October 21, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Why We Shouldn’t Ban Project Teams

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Something I’ve learned from over two years of experience on project teams is that critique is absolutely necessary for improvement. In a recent guest column, an engineering student shared his opinion on problems he has seen in his experience on an engineering project team. As a member of Cornell Design & Tech Initiative and Cornell App Development, I felt a need to respond to this column to represent the people I know and give a voice to project teams.

The bulk of his critiques center around the interview process for project teams. This is something that nearly everyone can agree could use improvement. In fact, the College of Engineering created new guidelines this semester for first-year applicants. All first-year applications were made private to project team members so no team could recruit students before they properly interacted with all the project teams they’re interested in. This coincided with new timelines for interviews and accepting first-year students. While not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction, and something project teams are actively working on with the administration.

I have personally interviewed dozens of applicants for Cornell Design & Tech Initiative. The most important quality I look for in every applicant, especially first-year students, is a passion and commitment for the team’s mission: creating technology for community impact. Having worked on our projects for over 10 hours a week, I fully believe I can determine who is the best fit for the team. We follow a regulated process checked by other team leads and members who currently fill that particular team role. We are building the future of our organization for years to come, and it is inherently in our best interest to select the best possible applicants and future leaders. Teams ultimately should define a positive, inclusive culture, and I agree that this is something that should be improved across the board.

The problems outlined in the article about the potential issues of students interviewing other students are not exclusive to engineering project teams at Cornell, let alone any interview process in any organization. You can cherry pick anecdotes about any organization, but they don’t represent all of their members, let alone any of the other dozens of groups that call themselves project teams. And why should only project teams be subject to this scrutiny? Nearly all student organizations, from business clubs to performing groups, handle their own recruitment and judge their own applicants. Should they be banned too?

I can’t speak for every project team’s culture, but Cornell DTI strives for diversity and openness in everything they do. The team of 70 members has a non-engineering majority comprised of 54 percent female members: not quite the “testosterone-fueled project team fueled by Mattin’s and Mountain Dew” by any stretch. The author describes a culture in need of improvement, but to attribute that culture to every project team isn’t correct.

I believe project teams are one of the best things about Cornell. They’ve provided an opportunity for me to learn software development and product design skills that simply don’t exist in the classroom. I was able to build and release an app on the App Store, a lifelong dream of mine, through Cornell AppDev’s incredible training courses. This is a perfect example of project teams being inclusive and striving to help teach others. Hundreds of Cornell students, myself included, are able to get the experience needed to earn and start careers as top industry leaders in their discipline because of what they learn through project teams. Not many other universities have a program like this, and my experience with them is always one of the first things I excitedly tell my friends when I talk about my time at Cornell.

Project teams are not perfect, and they may never be, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to get rid of them entirely. In fact, having more opportunities for engineers and others to gain practical experience in their field will help every interested member find a group of students that they can learn and grow with together. It pains me seeing such low acceptance rates on project teams, but sometimes there really isn’t any more capacity to take the ideal number of incredibly talented and motivated applicants we see.

I urge the administration to see how we can further improve this space to allow for more opportunities for students to develop themselves as engineers, students and team members. I am a better engineer, team member and person for my experience on project teams, and I hope every student of every background is able to have the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have.

Matt Barker is a senior in the College of Engineering. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.