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Bowsprit: Real World, Hands-on Experience

At Divergence Academy, we believe that in order for our learners to go from book learners to skilled IT professionals, they need adequate opportunities to gain work experience - even prior to starting work with another company. Because of that, our Bowsprit program operates on the premise of pairing interested graduates with real projects that help real businesses.

In a previous blog, we sat down with Rachael Ridenour, who leads the Bowsprit project initiative. In this post, we catch up with program participants, Don Snyder and Quintan Gee, to talk about their experience with Bowsprit and touch on their personal takeaways and insights.

How did you learn about the Bowsprit program, and why did you decide to participate?


Don: I didn’t know that Bowsprit was an available option for Divergence students such as myself. But I feel incredibly grateful and lucky to have been in the right place with an organization that's forward-thinking enough to offer a program like Bowsprit, so that I could get some real-world, hands-on experience.

I took the Divergence Data Science Immersive course, and while in that program, I was like a bear gathering up all of the resources I would need to store for later down the line. After the program, however, I feel like I hibernated. I let my brain shut down because I couldn't possibly put anything more into it.

Joining Bowsprit gave me the opportunity to take all of that incredible theoretical knowledge and apply it in a real-world work scenario. One where I'm meeting a specific client's needs, the way that they need their needs met; not the way I think they should be met.

Quintan: I heard about the Bowsprit Program through the Divergence Academy student monthly newsletter. What I read about it made me feel like it was a great opportunity to gain work experience. So I immediately reached out [to Rachael] for more information.


To give our readers a bit of context - how much experience with application development did you have prior to joining Divergence?


Don: Prior to starting this project with Bowsprit, I had developed exactly two applications in my life. The first was something I just copied out of the Microsoft instruction manual and was done in a lab. The other was my Divergence capstone project which was amazing and a lot of fun—but it wasn't nearly as complex a solution as what I developed for the Bowsprit program.

Quintan: I didn’t have any prior knowledge of Azure DevOps. But I did take the Microsoft learning program, completed the entire course, and discovered that it's fairly easy-to-use. DevOps is what we initially used to work out our sprints so we could break down the project into different tasks.

As for Power BI and Power Apps, my experience with those programs was courtesy of Divergence’s Data Science Immersive course.


Can you share with us the business problem that you were trying to solve?


Don: Divergence is a quickly expanding organization. Part of that expansion includes opening up Divergence Labs, which is what I refer to as a “maker space”. This is where Divergence students can check out materials and tools to solve real world problems.

Of course, when you have that kind of equipment on hand and you're letting people access it, you've got to have an inventory management system.

Quintan: Divergence also doesn’t have a formal database to hold their shipping inventory. We were tasked to build that database, along with an application that would allow us to add, track, and report on shipped inventory.
Don: Ultimately, what that turned into was the three applications that we built. We realized, going through the process, that the business problem that we had to solve was almost three separate use cases. And as a result, we created an app for each one of those use cases. [As in the real world], the business problem was a little bit more involved than what it looked like on the surface.



How did you go about solving it? Walk us through your thought process.


Don: The thought-process behind approaching inventory management came down to asking as many questions as possible.

We gathered a lot of information about what potential solutions there would be and got into some pretty deep conversations about what an MVP (minimum viable product) should look like to solve this business problem.
What we discovered is that we were tracking two different types of items:

  • Bulk items - which were going to be sorted by UPC and location, and
  • Individual items - which were sorted by serial number.

To add to all that, we were also tracking location, status, and condition.

Our challenge came down to figuring out what solution would address both the application and the database. The answer we came up with was to develop two different applications: one for staff and one for students.

From there, choosing Power Automate to solve this particular business problem was an easy choice.

When working on something like this, you want to consider whether there are existing off-the-shelf solutions. Any time you're working with a client, if you can provide a ready-made solution that's custom-fit for their needs, it's your responsibility to do that.

Unfortunately, most of those solutions are simply either overpowered, overpriced, or not well-adapted to the use case.

Given what Divergence needed, our direction was to build the app ourselves using Power Apps. Because Divergence already runs off of the Microsoft ecosystem, it simply made sense from both an economic and a practical standpoint that we continue to use that ecosystem.


Were you able to employ what you learned from the DSI course in this Bowsprit project? And how?


Don: Yes. All of the practical applications that we did at Divergence’s labs gave me a great basis of knowledge and understanding for working on those problems. Prior to my time in the DSI, I had no idea or understanding of how data behaves in a database, how it behaves when you retrieve it, and how we can optimize performance.

Quintan: Definitely. I would have to say though that the biggest difference between my DSI capstone and working on the Bowsprit project was that I not only had to build a database, I also had to create the data for that database.


Any big takeaways?


Quintan: Given the kind of data that we had to work with, or rather create, if I were to have a second stab at this assignment given the same tools and prompt, I would start out with using Excel. From there, I’d move everything over to SharePoint and then import all that data into Power BI.

Also, I would document more religiously. I did a lot of documentation while I was first working on the project, but towards the end, I stopped. Now, I have to go back and complete all that documentation because ultimately, doing just that helps you reference what you’ve done.

Additionally, if there are multiple people involved, documentation also helps the next person that comes in and works on the project after I’m no longer involved. That guide will help them know what I did, what I didn't do, and why I did and didn’t do something.


What expectations should someone else have coming into this program?


Quintan: With any project, remember that no matter how much you plan, no matter what you think you're going to do, when you actually get there, there is a big chance that you will end up doing something different. Be flexible with your plans and understand that the possibility of starting over is something you have to be okay with.


Any advice for individuals who are currently working on their first real business problem?


Don: Ask as many questions as you possibly can. Get granular with your information gathering. It's easier to edit things out when you have too much to work with, than it is to go back to the stakeholders repeatedly to ask for more clarification or to get more direction or more information.

Remember also to respect the time of our clients and our colleagues. Put a lot of preparation into those initial stakeholder interviews. I feel that is key to showing that respect to everyone involved and to creating a successful MVP that meets the business needs.

If you haven't adequately figured out what the business needs are on step one or step two, then by the time you get to step 10 or step 20, you're gonna be pretty far off-base. And it’s really hard to course-correct at that point and get to where it needs to be.

Quintan: I said this earlier, but I think it bears repeating: be adaptable to any circumstance. Understand that even if you give [the client] everything that they want, they can still come back to you and express that they want something different.

Second: remember to take a step back. If you’re stuck, take a break or find a different area of your project to work on until you can go back to the thing you couldn’t solve the first time around.

Finally, give yourself a longer timeline. The time that you think it will take to complete your project should be multiplied by 10. Projects tend to take more time than you realize.


What lessons did you learn from the experience?


Don: My biggest lesson learned is that a lot of the time, you don't know what you don't know. That's part of why experience is so valuable. Going into this process, I didn't know what I didn't know about creating apps. I didn't know what I didn't know about inventory.

I knew a fair amount about gathering stakeholder requirements and distilling that into a workable action plan. But I came across a lot of challenges going through the project that weren't addressed on my wireframe or in my MVP outline.

My sprints were just the logistics of moving a number from one column to another column, or making sure that changing numbers in two columns correspond correctly to each other. It was not as simple and straightforward as I would have expected it to be.

My biggest takeaway and the biggest lesson learned from this is to create project after project after project - even if you're not working for somebody. Just keep creating projects.

I came into this wanting to make really pretty graphics about data. I came out of it saying I want to automate business processes and to be good at that. The only way to really understand something is to do it.


If you were to do this again for a different company, what would you do differently?


Don: I would go directly to professionals that I respect who have more experience in solving these problems than I do. I’d just ask them for a few minutes of their time and say: This is my problem. This is how I think I'm going to solve my problem. Can you see anything that I'm overlooking here? Or can you point me in the direction of a resource that I may not know exists, or that I may not know I can use for this application?

I think that in doing so, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and a lot of headache by leaning on professionals who have gone there before.


As a mentor to future Bowsprit participants, what insights would you share?


Don: I’d like to help people understand how to think about solutions in terms of processes and actionable solutions. Figuring out how to create solutions versus just giving information is something that I could certainly bring to the table.

Overall, I’d like to work on more applications and in process automation. I think that business process automation is a problem that everybody has, whether they know it or not. It's something that can easily be solved with really affordable tools right now.

I have a huge passion for small and growing organizations and solving problems for companies like that makes me happy. The idea that I can take my process-thinking and everything that I've learned about data science, about the Microsoft power platform, and business process automation, and roll it up into an actionable solution would be fantastic.


Any final words for learners who may be interested in signing up for Bowsprit?


Quintan: Don’t hesitate to jump at opportunities to do real work. Working on a project like this gives you the real-world experience you need to succeed in the workplace.


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