“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” So wrote 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope who, due to no fault of his own, knew nothing of innovative digital startups and their power to disrupt the status quo of business when he wrote An Essay on Man.
But disruption comes in many forms. And as spring 2020 brought an extensive wave of cancellations and interminable postponements of its own, three McIntire students were rewarded for keeping their own hopes alive as the widespread changes upended plans to go on McIntire’s annual “Digital Safari” trek to the greater San Francisco area.
Despite students being understandably disappointed that the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to travel to Bay Area digital companies during spring break, the cancellation caused a more pressing issue for third- and fourth-years Clarissa Ribeiro Bittes (McIntire ’20), Erica Kim (McIntire ’21), and Brandon Warren (McIntire ’20): They needed the class to stay on track for their respective graduation dates.
Yet the trio managed to gain an invaluable, albeit altogether different, learning experience, thanks to longtime trek host and Commerce School alumna Amanda Richardson.
Refusing to let the opportunity slip away, Richardson helped secure the students’ route toward a successful completion of their undergraduate studies while providing them with the chance to tackle a project addressing a need for her company, CoderPad.
“Our alumni are incredible, and several folks who had planned to host us in San Francisco immediately stepped up and offered to help,” says McIntire Professor Ryan Wright. “Amanda was one of these alumni. She offered a problem that her company was having, and our students took it on as their own. Amanda was incredible in helping coach these students while also exposing them to the culture that makes the Digital Safari experience so unique.”
Searching for Solutions
When Wright made it known that Bittes, Kim, and Warren were still interested in connecting with San Francisco-based companies, Richardson, a six-year veteran host of the class, offered a mutually beneficial solution.
“Given that we were all suddenly working remotely and Zoom discussions are the new norm, it felt like a great way—and a great time—to give the students some perspective and real-world experience,” she says.
The CEO for CoderPad, an online technical assessment tool designed for hiring managers to screen and interview software engineers, explained that the company was searching for ways to increase its brand awareness among companies in the field. She gave the students the chance to apply their business skills, and ultimately, present some potential solutions.
“We focused on the consumer journey,” Bittes says. “At first, we didn’t understand the industry very well, so we needed to do some research to identify possible opportunities.”
Warren notes that a great deal of the research the team conducted focused on industry trends. They also contacted several experts in the field, applying the insights they gathered to their own ideas. Reaching their findings was no easy task. Challenges emerged from finding data on the target market—a niche industry that the students had little experience working with—to support their recommendations.
In their final presentation, the group proffered two major concepts, followed by a few other tactics to develop CoderPad’s brand awareness.
The first centered on strategic partnering with software developer influencers, while the second suggestion targeted in-class coding assessment partnerships in order to reach future customers through exposure to college student developers. Other ideas dealt with trade shows, product demo videos, and B2B product reviews.
Lessons from the Process
By brainstorming, researching, and preparing their online presentation, each student learned markedly different lessons from the process.
Kim was surprised that collaborating and presenting online proved to be considerably less difficult than she expected.
“Working through Zoom allowed us to meet frequently despite conflicting class schedules. Just from personal experience with group projects, finding a meeting time that works for everyone is often difficult. Zoom allowed us to meet frequently for short periods of time, which helped space out this project and alleviate any potential stress we would have had.”
With many suffering from videoconferencing fatigue, Warren says they needed to ensure that they were that much more engaging.
“Presentations are presentations, even if they’re online. We realized early on we would still have to make it interesting even if it was going to be through a virtual medium. Attention is one of the hardest things to capture, and we recognized that we would still have to capture that attention even if we weren’t giving this presentation in person.”
Bittes says that in addition to learning to focus on the CoderPad’s needs, not those of their potential customers, offering a choice of viable and quickly available solutions also became an imperative.
“I understood the importance of providing a range of alternatives to our client so they could make the decision that best suits them. We provided options that would require more investment and research, but also options that could easily be done in a couple of weeks.”
Offering actionable, practical, strategic proposals, the students created specific ways to introduce the CoderPad product to currently available and future customer segments.
A Worthwhile Exercise
So how was the presentation received? Kim was energized by Richardson’s excitement about their suggestions.
“She seemed like she really wanted our input, and I was happy to find out that she liked our project. It made me feel like our ideas had a real-life impact,” she says.
Warren echoed her statement, saying how much he appreciated the fact that their efforts were directed toward an actual company issue. “A real client had a real problem and wanted us to come up with real solutions. This project was all about bringing value to a client, and that ultimately inspired us to work harder.”
Bittes also says that partnering with a company “always makes projects more fulfilling than if this were a simple case study.” She enjoyed providing potential solutions that could potentially impact CoderPad’s future success.
Despite the challenges, Richardson says that the students brought new perspectives to the company’s issue and were suited to suggest potential fixes.
“The students know my demographic. CoderPad helps software developers interview for jobs, and that’s who these students know. They’re closer to the channels and content that is most relevant. Plus, with fresh eyes, there’s no bias of what we have and haven’t done to skew their findings,” she says. “They pointed to good strategies like engaging influencers and took it to the next level to identify the right people.”
She says that while some of the students’ suggestions aren’t common practice in her experience, their data supported the strategy to further brand awareness.
As part of her ongoing demonstration of her own passion for learning, upholding UVA honor, and a true willingness to lend a hand to those who could gain from her experience, Richardson sees her commitment to the School as reciprocal.
“So many alumni helped me while I was at McIntire, as well as immediately after graduation, during the hiring process, and throughout the years since. It’s hard not to want to give back and help every student,” Richardson says. “You never know who will get the nudge they need at the right time to break into a new area of study or even career. I give back because so many before me gave to me. It’s the least I can do.”
Her time and input have made all the difference for these Commerce students—a difference that Wright graciously acknowledges.
“Given all the challenges of the current situation, I couldn’t be prouder of these students and our alumni,” he says.