An Unforgettable Experience

In the start of this academic year, I remember seeing an advertisement for this new course being offered the following semester. I was immediately interested because I thought I would learn many skills through experiential learning and working with real clients on actual business operations. Professor allowed me to enroll in the class even though I was a sophomore at the time and it was meant for juniors and seniors. Following our first class session, I was nervous because I was not sure if I had the right background skills and knowledge to be successful. I thought I might have made a mistake by signing up for this class and I contemplated dropping it and maybe taking it later down my college path. Seeing that half the class had dropped the class by our second meeting did not make my decision any easier, however I decided to stay in the class and try to learn as much as I can. I knew these skills would be valuable to learn early, so I would have a strong foundation to build on as I progress in my career and become an upperclassmen. 

Looking back on my experience now, I believe that I have learned a great deal from this consulting project.  I have experienced growth as a problem solver and team member from the beginning of this project till now. Our fortune 500 client wanted research on open source machine learning tools and their potential impact to the agriculture industry. I have been interested in learning more about machine learning, which is why I was attracted to this project. Though I had no previous experience, I wanted to learn more and felt like this was the perfect chance.

 The scope and goals for the project were constantly revised as we met and updated our clients on our progress. This experience taught me a lot because in normal school work, I feel like I am so used to being given a straightforward problem and having to solve it. However, in this case, the key step was understanding exactly what the problem truly is. I appreciate this new skill because I think it will be very useful for me in the future no matter what specific career path I choose.  Once understanding what the problem is, our team brainstormed specific techniques to yield a solution. We broke down the problem and used our resources to become knowledgeable about the open source machine learning tools and how they could impact our client. As a team, we never expected to have to build a model using the machine learning tools, however we ended up doing this as well for our client. No one in the team had strong technical skills in terms of machine learning, however we were able to overcome this.  I think having this experience is very encouraging for me because now I know that no matter what I encounter, I can find a way to figure it out.  

This class and project have also led to my communication and presentation skills further developing. Throughout the semester, we presented to the class and clients frequently. This helped build my professional skills on how to communicate with clients. I also learned from my upperclassmen teammates the key points in building powerpoint slides. They helped me make slides visually pleasing by only putting key information. The weekly presentations also helped my presentation skills due to constant practice in front of real people. 

Overall, I am appreciative of all the applicable and vital skills this class has taught me. I had a great experience in my first consulting project and hope to do more in the future. This class embodies the meaning behind experiential learning, and was a great addition into the school’s curriculum. I am very happy with my choice of staying in the class! As stated previously, I feel much more confident in my own abilities as I head into the last two years of college.

Understanding the Problem at Hand

Throughout this past semester I have had the honor of participating in the Information Systems & Operations Practicum course here at the University of Illinois. This course has given me a unique and valuable experience by working closely with a real client on a relevant project. Our group was paired with a large cable distribution company and was tasked with a simple objective: to come up with an algorithm that would optimize their current cable cutting process. And thus, my team and I were plunged into the peculiar yet exciting role of an external consultant.

Though the objective seemed simple, as my team started to learn more about the company, talked to stakeholders, and even visited a distribution center, the problem grew more complicated. Information would change, seemingly rigid company policies would turn out to be more fluid, and unforeseen problems would emerge. This brought us to one of our most important revelations: in the real world, all necessary information is not given. As my team can attest, perhaps a majority of our time on this project was not spent actually solving the problem but rather defining it and iterating upon the work that we have already done. It took us a while to find the necessary people to answer our questions, get the data we need, and find ways to implement the solutions we saw viable. Thankfully through the help of faculty mentors and the cooperation of the company we were able to make progress. However, even despite the assistance received, a fair portion of this project was left in uncharted territory where my team and I had to research the problem further and draw conclusions on our own.

As we progressed further and further into uncovering what the problem really was, we had settled on an algorithm called the cutting stock problem. My team and I knew more or less nothing about algorithms yet had to look on our own to try and find some sort of code or program that would allow us to simulate this algorithm on the data we had been given from the company. Eventually we were able to find a basic program that would perform the analysis we desired however we quickly realized we would need to limit our scope yet again as running all the data we had wouldn’t be feasible. That brought in the other bulk of our analysis which was to quantify the cost of the cable being scrapped and to decide which specific cable types should be analyzed. We had decided to go after the cables that were contributing the most money being lost by the company. After multiple weeks working with the data, we had performed several different analyses on it and worked to uncover what we think this might all be costing the company. This brought us to another important idea: we must truly understand the information we have been given. Through countless excel mishaps and attempts to ensure the robustness of our analysis we were eventually able to quantify the total cost of all cable being scrapped, find the top cables that were responsible for these high costs, run these top cables through the cutting stock problem, and show the improvement in terms of USD that utilizing this algorithm would achieve. Somehow, we had reached a conclusion.  

Looking back, I am frankly surprised at all that my team and I have accomplished. All four of us went into this project with a very minimal background in operations management let alone any knowledge about the cutting stock problem yet, through our perseverance and hard work, we were able to achieve a viable solution and more importantly a solution that the company was impressed with. I am sincerely thankful to have been given this opportunity to be in this class and work on this project. I have learned a great deal about working with a team as well as the effort that goes into problem solving whether it be defining the problem or ensuring you are understanding it. This was ultimately a valuable experience overall and one that has changed me for the better.

Beyond Just a Course

To start off in complete honesty, I was absolutely terrified when I first decided to take this practicum. And now that it has come to an end, I can confidently say I am not the same student I was when it began. I went into this practicum very hopeful and excited, as I knew it would not be a typical business course. But with this came so many fears of the unknown as well, and questions of whether I would be able to successfully complete the work that was asked of me. This fear turned even stronger when I received more information on my team’s project, specifically about Robotic Process Automation. I had zero experience in working with anything technology related prior to this project, and only knew what I had learned from Information Systems courses I had taken. I quickly realized that this information, although useful, was not as related as I thought it would be. This project was a completely different kind of learning and required the implementation of various other skills that I had not even used or learned yet. I was in for a challenge. 

My initial reaction proved to be both right and wrong. Yes, this course was not a typical business class and contained many challenges. But no, it was not true that I was not capable of the work. I was capable, and with the help of my wonderful team, I came to realize this. Now that all of the hard work is done, I look back at the endless list of skills that I gained throughout this course and working with my clients on this project, solidifying and improving the old skills and mastering the new ones. Some of these seem small but created a large impact on the success of this project. Time management, communication, collaboration, proper research, planning, exploring ideas, creating alternate methods, solidifying existing data, and implementation are just a few of the many essential skills that I have gathered throughout this course while working with the professor, the clients, and of course my team. 

This is the one and only course where I can say “it’s beyond just a course”. I cannot imagine any other class preparing me for a real job in the real world as well as this one has, to the extent that it has. I did not just learn what RPA is, what my clients do, and how to solve problems. I got to work with and study RPA, work with actual clients, and solve ACTUAL problems. Nothing is more useful than this. I know this is true because I always think of this experience as not a course, but more of a project, job, or internship. I do not think some sort of compensation is what makes something more than just a course, I think it is the valuable information and experiences that are gained that make it more than just a course. And this one is just that. I can confidently say that I will be taking everything that I have learned here to the outside world, and I will be succeeding with it. This experience for me was fulfilling, educational, and rewarding, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Getting to Know the Unknown

This past semester has been a wild ride, but it has been an amazing learning experience. What this practicum course has given me is experience with a real-world opportunity. Our client’s challenge was to recommend an algorithm to optimize their cable-cutting process. As a team, we felt pretty confident in our task, but then we started talking with the client. We began to dive deeper into their problem by going to visit a distribution center to decide what actually was going on. Based on that experience, we had to rescope our project, as we discovered the different constraints that placed on this cable-cutting process.

None of us really knew anything about algorithms. It was something that we couldn’t have known from our classes, and so what this experience has taught me was how to deal with the unknown. In the real world, you will never know all the details to your problem. It’s up to you as the consultant or analyst to do your own digging to understand it. What me and my team had to do was actually go to one of the sources of the problem itself and speak with key stakeholders to determine what was actually needed. Because as we learned, our key contact may only be the messenger of the problem. The best way to determine what the problem is, is to go to the source itself.

We also had to do a lot of research. As I mentioned earlier, we knew nothing about algorithms. It’s an entirely different area of expertise, and for me, it took countless different websites and academic papers to understand what I was actually reading. Once we found the algorithm we were going to recommend, I tried my best to understand it in a way where I could break down in simple terms what this algorithm was doing. Although we had mentors to help steer us in the right direction, it was ultimately up to us to gather the research and findings.

Another unknown was finding a program that utilized the cutting stock algorithm. At first, I found one in Matlab, but after some testing, I realized that this version was not what we needed. After a few hours of researching different programs in Github and online browsing, I finally found one. After that, there was a period of learning of how to understand how the program works. I was able to pick up on the program pretty quick, and I was able to explain how it worked to our client in our final presentation.

One other lesson I have learned is how important it is to check you and your team’s work. Multiple times throughout our analysis, me and my team discovered mistakes in each other’s work. We had to double check our work multiple times, as we soon found out how finnicky Excel could be with their pivot tables. We learned how to adapt to the technical difficulties we had, and I believe it has made us much wiser if we ever have to work with Excel again.

To wrap up these experiences I had this semester, I can definitely say I am confident in my ability to deal with the unknown. I now know what steps I can take when I’m presented with a problem. Coming into this project, I didn’t know whether I would like the work I did, since this was ultimately an operations project. However, it was a fun learning experience, and I’ve learned how to work off my team better. I learned a lot from them, and when I didn’t understand something, I would ask questions. This project definitely helped me out of my comfort zone, and it was a valuable experience.

Cliche as it might be, but no pain, no gain

I am truly grateful to have spent this semester with a supportive client, a responsible team, and some great mentors. We have encountered many challenges along the way, but at the end this was a really valuable learning process for me and my team. We have gained not only the machine learning algorithm knowledge that will help us advance our study, but also skills that will last a lifetime and provoked career thoughts that will help better position ourselves in the market. 

Reflecting back to this semester, there are multiple moments when I doubt the question why does the client need business students when the situation is technical. What unique value can I bring as a business student? This question lingered in the back of my mind while we worked through the project. I have learned that, perhaps, the reason why we are brought to the situation was to assess the issue from all perspectives, the people, the technology, and the context. Though the client’s problem would be solved through a specific technical tool, assessing if the business’s context would be suitable for this tool, if there are going to be any people resistance, etc. Those are things that students with business backgrounds can be applied to before calling in engineers to implement the details. 

I have always heard that consultants need to be fast learners and have a flexible brain because changes happen so fast. It was not until I had to learn the technical details of the ML algorithms in need that I realized how fast I needed to be, especially when there is pressure of time and performance. It was overwhelming at the beginning but I was optimistic and took on the tasks without hesitant. As we dig deeper into the concepts, I have realized there are more details to learn. I started to feel exhausted as the concepts got harder and it seems like there is no end. The challenge lies in knowing when to stop and how to prioritize which concepts are the most important to the client. After several discussions with my teammates and the client, we were able to narrow it down to 2 machine learning algorithms and then we did more detailed research comparing those two and see how they can apply in the client’s situation. 

In addition to navigating project management challenges, the project also gave us a chance to practice making a memorable presentation. The senior managers encouraged us to incorporate credibility, simplicity, emotion factors into the presentation to make it trustworthy and fun to listen. This exercise changed my stereotype of a professional presentation and I will keep those factors in mind next time I need to tell a story. 

Looking at other teams’ presentations also opened my eyes to different technology tools that businesses are currently employing. The other teams did such a good job on the presentations, it inspired me to research into those tools as well. It was such an honor to be in the same class with them!

Practicing Resourcefulness in New Contexts

Through this practicum course, I have become a more resourceful thinker and project manager in the ways I can tackle technical work, particularly with subject material I have not encountered before. My project entailed supporting the implementation of an open-source machine learning conversion tool for a $35B manufacturing company’s data science pipeline. Before I was engaged in this project, I had no previous experience with machine learning conversion utilities, and equipped with only basic coding skills, I was worried that the project could be outside of my capabilities. However, I quickly realized that I could utilize my variety of related experiences and translatable skills to add value to the project.

Setting up a detailed project scope and issue tree allowed our team to continually revisit our project plan and for our team to revise our approach after each of our milestones and client meetings. Professor Mehmet Ahsen also supported our understanding of the technical details on demo, including troubleshooting and proper language use. Through the process of refining our project and understanding through multiple iterations and strong support from faculty members, I am more confident in how to approach the projects that involve technical deep-dives into new concepts as well. In this way, I found that I could be resourceful by using knowledge and skills I had gained from previous projects and apply them to this one.

Moreover, this course helped me to understand the importance of leadership and communication. As I was a part of a group of college-aged peers, I was able to practice resourcefulness by implementing leadership and communication styles that differed from my previous professional experiences. For example, our team was able to discuss the relevance of coursework we had all taken, as well as teachings from the weekly lectures. In addition, by taking ownership of the work, I documented every meeting with the team and client to determine specific action items for the team. Based on these action items, I was able to take part in the meeting by making sure that the meeting is on point and the outcome meets the client’s expectations. For example, after the midpoint presentation, where we focused solely on technical deep-dive of two conversion utilities, ONNX and MMdnn, we moved on to analyzing the industry impact to draw a bigger picture. With specific notes from client meetings, we were able to set up a driving question to guide our research: “what effect will conversion tools have on the ML and Agriculture industries?” This guiding question helped frame our approach and specify our research findings to be applicable to the client’s lines of business.

During our team meetings, I learned that sharing specific comments from the client helped to convey my own ideas on the team on how to approach our research. For example, we focused on specifying the “effect” related to the driving question into incremental and radical impacts based on a comment from our client regarding similarities between the mobile and agricultural manufacturing industry and various components that have driven radical and incremental changes within the two industries. In addition, leading the meetings by making sure that the team had the right questions to ask during next the client meeting in order to get the necessary information to move forward on the project was another great experience I had which enabled me to practice my leadership skills. Although I was not a formal “team leader,” the practicum course provided me an environment in which I could guide the team to maximize the impact of our work. Through weekly meetings, I learned how to effectively communicate with the members, and working closely with 3 other students with varying backgrounds helped me to view these questions and problems through a different lens as well, which helped expand the insights I gained from this experience. Overall, I believe that taking this practicum course in my senior year provided a great opportunity to practice applying skills and knowledge from previous experiences, as well as helped to prepare me for my next journey as a technology consultant after graduation.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

Over the course of this semester, I really learned how to apply the knowledge I have gained from a variety of classes into one project that definitely changed my perspective on problem-solving techniques. In terms of working with others in my group, I never realized the value of connecting with your teammates to create a bond between ourselves. As a group, we were able to overcome all the awkwardness and shy tendencies within the first week. As the team leader, I tried to emphasize the ability to feel comfortable with each other, as every meeting we had initially would be in person, in a more comfortable environment, like my apartment. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances, we were required to complete the second half of the project from home and utilize online services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to communicate as a team as well as with our client, professor, and mentors. Taking control in these situations is very important because it is very easy to lose track of time, reduce the amount of focus and attention we have towards the project, as well as miscommunicate topics. This was the first time in my life I had to manage a client and attend weekly meetings specifically for one project, and it was overall a very enriching experience. Our client was very well informed on the subject manner, and always provided us with very polished documents and analyses to help assist us along the way. I very much enjoyed increasing my knowledge in the field of Robotic Process Automation, and I hope to encounter such processes in my Information Systems future. I really learned a lot as a leader in this situation, because this project was very time consuming during a difficult time for everyone. COVID-19 really overtook every single person’s life, completely altering their daily schedule and putting everyone in panic mode, not knowing when life will “go back to normal”. I think our group’s resiliency towards these unfortunate situations really showcased our ability to operate as a team successfully and produce a final deliverable our client was very satisfied with. I have learned a lot of valuable lessons that apply directly to my career, in terms of understanding your audience when presenting, being able to research for a large multinational firm while providing meaningful results, as well as an increase in exposure to the technology field. Already at this point, I had an interview for an internship this summer, where they asked if I had any experience with the RPA field, as they were planning on starting a research group within their field to explore options to take advantage of. I very proudly explained my role in this project, and it made me realize the direct importance and relevance this class has towards my career. This was a very enlightening experience, and I hope to take a class like this in the future again! As a rising senior, this experience will definitely help me get ready for the business world, as I have more first-hand experience as to how a company operates and what tends to be successful in a group team setting. I have learned a lot from this experience, and I cannot wait to apply it further in my career. 

Learning by Doing

I approached this class with an open mind, eager to see what experiences the class has to offer. As I am majoring in data science in grad school, I thought that my project that had to do with machine learning was a perfect opportunity to learn from. This project was challenging in that it was an unfamiliar topic that I had no foundation in. The first time I read the project description, I only understood that it vaguely had something to do with machine learning. I was unsure of the specifics and was thoroughly confused during the kickoff dinner as my team and I tried to pinpoint what exactly the central issues were. During the project, we often found ourselves struggling to understand the topic we were researching or the troubleshoot issues we encountered as we tried to code. I learned to utilize outside resources and experts to help combat these issues. We reached out to experts via GitHub and worked extensively with our mentor. As I am interested in the career of a consultant, I realized that I may encounter similar issues in the future and learning to find outside resources is a skillset that I believe will prove very valuable.

I challenged myself to take on the role as the team leader and was in charge of client contact. I have learned a lot of valuable skillsets from taking on this role, and am confident that it will help me excel in my future career. For instance, I remember struggling during the first kick off dinner. I did not know how to engage or start a conversation with my clients. I remember coming to the first client meeting at the site with only the Engagement Agreement and Project Plan and that was what I planned on discussing that afternoon. After the meeting, I asked my team how they felt about it and they said they felt that we were unprepared. After that meeting, I always compiled a PowerPoint and an agenda on what we will be covering in each subsequent meeting. I send a copy of the PowerPoint a few days before the client meeting to our client so that they have a heads up on what we will be discussing. I realized that the preparation contributed to the overall flow and work structure of the project. In the middle of the project, our client reached out to me to give me feedback and advice on ways I could better structure the weekly client meeting PowerPoint. After taking his advice, I found our meeting much more productive and the discussions with our client more engaging. As we ended our project and delivered our final presentation, I believe I definitely improved regarding client engagement and mastered sending emails and hosting meetings professionally.

This class has helped me understand how to manage a project and the importance of seeing the big picture. This was the first time I managed a project and I realized the importance of being organized and having a plan. I mapped out the project and divided it into phases. I had to confirm with both my team and my client to make sure that was a feasible timeline that everyone could work with. When analyzing what were best ways to conduct analysis or research, I always had to think about whether the work we were doing would ultimately tie in to the end project and the bigger picture. It was definitely challenging, but I feel much more confident going into the real world with this experience under my belt.

Student Reflections

It is crunch time for our students as they approach the end of the semester!  Adjusting to the new normal during the concern over COVID-19 has not stopped their progress – the teams are busy trying to finish their research and synthesize their work into the final deliverables for their clients.  We took the time to review the midpoint feedback from the clients and the peer evaluation, both with the team leaders and as a class.  The feedback they received from their midpoint presentations has helped them to focus their efforts on what would be most impactful. 

At several points throughout the semester, we ask the students to write a short essay reflecting on what they’ve learned, one of which is assigned after the midpoint presentation.  Many students highlighted a shift in their perspective on the role of feedback: 

“Throughout this project, I have learned how to give and receive constructive feedback, something that I avoided in my other projects as I didn’t want relationships within the team to get awkward. However, I have realized the feedback actually builds relationships.” 

“After the midpoint presentation, our team had a chance to sit down and discuss each other’s performance. This was my first time exchanging in-person feedback with someone other than my manager, and so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the experience was a great help in promoting a healthy work environment for our team.” 

Others reflected on their learning about the importance of incorporating stakeholder perspectives: 

“I have learned it’s also very important to identify the stakeholders of the project and see it from their perspective.  A solution set could end up tackling the problem from many views for our client to decide what will work best.  By incorporating these views, we show our value in looking at it from the outside as business analysts.” 

And almost all of the students said they learned about effective teamwork: 

“As we were conducting primary interview, my team members and I communicated beforehand about details such as who is taking notes, who is asking the questions and when should another member step in during the interview. This way, we were able to gather a lot of useful information in a short amount of time.” 

“In the past, I took working in a team as simply being in a group where each person does their share. Now I know that it is so much more. Working in a team requires collaboration, communication, a smooth workflow, personal bonds, and collectively time managing and allocating tasks..” 

We are pleased to hear that the students are learning and growing as professionals from this experience, and are excited to see their final presentations!  Stay tuned for further updates on the final presentations – and for the final reflection essay which students will publish on this blog!  

Midpoint and beyond…

The semester and the projects are halfway through – the teams have been busy researching and developing a midpoint presentation to their client contacts!  Based on classroom discussion and talking with the teams, the students have had incredible and unique learning moments in a wide number of areas, including project management and scoping, working as a team, and researching a problem.  The teams are certainly gaining perspectives on real-life business scenarios and learning to dig deeper in ways that can be impactful for their client organization.  The students received valuable feedback on their midpoint presentations, and we are confident that these projects will be a success!  

Many teams have faced challenges with their project scope.  As anyone who has consulting experience can affirm, developing a thorough understanding of the central question/issue with a client is rarely easy – among other things, there are resources, constraints, and human perspectives that are essential to consider in order to provide impactful recommendations.   Students have a limited time to develop that understanding, so we have been encouraging thoughtful engagement with their client contacts.  One team visited a distribution center of their client organization – they gained valuable perspective around the constraints, and developed a new research approach!  We are very lucky to have engaged clients with our corporate partners, who not only enrich the student learning experience but support the students in making their projects successful. 

For the remainder of the semester, students will research the issue further and develop skills and perspectives to support an impactful deliverable.  One team is taking an online programming course to dig deeper!  Our newest challenge will be adjusting to a virtual classroom discussion, adopting the precautionary measures taken by the University concerning COVID-19.  We will continue to support the student process and push them to learn more, work together, and deliver a valuable recommendation to their clients.  We’re excited to see what these teams will bring to their final presentation!