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Capping Off Your Senior Year

Your capstone project is very important. The project represents the culmination of your education and packages your knowledge and experience to future employers. It is your moment to shine and should be taken seriously. A well-conceived and executed capstone project could yield years of career benefits. Such a project showcases not just your knowledge and technical experience, but also how you work in a team. The soft skills you acquire and develop while working on the capstone project are as important as the project topic itself.

The first thing to keep in mind is the proper design and implementation flow of a project. This makes or breaks a project, allowing a complex task to be broken up into small easily manageable steps. Digi-Key provides a project roadmap flow specifically for this: https://www.digikey.com/en/maker/roadmap. When utilized correctly, the flow provides a step-by-step process for implementing a project and simplifies teamwork and collaboration.

Working in teams is a key part of your post-secondary experience. From the first chemistry lab to the joint programming assignment, the ability to coordinate and successfully deliver a product is a key part of working in the industry. In many such situations, you pair up with a stranger and must depend on both your skills and his/her skills to tackle a technical challenge. Even if the partner were a longtime friend, you may be unsure of the person’s competence and enthusiasm to handle the project. However, lab work is limited in scope by its very nature. The boundaries of the work to be done were already clearly drawn by the instructor, all you need to do is to fill in the blank.

A capstone project takes this collaborative approach to the next level. You may have more than one partner, likely a team, to tackle the problem. Your team may be presented with a project flow chart for the first time and have budget considerations. Also, the problem may be vaguely defined, it may simply be a product idea that the sponsor sketches on a notepad that your team must define and spec before even typing the first line of code. You may need to identify parts for the project and perform high-level feasibility prototyping (i.e.: taking an accelerometer and performing cursory motion detection as a standalone component). And along the way, you need to contend with your team members, manage, and motivate them. On top of it all, you need to make sure you work with your project sponsor AND your advising professor (who may or may not be the same person). In many ways, this is the first time a student is exposed to so many parallel elements that could make or break the project and the final grade. This then makes or breaks graduation plans, employment timelines, and plans for post-graduate life.

The key soft skills to completing the project are: (1) planning, (2) delegation, and (3) not biting off more than you can chew. Project parameters need to be defined and then specifications clearly written to meet the goals and ensure the project falls within parameters. Tweaks may need to be done over time as the project goal pivots. Micromanagers need to learn to trust others and adopt a hands-off approach unless they want dysfunctional team dynamics to dominate. Top technical talents may not necessarily make the best team leads. Expectations need to be set with the key stakeholders (the advising professor and the project sponsor) so that the product is delivered as defined. Overpromising is the quickest way to under-delivering, especially when members of the team are tackling so many problems for the first time.

That is not to say that the team is to pick the lowest hanging fruits and deliver a “safe” project that does not showcase any technical skills. The technical complexity of the topic needs to be something carefully considered given the skillsets in the team. The project must be the showpiece that allows each member of the team to springboard into their desired career paths. Too often have I seen students whose initial career trajectories are being determined by their projects. It is for many, the only accomplishment they can list on their resumes. But to list it on the resume, the project needs to be taken to a satisfactory state of completion and that again ties back to team dynamics.

The capstone project is your ultimate chance to showcase everything you learned during your post-secondary education. It places you and your team in a novel position of having to work together to achieve a tangible product. The soft skills and mindset a team takes in tackling the problem are just as important as the technical aspects of a project. This is something that is often overlooked by project teams. We hope to showcase in a series of blog posts our anecdotes and experiences to help shed some light and in some ways light the way to a successful post-graduation career. Stay tuned!

About this author

Image of Y.C. Wang

Y.C. Wang – Global Academic Program Director. Y.C. leads Digi-Key’s academic business segment and represents the company to students/professors over the world. Over the years he discovered that it takes a combination of technical skills, passion, and excellence in execution to build a successful engineering career. Y.C. pivoted his technical career focus at key moments and aims to help engineering students understand the extremely important skillsets the industry absolutely requires (but may not be taught in class).

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