IT School to Watch: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Students immersed in real projects with real clients.

The first sign for Damyon Thompson that his master's of science in IT degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was going to pay off appeared right after his December 2004 graduation, when he had four job offers from IBM on the table. Then, three and a half years after accepting a position at IBM's Banking Center of Excellence in San Jose, he was chosen to fly to Vietnam and South Africa as part of the center's efforts to study emerging overseas markets. "That kind of assignment is usually reserved for people with more experience," he says. "But the program at RPI gave me a leg up, and I was able to hit the ground running."

It helped that Thompson had an IBM-sponsored fellowship at RPI and that he interned there during the summer. But he attributes his success to the real-world elements of Rensselaer's programming, which include professors with industry experience, guest speakers from companies such as Morgan Stanley and the Reserve Bank of India, classes that emphasize skills like developing business cases, and a highly regarded capstone program, in which small teams of students complete an actual IT project for a client company. The student teams compete for the projects -- which involve strategic and business planning, systems development and technology implementation -- by submitting proposals and resumes that clients can choose from.

"Students love it because they're working on something that's real and that companies need," says Gregory Hughes, professor of management and IT, who also served as vice provost for IT and developed the capstone course and the IT degree programs. In fact, a substantial number of students end up working for the companies that sponsor the projects, Hughes says. The program is so highly regarded that there are currently more requests for capstone projects than project teams to complete them.

According to Thompson, who completed a capstone project on Web development for a natural gas company in Albany, the experience enabled him to know how to attack projects "from womb to tomb" on his current job, he says.

To earn their graduate degrees from RPI, students are required to study five core areas and then choose from among eight concentrations and 68 electives.

Many courses are taught jointly with four other RPI schools, enabling IT students to study side-by-side with engineering, science, management and social science students.

In response to the financial industry's need for graduates with a combination of computer science, higher mathematics and management skills, RPI recently added a concentration in financial engineering. Similarly, it has added a concentration in information security.

RPI has also been working with IBM on an interdisciplinary curriculum in the area of service science, management and engineering, which would prepare students to more systematically approach business process improvement and automation.

Pooja Daswani says the skills she learned at RPI were directly applicable to her job as a manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, where she accepted a full-time position after completing a summer internship there and graduating in December 2005. "I literally use the skills I learned every day on the job," she says.

The most outstanding part of the program, Daswani says, is the career development resources offered to students. Not only did she have several job offers upon graduating, but she also scored an internship with no problem.

"The Career Development Center, faculty and advisers take a personal interest in helping you achieve your goals," Daswani says.

Rensselaer says its placement rate for internships is 100%, as was its 2007 placement rate for new positions, with most students taking jobs at Fortune 500 companies. And the extra schooling is worth it when you look at salary figures. The average salary for an RPI graduate with a bachelor's of science in IT is $62,500, and it's $74,800 for someone with a master's in IT.

And even in the heart of Silicon Valley, Thompson feels the RPI mug that sits on his desk gives him instant credibility because of the program's quality. As far away as Vietnam, he says, he struck up a conversation with a stranger who recognized the RPI logo on his T-shirt. "People know it's a strong and rigorous program," he says.

This version of this story appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

Next: San Jose University: Its charter is to produce educated workers for the Silicon Valley workforce.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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