How a former CIO leads Georgia State University program to train future IT professionals

GSU's Capstone program gives CIS seniors a chance to work on real projects to hone both their technical chops and their soft skills, both of which will accelerate their value in the job market. A Q&A with John Martin, co-director of this unique program.

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Many strategic CIOs focus on developing their IT personnel to be more business savvy and provide opportunities to develop their skills through experiential learning. One of the challenges in hiring new personnel who are recent graduates of information systems / computer science programs is their lack of experience.

Georgia State University is addressing this opportunity through its Capstone program, where seniors in the Computer Information Systems Program (CIS) have an opportunity to work on real projects and gain invaluable experience to hone their technical and soft skills that will accelerate their value.

Balasubramaniam Ramesh, GSU Distinguished University Professor and CIS Chair, is proud of this program, “While every course in our programs include hands-on (experiential) learning opportunities, we also require students to engage in immersive, practical learning though a private industry or public sector sponsored Capstone project, internship or Co-Op.”

Dr. Shuguang Hong, CIS Associate Chair and Co-Director of the Capstone program, adds, “In each of these options, students apply the skills and knowledge learned in our curriculum to solve real business problems under the direction of both the sponsor and the department faculty.”

John Martin is the Executive in Residence and Co-Director for the Capstone program. John recently retired as CIO from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 2018 and has over 30 years of public/private sector experience. Martin strongly believes that mentoring future IT professionals is an imperative to ensure that computer information system graduates enter their first job with experiential learning. That’s why he joined the Capstone program at GSU.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Martin to find out more about the program and following is an excerpt from our conversation

john martin John Martin

John Martin

 

Phil Weinzimer:  Georgia State University is one of the premier institutions that provides degrees in Computer Information Systems. Also unique to GSU is the Capstone program that provides students an opportunity to work in student teams with public/private sector to solve a compelling business problem. Can you describe the program and its overall goal?

John Martin: The Computer Information Systems program at Georgia State University is not only one of the best kept secrets in Georgia, but in the United States. Recently, U.S. News & World Report (2019) rated Georgia State University as #2 Most Innovative University, #2 Best in Undergraduate Teaching, and #9 Best Undergraduate Information Systems Program in the nation. The national ranking of the Information Systems program is in part due to the Capstone program (CIS4980).

The project course is only open to seniors, and at this stage in their education they need to apply the skills learned at the university. This course does just that by providing an opportunity for students to apply the knowledge and skills acquired in their core courses, and apply them to larger, more complex problems and to gain experience in working in teams in a real business world environment.

PW: You are the Executive in Residence and Co-Director for the Capstone program at GSU. How has your background prepared you for this role?

JM: In my 30-year career I have worked in almost every facet of IT, started as a programmer trainee and eventually becoming a CIO. In addition, I have worked in both the Public and Private sectors which has allowed me to understand the nuances unique to navigating IT and Business solutions in these somewhat different environments.  However, regardless of the level I found myself in, public or private, I always understood that the future of IT really lies in helping “build” tomorrow’s innovative IT professional.  In 2014 I agreed to come to Georgia State University as a part-time professor to help in that endeavor.

When I retired as the CIO from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 2018, the University asked me to take a more active role and I accepted a position in the Computer Information Systems Department, J. Mack Robinson School of Business. In this role I work to provide students and faculty the opportunity to benefit from the expertise I have gained through many years as a business executive by teaching regular semester courses, while also assisting with the identification of the evolving needs of the business community with the GSU's academic programs.

PW: The Capstone program differs from other Computer Science program components. What are some of the distinguishing differences that help students improve their computer science skills?

JM: My Co-Director and I work throughout the year talking to senior IT executives explaining not only the value this program provides to the IT community in general, but also the value-add to their organization without any investment other than their time. Students are rewarded with the experience of working on real projects. After soliciting project requests from those organizations, we select the ones that will be beneficial to both “Client” and student.

We then review each student’s resume and assign them to a team that best suits their skillset to help ensure success. The students will at this point be working as an independent contractor in analyzing the business problem, researching the organization, market / customer needs, appropriate technology solutions, etc. and delivering a working “product” by the end of the semester. This experience provides the skills needed for a successful transition to the real world such as: “You can’t choose your team mates”, “There are often no detailed requirements or instructions”, but “You have to ’figure it out!’” We ingrain in them that “As an IT professional, you are responsible for your success which heavily depends on the success of your client”

PW: Who are some of the organizations that participate in this program and what value have they received?

JM: The Capstone program over the years has worked with “clients” from multi-billion-dollar private companies like Delta Airlines, Coca Cola, Georgia Pacific, Alliance Healthcare Systems, and Cox Communications. In addition, Public Sector organizations are always battling resource constraints and utilize our students to supplement their resources on important projects. The City of Atlanta, Georgia Public Defenders Council, Georgia Technology Authority, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, East Point City and Fulton County Government are some of the Public Sector organizations that benefit from the Capstone program. 

Recently, Steve Clancy, CIO, Georgia-Pacific, the CIO of Georgia Pacific Stated: “We appreciate the caliber of the students, the quality of their education and the fresh perspectives that they bring to challenge our thinking. We have also enjoyed great success in attracting top talents through Robinson’s CIS program. This is a win-win opportunity for the students, GP and GSU and were honored to be a part of this exemplary program.”

PW:  I understand that student applications for this program have increased during the past few years and expected to continue to increase. Why is that?

JM: Capstone students are usually in their final semester before graduation and have selected a concentration such as Application Development, Data Analytics, Process Innovation or Cyber Security. What this Capstone provides is not only an opportunity to put their newly acquired technical skills to work to solve a real-life problem, but to begin building the skills that will help them be successful throughout their career.

However, one thing that I have discovered in my career is that, most people fail in IT not from a lack of technical skills but from a lack of “soft skills.” Many people new in the IT space struggle with not being able to speak to clients in their own acumen dealing with difficult personalities both in the technical teams and the business partners, and proper timely communication. As “David,” a previous Capstone student, recently commented, “The Capstone Program provides a unique opportunity to explore real world applications of everything student is learning in class. My Capstone internship proved to me that I am cut out for the world of cybersecurity.”

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