Dr. Brenda Wilson with her crew of volunteers from Women in Computing at the Tent City - 2011 Homecoming

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Digicrits goes live!

It is immensely satisfying for teachers to see their students take an idea and carry it to a finished product or service. Digicrits is one such business. Last Spring Aaron Tribou (CIS) and Brenon Conn (Business major, Art minor) came together in the CIS420 class with the intention of taking Conn's digital social network idea to a proof-of-concept.

Digicrits is a facebook-like social network where members share their photography, graphic design, illustrations, and more. Digicrits provides a platform for those images to be rated. Artists, photographers, or just anybody who wants to share their best Instagram photos can do so and be rated and commented on by the digicrits community. It has all the elements of a modern digital social network with a focus on art and images.

Members of teh DigiCrits team

As instructor, Dr. Raj often looks for projects that have an immediate benefit to the project sponsor. "CIS420 is the capstone course for all CIS  majors and is intended to give students as near a 'real world' experience as possible. Brenon had been after me from the previous term (Fall 2011) looking for a developer who could take his 'baby' and 'birth' it."

Seeing his persistence and energy Dr. Raj offered to take it up in the following term if the students in the class would be interested. He pitched the idea to Aaron Tribou who was the only one needing CIS420 and then introduced him to Brenon Conn. Tribou agreed to take up the challenge although he knew that he was going to be the sole developer in the 2-person team. Raj asked Conn to sign up for the Special Problems (CIS585) class and work with Tribou.

After weeks of discussing the pros/cons of various tools and programming languages, Tribou, Conn and Raj settled on PhP for the programming language and MySQL for the database - both available for no cost. During this time the team also firmed up on the scope of the project and a schedule for project "deliverables".

Tribou did all the technical work - programming, database and project management while Conn dealt with the user interface, the styling, and pretty much anything to do with graphics. Raj kept both on track with deadlines and played the "devil's advocate" for many of the design decisions.

The project was completed on schedule and demonstrated at the annual CSIS awards banquet on April 21, 2012 at Barkley room in Curris Center. The participating students and the members of the CSIS Advisory Board present were blown away by the demo.  Several of the Advisory Board members spoke privately to Conn and Tribou and encouraged them to take it to the next stage and go commercial. The demo also caught the attention of some students who asked Tribou and Conn if they could participate in additional development.

By the end of the Spring term, Digicrits became a legal entity with Conn as the Chief Executive Officer and Tribou as Chief Technology Officer.  Conn and Tribou asked Dr Raj about hiring student interns for the summer with the idea of going live in August. Once the internship terms were finalized, Tribou and Conn conducted a series of interviews and settled on Ben Hester (CSC) and Yasha Yang (MSIS) as student interns.

The new team was faced with the challenge of learning PhP, MySQL (and related tools) as well as mastering AJAX and CSS.  On his experience, Ben Hester had this to say, "I feel I learned a great deal about developing in a professional environment. I learned how to develop with a team, when to ask questions and how to combine code from different sources into one project [using version control]."

During this time Conn was actively involved in the legal, testing, design, promotion aspects of the project as well as the morale and coordination between members of the team. His optimism and leadership were essential elements of the whole venture.

Earlier in the term Conn participated in the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development's State Business Plan Competition and won second place for his Business Plan. In a letter to the Dean of the College, the Team sponsor, Mr Steve Dublin - Lecturer in Management - said, "He (Conn) could not have missed first place [by] much, his plan and presentation was outstanding. His winning prize money was nearly $8000.  It should be noted that Victor Raj has mentored Brenon and has been a great influence".

This is an example of cross-disciplinary interests coming together in a University setting with several teachers and courses contributing to the birth (and delivery) of a finished product. It needed Art, Business, Technology - programming, database design, Web scripting - entrepreneurship as well as teachers willing to take on challenging projects even if they cannot follow the norm and structure of a traditional 3-credit class.

Raj noted that Conn and Tribou met on campus every Tuesday and Thursday for 75 minutes (sometimes more) even if they knew they could accomplish the same from their home. "They definitely put in a LOT more than what is typically required of a 3-credit class. The class had no homework assignments or tests and yet they progressed by setting targets and deadlines; they certainly learned a lot. The class was a true 'real-world' experience for these two young men".

"Of course the driving force is the well-motivated student. Both Aaron and Brenon fit this bill perfectly."

As part of the internship, Ben had to write a 10-page paper summarizing his experience. He notes, "Probably one of the most important things I’ve done during this internship is make mistakes—mistakes that could have been disastrous on a much larger project and cost me my job. However these are mistakes that I won’t make again because I’ve learned proper procedures when dealing with version control, working with a team and how to utilize my time correctly if I ever find myself stuck on one particular portion of a task."

Yasha and Ben under the leadership of Tribou and the gentle prodding of Conn worked hard and finally released the application on August 3, 2012. It is quite a change from the original proof-of-concept hosted on the department's Linux server to the first release on shared hosting off campus. Depending on funding availability, the team will eventually move to a dedicated server.

This is truly a remarkable story of hard work, diligence, team work and passion. The CSIS department is proud to recognize this young team for their efforts. Dr. Raj's wish is that Murray State continue to provide the environment that facilitated and produced such trail blazers.

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