Atanasoff Today: A Class Act

By Angie Hagerty

Photos by Keo Pierron

Thomas Smartwood lectures about entrepreneurship

Thomas Smartwood lectures about entrepreneurship in CS 402c Senior Design.

Thomas Swartwood moves to the front of the classroom and distributes laminated cards to students working in teams. Each brightly colored card bears a single topic, such as “customers,” “value proposition,” “key resources” and “cost structure.”

Swartwood, entrepreneurship fellow and associate professor of practice, directs six student teams to prioritize the words in order of importance. 

“When you’re starting a business, which of these is the most critical?” he asks.

Students shuffle and rearrange the cards as a cacophony of debate and discussion fills the room. Many agree. Some argue that channels aren’t as important as relationships. Many question what “key resources” means or entails.

These aren’t accounting or finance majors in a business class. They’re all students, mostly seniors, studying computer science or data science. Swartwood was a guest lecturer in a Department of Computer Science class—CS 402c Senior Design.

“Cash is the most important. If you don’t have money, you can’t get your idea off the ground,” shouts a student from her desk.

Swartwood dives in for a teachable moment. He begins educating these students about the art of converting ideas into businesses, careers or best-selling products.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t about the coolest invention,” he said. “It’s about knowing what people want and delivering solutions that meet their needs.”

After sharing how venture capital can flow to a solid business model, Swartwood concludes the exercise by emphasizing the importance of validating the value proposition and building a model to bring it to customers.

“This unique collaboration in professor Simanta Mitra’s class is a great example of what ISU offers its students,” Swartwood said.

Leveraging technical expertise into marketable products

Taught by Simanta Mitra, teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, the class is a unique fusion of software development, creativity and entrepreneurialism. The goal is to inspire students to create a product which showcases the technical skills and knowledge that they’ve acquired at Iowa State.

Most of these students have finely tuned technical skills. They code for fun, develop software during Friday night hackfests and spend more time on GitHub than Twitter. However, their technical ideas often remain trapped in their laptops or simmering as sketches in a worn notebook.

“These students don’t think about their ideas in terms of end users or customers because that’s not their area of expertise,” said Mitra. “This class exposes them to the business-development side of software development.”

Simanta Mitra helps a student with an assignment

Associate Teaching Professor Simanta Mitra helps a students with an assignment.

Startup incubator or classroom?

Imagine walking into a restaurant or a bar and wanting to hear your favorite songs. You launch an app on your phone that allows you to enter a shared room and add songs from Spotify to a cue that is updated in real time. By the time your drinks and appetizers arrive, the atmosphere is filled with your preferred tunes.

That’s the simplicity and beauty of PartybAUX (pronounced party box), a web-based app that has evolved from proof-of-concept into a solid, marketable solution developed by a team of students enrolled in CS 402c. The group includes: Marcin Lukanus (’20 computer science), Dylan Mrzlak (‘20 computer science), Alex Thompson (‘20 data science) and Chris Pavlopoulos (’20 computer science).

“I thought of PartybAUX while walking to class and the group liked it. I’ve always wanted to someday create a business,” Lukanus said. “Now we’ve got a somewhat tangible product.”

During the semester, Swartwood and Mitra inspired the group to transform a light-bulb moment into a marketable product.

“This class has provided us with a new way of thinking,” Pavlopoulos said. “We’re not just coding. We’ve had the end user in mind throughout the entire process.” 

In February, Pavlopoulos had a job interview with Intuit. He discussed how the class sharpened his skills and introduced him to new ways of thinking about software development.

“During the interview, I mentioned that I had spent a great deal of time focusing on the user experience and thinking about the audience when I was developing software. One of the interviewers said, ‘That is awesome. We don’t really hear that too often from a software developer.’”

Pavlopoulos landed the job and began working for Intuit this summer.

“This class has provided us with a new way of thinking. We’re not just coding.  We’ve had the end user in mind throughout the entire process.”

A class as the ultimate start-up

Students working together as a team

A team of students discuss entrepreneurs during a class exercise.

The initial concept of infusing the art of entrepreneurialism into the science of software development, in a classroom setting, happened when Swartwood and Mitra struck up a conversation during a summer faculty picnic in 2019.

“I told Thomas about my software development class and he started talking about his efforts at the Pappajohn Center,” Mitra said. “It just clicked. We knew we should work together.”

With tremendous support from the Department of Computer Science, the class launched this spring.

“We are opening up new worlds for these students,” Mitra said. “If they can start their careers understanding how other sides of the business work, then we have succeeded.”


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