Computing at Grand Valley
by Leah Twilley
illustrations by Elizabeth VanderHeide
Think of how many times you interact with technology in a given day. The program you use at the grocery store self-checkout. The software on your cell phone. The computer in your car that tracks mileage.
Technology touches almost every aspect of our lives. We depend on it. It’s a field that requires computer science professionals to design, build and create. It’s a field that is bursting at the seams with innovation, possibilities and opportunities. And it’s not slowing down — not in 2017, not anytime soon.
What it is lacking, though, are professionals. The demand for computing professionals is at an all-time high nationally and Grand Valley is working to fill that need.
“There is a lack of talent to fill roles that are continually opening at companies pursuing a competitive advantage through technology, which is every company. Our entire economy is shifting to digital, so almost everything involves technology,” said John Vancil, director of professional services for Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technology (OST), an information technology solutions provider. He earned a master’s degree in computer information systems from Grand Valley in 1998.
Of OST’s 200 employees, 36 are Grand Valley graduates. “It’s a real plus whenever someone shows up for an interview and has Grand Valley on their resume,” Vancil said. “We look for people who are insanely curious, who want to learn and grow, and who have a solid base in technology. Grand Valley does just that by providing graduates with strong, relevant curriculum and professors who care.”
Enrollment in computing-related majors and minors at Grand Valley is also at an all-time high. The number of credit hours has grown from 10,623 in 2006 to nearly 18,225 in 2016.
“You can’t choose a discipline or career that does not involve computers; it’s in every element of life,” said Paul Leidig, director of the School of Computing and Information Systems (CIS).
Leidig said the demand is high because the need for technology is not decreasing, and the U.S. is still recovering from effects of the dot-com bubble. The bubble, or “boom,” occurred in the late 1990s to early 2000s due to a rise in investments in internet-based companies.
“When the dot-com boom occurred, people in the U.S. no longer went to school for computing because it was believed that everything was being outsourced to other countries. Enrollment dropped drastically in computing programs at colleges and universities across the country. It took a few years to recover, and then it grew, and grew and grew. Now we are working to keep up with the demand from employers,” said Leidig.
What started as a group of computer science courses in the Mathematics Department in the late ’60s has evolved into a school that is part of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing. Leidig, who joined Grand Valley in 1991, has led the growth of the school that is keeping up with industry demands by offering relevant courses, introducing new programs and providing practical experiences for students.
Breaking the stereotype
Bekah Suttner came to Grand Valley wanting to become a journalist. A summer internship at Blue Medora, a cloud computing start-up in Grand Rapids, changed her mind.
“I didn’t want to do anything with computers, but a job at a start-up sounded more interesting than being a nanny for the summer,” Suttner said. “I had a stereotype in my head that if you work in computing, you sit in a cubicle all day and don’t interact with people. Working at Blue Medora completely broke that stereotype. I was able to think critically, be creative and work on teams.”
When Suttner returned that fall, she changed her major to computer science. Now a junior, Suttner is minoring in music; she started playing the violin at age 7. She said being a musician appealed to Blue Medora employees when she interviewed for the internship.
“I didn’t have any computer-related job experience when I interviewed, but my experience as a musician stood out to them,” she said. “The interviewer told me that most of their employees were musicians.”
Leidig said few people realize that computing is closely related to the music field as they both require creativity and logic.
“I had a stereotype in my head that if you work in computing, you sit in a cubicle all day and don’t interact with people. Working at Blue Medora completely broke that stereotype." Bekah Suttner
“Writing music is the same exact process as writing computing code. Composing code requires you to piece together loops, branches, repetitions and modules. Composing music requires you to piece together notes, chords and determine how the different instruments will work together to create something beautiful,” he said.
Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, said the CIS education at Grand Valley is unique because students are taught soft skills, like oral and written communication and ethics, in addition to technical skills. They are required to take a career-prep course.
“Grand Valley is more practice oriented than research oriented, so students often work in teams to solve problems for local companies and nonprofits,” he said, adding that the school also partners with other programs and majors, like health sciences and criminal justice, to encourage interdisciplinary work.
In the classroom, students work in collaborative teams, demystifying another stereotype of computing professionals. “Gone are the days of working alone in a cubicle, writing code and handing it off,” Leidig said. “Most workplace cultures have teams of computing and information systems professionals with different roles, like testers, users and designers, all working together.
“Word is getting out about the need, the pay and the workplace environment. Computing is becoming a fashionable degree.”
Should I stay or should I go?
About 40 percent of students in engineering and computing come from West Michigan, and more than 70 percent of graduates stay in the area.
“Graduates are making the decision to establish their lives in the Grand Rapids area. During their time at Grand Valley, they connect to the university and the community, and, in most instances, they secure employment in the area before they graduate because of internship and co-op experiences,” said Plotkowski.
Leidig said it’s not uncommon for students to receive more than one job offer before they graduate. “The mindset for our future computing professionals is not, ‘How do I find a job?’ it’s ‘Which job should I choose?’” he said.
It helps that Grand Rapids is becoming an IT hotspot. Many national companies, like BDO USA and Auto-Owners Insurance, are trying to recruit Grand Valley graduates but they can’t get them to leave West Michigan. “The solution,” Leidig said, “is setting up small shops in Grand Rapids. They are taking the work to where the talent is.”
There are graduates who move outside of the region to Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Located in southern San Francisco, Silicon Valley is home to tech start-ups and large companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.
Alumnus Alex Restrepo, from Colombia, works in Silicon Valley. He entered the computing field in the late 2010s, when the mobile application industry took off. He brought his experience to Grand Valley in 2010 as a graduate assistant for the Mobile Applications and Services Lab in CIS.
After graduation, he moved to San Francisco to work for a small start-up. Restrepo was soon recruited by Facebook to be a software engineer. He joined Instagram when it was acquired by Facebook in 2012.
“The proudest moment of my career has been being a part of the team that released an updated version of an app that is used by millions of people,” Restrepo said. “I was only the second iOS programmer to work on Instagram in the early days of that team. By the time I left, the team grew by 15 software engineers.”
Restrepo currently works for a new start-up that he cannot name because it is not public yet. He said Grand Valley prepared him to join the competitive and always-moving tech industry.
Tomorrowland in grades K-12
Although Grand Valley and higher education in general are creating more technologists, Vancil and Leidig said more needs to be done.
Leidig stresses the importance of awareness and education in grades K-12. Grand Valley hosts several engineering and computing camps for children and young adults throughout the year, including Get With The Program, FIRST Robotics, and Science Technology and Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) Camp for Girls.
“We hire people straight out of college to join our application development team,” said Vancil. “The ones we hire didn’t get excited about technology in college. It started for them in middle or high school. It’s just an example of how we must develop that passion and interest for computer science in children early on.”
SOFTWARE DEVELOPER: A person who designs, programs and tests computer software, including mobile apps and websites. Possesses both technical and creative expertise.
NETWORK AND COMPUTER SYSTEMS ADMINISTRATOR: A professional who manages computer networks — an important part of an organization. Responsible for organizing and supporting computer systems.
WEB DEVELOPER: A programmer who specializes in the development of web programs and applications. Knows programming languages, including HTML and CSS.
INFORMATION SECURITY ANALYST: A gatekeeper of information systems. Plans and executes security measures to protect an organization’s computer system and network.
COMPUTER AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS MANAGER: An individual who helps leaders of an organization make business decisions based on computer needs. Leads computing professionals and determines IT needs.
Another part of the solution, Leidig said, is attracting more women to the field, like Lisa Westra.
The 2006 alumna majored in computing and minored in engineering. She currently works at OST as a delivery lead, where she works closely with project teams and clients.
The Coopersville native has a knack for math, which drove her to take engineering and computer hardware classes in high school. She learned how to program and build computers. In college, she interned for Dematic, and began a successful career working for Johnson Controls, Spectrum Health and now, OST.
“I have more female coworkers now than when I first started my career,” she said, adding that female developers provide new perspectives and often approach problems differently.
Leidig said it’s also essential to stay current with industry interests and trends, and continually assess the school’s offerings to make additions and changes as needed.
“The biggest thing that’s happening is the move toward big data. Many business decisions are being made based on tons of data. Computing professionals are needed to gather and analyze that data and present it in a way that is understandable for big decision makers,” he said.
New programs have been added to CIS over the last two years. Most recently, a cybersecurity concentration was added to the master’s program. Two programs — a master’s degree in data science and analytics, and an undergraduate major in information technology — are in the process of being approved.
It’s safe to say the university is “on the same wavelength” as the technology industry.