State IT Firm Seeks Calvin’s Agile Grads

April 22, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Calvin College Professor Keith VanderLinde can’t graduate enough computer science students for Pillar Technology CEO Gary Gentry.

Gentry is delighted that Calvin professors are incorporating agile software development skills into the curriculum. His growing virtual company is based on it. “Professors at the university are very much in tune with what the business community needs,” Gentry said. “As I look to acquire additional talent, I look to Calvin to help me meet that need.”

But, said VanderLinde, chair of the computer science department, there are fewer graduates for Gentry to interview. Enrollment is down and the 15 students graduating this year are getting snapped up by companies such as Microsoft and Google, he said. The number of graduates is about half of what it was just a few years ago, VanderLinde said.

“Gary came down here and we didn’t have very many people for him to interview. All our grads had got jobs.”

But that doesn’t impede Gentry’s enthusiasm for the inclusion of agile development in the learning menu at Calvin. “I started working with this professor four years ago and told him what I needed,” he said. “In this case, they actually listened to the business community, and are beginning to present candidates that are very, very desirable. I found an educational community that buys into the approach I’m leveraging on a professional basis.”

Gentry is based in Brighton, but his 70 employees and 40 contractors, scattered across Michigan and Ohio, comprise a virtual, privately held, $12 million company.

Grand Rapids firm Atomic Object, which also specializes in agile software development, employs 23 in a free-form office on Wealthy Street, said Vice President Bill Berbeza.

Atomic Object is a venture founded by Grand Valley State University entrepreneurs, but Berbeza said there is one Calvin grad on the staff. The company expects to hire three people this year, but Berbeza said he doesn’t worry about whether they have college training in the agile style.

“So far, we haven’t really found many, in terms of people we’ve hired,” he said. “But it hasn’t been a limiting factor. It’s more if they have the skills to be a good agile programmer: good communication, good interaction. We expect to have to train people we hire in our development practices.”

Agile software development emphasizes face-to-face communication, frequent consultations with customers and teamwork in the creation of workable computer programs in short periods of time.

“In the old days, you’d write a big spec up front, go off and build it, and come back a year later, and if the customer didn’t like it, too bad,” VanderLinde said.

VanderLinde said Calvin students have the opportunity to use the agile method in classes, even comparing it with the traditional approach in the same class.

“We are doing agile development very early on,” he said. “One faculty member got interested in extreme programming and integrated it into our opening, first class in computer science. Other faculty have now integrated it throughout the curriculum.

“Students love it, by and large. You’re always getting right down and coding something, and students love to code stuff.”

Agile development is favored by smaller companies, he added. Larger firms have too much invested in traditional programming, from documentation to standards, to easily switch to agile development. It’s not a quick change for colleges, either, he added, with alterations to textbooks and curriculums a time-consuming process.

“It’s like going from a horse and buggy to Star Wars and trying to do that overnight,” Gentry added. He first connected with Calvin College through a boy whom he mentored in a youth group and ended up hiring once he graduated from the Christian campus in Grand Rapids.

“Calvin presented me with the right candidates that have the right raw material,” he said.

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