Students code for the Cornell community

By Chris Dawson

What started as a committee of Cornell University’s Student Assembly a few short years ago has quickly become one of the most popular student project teams at Cornell Engineering, with 50 members from six different colleges and 14 majors.

The Design and Tech Initiative (DTI), formally established in 2017, is a group focused on making the Cornell community a better place by solving problems through software development.

The founding leadership of this fast-growing team gathered in a conference room in Ward Hall to talk about the inspiration and vision behind forming DTI. The group included David Ticzon ‘18, Alice Pham ’18, Karun Singh ‘18, Shea Belsky ‘18, and design lead Matthew Barker ‘19.

“We know there are so many talented people on campus. We wish we could take more people,” says Barker. More than 100 students applied to join DTI in its inaugural year.

Members of DTI during a work session inside Gates Hall. Photo: DTI.

Pham adds, “DTI is different from many of the other project teams because it doesn’t build a physical product and doesn’t work with a single competition in mind. There are a lot of teams doing really cool stuff, but I wanted to start a team that would allow us to use our skills to have a really positive impact on the Cornell community.”

Instead of planes or Baja-style racecars, the members of DTI build apps and websites. The team has product managers, designers and developers who all work together to create, design and develop products that in some way improve student life.

One of DTI’s products is already proving to be useful. The app CU Orientation digitized the orientation booklet new students receive at the beginning of their first week on campus. By allowing a student to put the booklet on their phone or other device, CU Orientation becomes incredibly useful. It is now easy to see when an event has been canceled or had a change of venue. Students can also get directions to events and reminders of sessions they are interested in attending.

“The Orientation app had over 2,000 users during the fall and January orientations this past academic year,” says design lead Matt Barker. “Just about all of those users found the app by word-of-mouth.”

Screenshots of CU Orientation. Image: DTI.

An important part of DTI’s process for deciding upon which projects to focus is user research. Team member Rachel Goffin ’19 has the official job title of floating consultant. In practice, she is more like the user experience guru. During a recent workshop put on by Goffin and open to anybody who wanted to come and learn more, attendees learned about the essential value of qualitative data gathered from an app’s potential users. “If you don’t ask people what they want,” said Goffin during the workshop, “there is a real danger you will create something nobody wants or needs.”

Pham agrees. “Originally, we did projects just to do them and to learn,” says Pham. “After the first year we instituted some processes and procedures that were the beginning of how the team does things now. Now it is sharply focused on the design process and making sure that what is built is solving an actual problem.”

Sometimes team members have an idea that they think would be perfect for an app, but then they take the time to do the research and they find out there is no real need at Cornell for that particular service. “Once we have that initial idea,” says Barker, “we gather information from people at Cornell. We’re trying to find the answers to three pretty basic questions: Do people want this? Would people use this? Does this solve a real problem?”

“For example,” adds Singh, “we thought there might be a need for an app to help connect people who were looking to either rent out or find a sublet. Once we did our research we found that it was not a real problem worth pursuing—people have already figured out how to find sublets without needing an app.”

Wenchang Yang '18 and members of DTI during a work session. Photo: DTI.

There are a number of subteams working on apps as well as “pocket projects” designed to see if a perceived problem is real and if there are solutions that might work. “There can be a lot of value in building something that doesn’t work,” says Belsky. “You can still learn from the things that don’t work and they just about always lead to another project.”

The CU Reviews team has created a course review website that is tailor made for Cornell students. Like the Orientation app, CU Reviews has had more than 2,000 users and hundreds of student reviews on dozens of classes.

The Research Connect team is creating a website where students can find opportunities to engage in research and researchers can find students to help with their work. For an undergraduate student at Cornell interested in finding out what research is like at the university level, the current process is very informal and, therefore, opaque. Many undergraduates simply email a professor or knock on their office door asking to join the lab as an undergraduate researcher. Sometimes this process works and sometimes it doesn’t. The Research Connect website functions as a clearinghouse where students and professors can find each other and take much of the guesswork out of the process.

“The DTI members building these apps and websites are getting experience they might not normally get until several years into a job,” says Pham.

Belsky adds, “In my case, through my work with DTI I realized that I want to do project management for a career. Being part of DTI can really help people get over the Imposter Syndrome. People join the team sometimes a bit unsure if they have the skills they need. Well, you can learn the skills. We would tell people, ‘just show up with the skills you have and we will help you get even better.’”

At this point in the conversation Pham mentions something she and the other founders clearly feel is a strength of DTI. “The team feels like a family,” she says, as the others around the table all nod in agreement. “In three years the team has not had one person drop out. We even amended our team charter to add a statement about the importance of the mental health and well-being of the members.”

In addition to each other’s well-being, members of DTI are also committed to outreach. In April 2018 the team hosted a makeathon for middle-schoolers focused on design and problem solving. Goffin holds user experience workshops that are open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the process. And DTI members are creating a class on web development that will be open to non-team members. All of the team’s efforts seem to come back to their stated goal of having an impact on the Cornell community.

Members of DTI work with middle-school students during a hackathon hosted at Cornell eHub. Photo: DTI.

Of course, before the team can decide which ideas will have the most impact for their effort, they need to actually have some ideas. “Coming up with possible projects is not very difficult,” says Singh. “All of the people who apply to join DTI are already members of the Cornell community—they already know some of the problems that need to be solved on campus.”

Gilly Leshed, senior lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Information Science, is DTI’s faculty advisor. When the team asked her to be their advisor, it was not a hard decision for Leshed. She found the students' enthusiasm and passion about designing technology products that have an impact in the community to be contagious. “And second,” says Leshed, “I teach human-computer interaction design, and many aspects of what the students do in the DTI team falls under this domain: understanding the problem domain, learning about the intended users of the technologies they are designing, brainstorming design ideas that fulfill users' needs, developing the interaction flow, and evaluating the usability and usefulness of their products.”

Leshed continues, “Students have an opportunity to work on real projects. This means that there isn't necessarily a correct answer. There are unanticipated hurdles along the way that they need to find creative ways to overcome, and they need to find ways to effectively work together in multi-disciplinary teams involving designers, user researchers, developers and business people.”

Gleni Kodra ’19 who took over as business lead for DTI, has a unique perspective on the team and makes it clear that it is not only about creating apps and websites. “On the business side,” says Kodra, “the projects I tackle relate to obtaining partnerships with companies like Google as sponsors in order to create talent pipelines into those companies. Additionally, I plan social events for the team and present information about DTI at corporate and alumni events to expand our reach.”

When new students come to campus in August and use the CU Orientation app to find their way to check-in at Barton Hall or to Teagle Hall for the dreaded swim test, they won’t know who built the app, but the 50 members of Cornell’s Design and Tech Initiative will know and they’ll be proud that they are living up to their mission.