they pitched the project to the class,” says Carlos Cortes Gutierrez, referring to Cliff Frescura and Matthew Jensen of ID TECH, which designs and manufactures secure payment solutions. “They had mentioned that they were looking to expand their team,” recalls Cortes Gutierrez. Now, the recent UCI graduate is a junior software engineer for the company, helping develop software that accommodates a wide range of platforms and products pertaining to payment devices. Fellow graduate and capstone teammate Parker Scott is doing the same.

“What I like best about the capstone course is that it gives students the opportunity to connect with real clients that have real problems,” says Scott. “We get a chance to see what it can be like to actually listen to client requirements, propose solutions and adjust based on client feedback or shifts in client priorities.” It also gives the companies a chance to see how students perform in that real-world environment.

Matthew Jensen of ID TECH (center) with newly hired capstone students Parker Scott and Carlos Cortes Gutierrez.

“The capstone project was an essential part of the hiring decision,” says Jensen, ID TECH’s manager of software engineering. “We were able to see how the students approached problem solving and communication within their team, and we could evaluate the technical contributions and quality of work.” That work involved creating a mobile web app that lets customers and technicians manage their payment devices.

“I truly felt like I was learning something that you just cannot get from sitting in a classroom,” says Cortes Gutierrez.  In the end, both he and Scott gained not only invaluable experience but also a job offer.

“We were able to give a small project to the students that had a lot of fun elements and learning opportunity for them and proved the concept of the idea we had,” says Jensen. “That proof was enough for us to pursue the project internally with the additional benefit of finding and developing new talent to hire.”

Bio-Rad Trio has High EQ
Bio-Rad, which develops, manufactures and markets a broad range of products for life science research and clinical diagnostic markets, also got an added benefit from the course — as did three of its team members. In addition to a prototype tool, software manager David Lokietz left the capstone course with a summer intern and two new developers.

To better communicate with customers, Lokietz says Bio-Rad “decided to ask a highly motivated UCI capstone team with an entrepreneurial spirit to create a prototype.” The team exceeded their expectations, creating not only a prototype but also a refined front-end solution for feedback as well as an interactive dashboard.

“Working with Bio-Rad truly was an exciting and amazing experience,” says Matthew Morales, who will start his new position July 1. “I was excited at the opportunity to get some real interviewing experience and feedback on my resume,” he says. “I was surprised to actually receive an offer!”

Christopher Zhao, a software engineering major who will graduate in the fall of 2019, is joining Morales at Bio-Rad for the summer with an internship. “The best part about the capstone project was it allowed me to experience the full software development cycle and what it’s like working on a big project,” he says. “It was something I had never experienced in any other courses.”

Teammate Jacklyn Grace Truong will also start work at Bio-Rad on July 1. “I’m really looking forward to continue working with everyone at Bio-Rad,” she says. “We’ve already been working with them for 20 weeks now — it’s like the honeymoon phase is over and I’m ready for the marriage to really begin.”

It is, after all, a perfect match. “The capstone experience allowed us to interact with the team members,” notes Lokietz. “We were able to understand their technical capabilities and, more importantly, to gauge their Emotional Intelligence (EQ).” He explains that although Bio-Rad can test for technical skills, assessing the EQ — which comprises motivation, interactive and communication skills, awareness of the organization, and personality traits — is difficult when limited to just a few hours. Working with the students for 20 weeks helped Bio-Rad better “understand the overall fit.” At the same time, the students were able to get a feel for the organizational culture and what role they might play within it.

“I have found graduating candidates don’t always have the ability to articulate why they want the job,” says Lokietz. “When interviewing these candidates, they had formulated a really good ‘why’ they wanted the job at Bio-Rad.”

From Project to Position
Both ID Tech and Bio-Rad plan to sponsor future projects. “Absolutely, yes,” responded Jensen when asked about future capstones. “We already have several ideas that we are developing so we can be ready for this next fall.”

According to Lokietz, the benefits of sponsoring a capstone include having a “contained team” that can focus solely on a proof of concept without having preconceived solutions based how “it’s always been done.” The company then gets a prototype for determining next steps as well as “exposure to new talent (IQ) technical capabilities” and an “understanding of people’s EQ.”

For students, the goal of the course is to obtain real-world experience to boost their resumes, but some land jobs in the process. “David took it upon himself to become more than a sponsor,” says Morales. “He was a leader, our mentor, and now — luckily enough — our boss!”

Contact Informatics Professor Hadar Ziv to learn more about sponsoring a capstone project and joining this mutually beneficial program.

Shani Murray