Montana State University

MSU students partner with local companies on ‘Software Factory’ project

September 10, 2015 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

The Software Factory, a project in Montana State University's Computer Science Department, puts students into a real-world software development setting with the goal of meeting a need for the collaborating sponsor, typically a local technology company. MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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BOZEMAN – Students in Montana State University’s Computer Science Department will have a chance to earn college credit while collaborating with a local technology company to develop computer software.

Housed in the software engineering computer lab in MSU’s Engineering and Physical Sciences building, the Software Factory project puts a small team of students into a real-world software development setting with the goal of meeting a need for the collaborating sponsor. This fall is the start of the program’s second year.  

Last year, the Bozeman-based financial software company Zoot Enterprises had students developing a system to allow help desk specialists to more easily identify performance-related anomalies in client systems. This year, according to Clemente Izurieta, the assistant professor of computer science who set up the Software Factory, students will be working with S2 Corporation, a local technology company that specializes in using wide spectrum laser sensing devices and computer technology to provide its clients with extremely high-resolution maps and 3-dimensional renderings.

“These experiences offer students a chance to learn what it is like in the fast-paced world of professional computer development, where you work with your client to assess their need, plan a solution and then meet the team’s deadlines,” Izurieta said. “In our case it’s very collaborative, and students really gain a lot from their interactions with our sponsors.”

Mike Hurd, the information technology delivery manager at Zoot Enterprises who worked with Izurieta’s students during the first run of the Software Factory, said it is a win-win arrangement.

“The goal for us is that we get working software, and, hopefully, the students gain valuable, real-world experience,” Hurd said. “Zoot, like all tech companies in the valley, has a vested interest in having a university that produces graduates that are ready to hit the ground running.”

Mike Trenk, a senior in computer science from Helena, said he learned more than just how to apply the skills he’s learned at MSU. After participating last year, he is eager to be part of the Software Factory team again this time.

“I now have a much greater understanding about the logistics involved in moving a project like this through the development process and communicating with a client along the way,” Trenk said. “I think the Software Factory offers a nice bridge between academics and industry.”

The addition of S2’s project for this year’s Software Factory team will offer another excellent opportunity for his students to grow their skills, Izurieta said.

“We are incredibly excited to have S2 sponsoring the Software Factory this year,” he said. “It’s been great to work with (S2 chief executive officer) Kris Merkel, and I know he’s been looking at creating a project that will offer a great learning experience for the students while filling a need for his company.”

S2, which takes its name from its core spatial-spectral holography technology, is the only company in the world focused on providing extreme-wideband sensing and signal processing solutions for multiple customers. S2’s largest customer is the U.S. Department of Defense. Many of S2’s employees are MSU graduates.

Last year’s students in the Software Factory also proposed an outreach program to Bozeman High School. The program ran through this summer and will continue next year.

Mackenzie O’Bleness, a senior majoring computer science with minors in math and computer engineering, said working to propose and launch the project has been a gratifying process.

“We need to get more people interested in computer science,” O’Bleness said. “This is a good opportunity for high school students to get ahead on some of the skills they’ll want to have going into this field of study. And of course, employers are looking for experience in the computer fields. So if you can get some before you’re even out of high school, you’re sitting pretty.”

The outreach work is part of a multifaceted effort to grow enrollment in MSU’s Computer Science Department.

“In the end the Software Factory fits very well with MSU’s mandates for teaching, research and collaboration with industry,” Izurieta said. “Our students are given a chance to be the face of MSU outreach, as well as to develop new computing software that will help build Montana’s entrepreneurial economy.”

John Paxton, head of the Computer Science Department, said there had been an overwhelming response to the project from established Montana technology companies, as well as startups. The Software Factory’s success in the early going should only raise its profile, Paxton added.

“One benefit of the Software Factory is that it provides students with compelling, collaborative experiences that prepare them for future internships and employment,” Paxton said. “Another benefit is that it helps the Computer Science Department better recruit, retain and graduate students. In the future, we hope to increase the size of the Software Factory so that more students can benefit from this wonderful experience and so that our department can better serve Montana companies with software needs.”

Contact: Clemente Izurieta, (406) 994-3720, clemente.izurieta@cs.montana.edu