CIS&T Program Trains IT Professionals Who Can Talk to Non-IT People

It’s clear when you talk to people in the Computer Information Systems and Technology program that they consider the hours they spend coding, creating, soldering, designing, teaching, wiring, splicing and crawling underneath people’s desks play, not work.

Sure, it’s work in that some of them get paid for it and some of them earn credit for it, but they enjoy it so much that sometimes it’s hard to get them to stop.

Outside of core courses like Fundamentals of Programming and Networking I, you’ll find students, and sometimes faculty members, building a small supercomputer out of small, cheap computers called Raspberry Pi; 3-D printing a model of the Star Wars droid R2-D2 that they can control with their smartphone; working on a mobile app; or creating a “topographical sandbox” that instantly projects a topographical map on top of the contours of a sandbox and seamlessly changes each time the “geography” of the sandbox is changed by a playful hand.

These projects may be used in a class. They may not. Often, they’re “just for fun.” Don Lewicki, associate professor of business management and director of the program, encourages this with pizza, Mountain Dew and petty cash for tiny computers like Raspberry Pis and

Arduinos, plastic for the 3D printer or, heck, a kit to build another 3D printer at a fraction of the cost.

Once a semester, instructor and Pitt-Bradford technical analyst Steve Ellison ’01 holds a pizza lunch session to teach students how to make patch cables. Any time these students and faculty are together, whether in class, a cabling pizza lunch or working on an individual project, there is constant chatter – someone has always just finished reading something that they want to ask someone else about.

The conversational flow, the blurred lines between work and play, all give a unique egalitarian feel to the program. Faculty teach students as equals, and students notice. In a field that always has something new going on, the student often has something new to share with the professor. Information does not flow one way here.

It does a little in the beginning when students are trying to master the vocabulary and figure out what cable goes in what port. Students literally memorize the back of the computer in the introductory Technology of Computing class taught by instructor and Pitt-Bradford systems architect Bob Ellison ’99.

Ellison makes no assumptions about what these students know, explaining each basic term, and even demonstrating different network configurations with the low-tech method of handing strings to students called up to the front of the classroom and making them act as the node of each configuration of wires. He moves a ball – or “information packet” – along the lines to show what happens if one of the lines breaks. Students may roll their eyes a little at how simple it seems when explained in this hands-on way, but they will remember.

By the second year of the program, students are starting the heart of the program – projects. This is where it becomes clear that a great information technology person is really a great problem solver, which may be why it has quite a bit of crossover with students in the engineering program.

Long before senior capstone, students are choosing their own projects, figuring out the steps they will need to take, the languages or processes they will have to learn, how they will learn them, and how they will complete the project. Those projects will later serve as a resume and serve as a foundation for teaching students to teach themselves.

“If you make a career out of IT, you’re learning for life, because there’s always something new,” Lewicki said.

Each project requires a presentation, which is something else Lewicki built into the program to encourage the soft skills that tech workers are sometimes accused of not having.

At its simplest level, computer information systems is the profession where business and technology meet. Lewicki takes both sides of the discipline seriously.

“Our IT people will be able to speak to the business side,” Lewicki said.

Ridge Foster ’12 does just that. Following his degree from Pitt-Bradford, Foster went on to take his skills to the Katz Business School at Pitt, where he earned an MBA. Now he is a business systems analyst, an in-house consultant who helps the business people in his organization work with the technology people.

Foster said, “One of the most powerful messages Professor Lewicki ever communicated was that even if you are a computer genius, you still need to be capable of communicating and working with other professionals, and particularly those outside of IT.”

By exposing students to as many projects as possible, students learn how to work through the problems they will encounter. By having them make a presentation of the project, they learn how to explain the process to a non-technical audience and give other students the chance to learn from their mistakes.

“We want them to think creatively,” Lewicki said.

Creative solutions are something retained from Pitt-Bradford’s original computer science program, which ended in 2009, when, nationwide, interest in computer science courses was dropping off.

A couple of years before the computer science program closed, Lewicki, who spent 17 years with IBM before coming to Pitt-Bradford to teach management information systems, was asked to spearhead the formation of a new program. He recruited Dr. Ken Wang, who holds a doctorate in business administration from Washington State University, despite having an extensive background in information systems and electronic commerce.

The two designed the current program, which now has 62 students in the major. They consulted with area businesses about the kind of skills they wanted workers to have.

The program shifted away from an emphasis on learning various computer languages, which were important to know during the computer science era. New languages appear all of the time now, and the importance is in understanding how they work and how to learn them for a given application.

Businesses, they found, wanted workers who could find a solution to a problem and carry out the solution, whether that meant coordinating with a technical contractor as a project manager, installing a device or writing a bit of code.

The CIS&T model is working. This year, all 15 graduates in the program had jobs or were headed to the graduate school of their choice within four months of graduation. Those working have an average starting salary of just under $45,000, which is enough to attract the attention of an increasing number of 18-year-old incoming students.

While Lewicki and Wang are the backbone of the program, adjunct faculty make significant contributions.

Jeremy Callinan ’04 was one of the last graduates of the computer science program at Pitt-Bradford who went on to co-found a computer business, Protocol 80, with fellow alumnus

Donald Kemick ’04. Callinan is now an independent consultant who enjoys teaching evenings.

He loves teaching new material and finding solutions alongside students. Students look forward to his classes in programming mobile applications or games.

Callinan says that classes in the CIS&T program are much more relevant to the current advances in technology than they were during the computer science era. He thinks that when students see the technology they’re working with in the everyday world, it increases their enthusiasm.

Senior Tom Neilly did not need any help ramping up his passion for the program. A former electrician, the nontraditional student already had some good background knowledge and people skills.

He is one of the students chosen by the Computing, Telecommunication and Media Services to work on campus alongside Steve and Bob Ellison. He uses all of his time with faculty – whether in the classroom or on the job – to soak up new knowledge.

“They are both so patient and will teach me whatever I want to know,” he said. “I try to take advantage of it.”

Steve Trumbull ’13 took advantage of working with Callinan on a trail-mapping app. He now lives in Denver and works for NexGen Technologies Inc. on a wide range of projects with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

His work with a Geographic Information System while working on the trail app led him to work keeping track of abandoned mines and grazing land for the bureau.

“I like the small company I ended up with because I can talk to the owners every day,” he said. “They ramped up my responsibilities quickly from junior developer to lead developer. Based on things I learned at Pitt-Bradford, I’m leading the way on responsive applications for mobile development.”

Soon, the next batch of Pitt-Bradford CIS&T grads will be ready to lead the way. Callinan, who consults with several of the region’s largest employers, including American Refining Group, Bradford Regional Medical Center and Zippo Manufacturing Co., said these groups have “doubled their IT force in the past few years.” The long-term hiring forecasts for IT workers nationally are very positive, too. The CIS&T program should have only more opportunity in its future.