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University of Michigan-Dearborn Software Engineering

By Rick Docksai

UM-Dearborn’s Software Engineering Program Fosters an Innovator Class

Lots of young job seekers interned for an employer or two while in college. But how many invented new products for an employer while in college? That makes the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science an especially valued resource to Michigan’s—and all of America’s—businesses and organizations. The school’s students earn academic credit between classes by working at businesses and research firms and coming up with—or at the very least, taking active roles in helping to develop new software, iPhone apps, and other tech products that improve office operations and boost revenues.

Dr. Bruce Maxim
Dr. Bruce Maxim, associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science

The four students who worked last year at Olympia Entertainment, for instance, designed a suite-management system that Olympia Entertainment’s staff use to this very day. Groups of students in this year’s class are separately coming up with two new computer games and three new mobile-phone applications, among other things.

“We’re giving them a chance to function as software engineering consultants. That’s the kind of experience that we provide,” says Bruce Maxim, associate professor of computer and information science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “There are not too many software engineering programs in our state that do this.”

Since 1997, Maxim has served as faculty supervisor for more than 300 student projects at more than 100 companies. The industries range from health care and pharmaceuticals to automobile companies. All have IT needs and come to Michigan-Dearborn’s software-engineering department to seek its students’ help in meeting them.

Maxim and colleagues have each student interview with a company and discuss potential software products that the company could develop. The student and a company executive decide on a potential project, and the student presents it to Maxim. If Maxim approves it, then the student and the company co-sign a contract and go to work. Apps for Androids and iPhones are common projects, according to Maxim, but he says that there really is no telling what kind of project proposals students might submit, or what companies might be the clients.

“I can't predict semester by semester, because the projects literally come in off the streets,” Maxim says.

“We’re giving them a chance to function as software engineering consultants. That’s the kind of experience that we provide,” says Bruce Maxim

For all these companies, Maxim’s school, which offers both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering, is indeed a rare find. It’s the only Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET accredited bachelor’s in software-engineering program in Michigan, and one of only 21 Engineering Accreditation Commission ABET accredited software-engineering programs nationally.

Where the Jobs Are

The school’s program is one degree (software engineering), but each student undergoes specialized training in conjunction with it in any of three application areas: game design, which includes the whole range of video and computer entertainment; Web engineering, or building and managing websites; and information systems, or the database-management programs and other software that are vital to every business or organization’s operations.

No matter which application area the students choose, they gain solid foundations of knowledge in how the systems work. Maxim says that while new software products enter the markets all the time, and existing ones are constantly upgrading, students who know the core concepts behind their functions will never feel lost. They will easily pick up the product-specific nitty-gritty once they start their first permanent jobs.

“We can’t possibly teach every technical skill that industries want, so we teach skills that withstand the test of time,” says Maxim.

This big-picture focus is working pretty well. Students often tell Maxim that they have received three or four job offers before they have even graduated. Some even get to start working pre-graduation. Compuware, a large Detroit-based software company, “is particularly interested in our graduates,” according to Maxim.

“I’ve been really surprised—11% unemployment in the state, and our kids are being snapped up locally,” says Maxim.

Lots of non-local employers hire them, too. LinkedIn and Google both have many Michigan-Dearborn software-engineering alums on their staff.

“Our kids tend to go where the jobs are, so it depends on who is building things at this point,” says Maxim. “We tend to do a lot of things for a lot of different places.”

Post-Graduation R&D

Given these students’ track records of developing new products before they get their degrees, it should come as no surprise that many of them keep creating new software games, apps, and programs throughout their adult careers. Large percentages of Maxim’s students earn profits as “independent game developers” who author their own iPhone or Xbox 360 games and sell them nationwide.

The majority of graduates, however, land standard full-time jobs at established companies. Such was the student who secured a job in Los Angeles at Triarch Labs, maker of the popular game series Call of Duty. He’s now in his sixth year on the job and working on his fourth version of the game.

"They can’t all be Mark Zuckerbergs" - Dr. Maxim

According to Maxim, the collaborator—not the lone inventor—is the role that he spends the most time preparing students to assume. Most of them will at least start their careers (if not spend them) as members of company teams.

“We’ve chosen to use the software consultant role, instead of the entrepreneurial role. If more of them are going to large companies, that should be their expectation,” he says. “They can’t all be Mark Zuckerbergs.”

A Demanding But Satisfying Career Path

Maxim doesn’t mince words about how strenuous some software-engineering jobs can be. Game developers might put in 60 or 70 hours of work a week during those peak months when they have a new game to roll out, he says.

“It’s a demanding degree, too, and that takes its toll on kids. We ask a lot of them,” Maxim says. “It takes someone who is determined to see it through to the end.”

Those who do see through the challenges tend to be glad they did, though. Maxim notes that post-graduation, software-engineering professionals not only have some of the best employability and salary prospects in the workforce. They also have some of the highest levels of self-reported job satisfaction.

“You’re building cool stuff that people want to use. How is that not a satisfying job?” Maxim says.


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