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From Rutgers to Start-Ups: Student Developers Gain Skills by Building Real-World Apps

Rutgers students in the OSS program
(from L to R) Student web app developers Michael J. Winters and Ridhwaan Anayetullah with system administrator Jack Chen who are part of Open System Solutions.

In the era before omnipresent apps – before WhatsApp, before Snapchat and even before Instagram – Naveen Gavini had an idea: a mobile app to showcase Rutgers news, bus schedules and other information.

With an iPod touch and his burgeoning programming skills, Gavini, a 2009 graduate who was then a student worker in the Office of Information Technology (OIT), came up with a prototype for the Rutgers mobile application. Gavini showed the app to Jack Chen, a system administrator for OIT. The idea developed within the OIT staff and the two, alongside colleague Aaron Richton, pitched the idea to higher-ups.

From there, the official university mobile application was born.

Gavini, who is now the head of design and user experience at Pinterest, was part of a group of student software programmers in Open System Solutions (OSS), a unit within OIT’s Enterprise Application Services division for student software development projects. OSS helps Rutgers students get a start in mobile and web application development, providing real-world experience in the field by creating software for the Rutgers community.

“It’s one thing to learn theoretically how things work in classes or do assignments, but it’s another to build software where tens of thousands of people are using it daily,” Gavini said. “You quickly understand how things can break unexpectedly and the meaning of quality.”

The Rutgers app is just one of many advancements OSS has built at the university. Started in 1999, OSS was created to give students development and operations work experience and assist full-time staffers at OIT. The students’ work ranges from building software packages for installation on Rutgers servers to researching and developing new software or services for the university.

And their experiences translate well beyond their time at Rutgers. Alumni have found jobs at major tech companies, including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

Beyond the day-to-day duties, Chen, who is the manager of OSS, credits OSS as a place where technology is discussed freely and gives students the opportunities to try something new. That leads to advancements such as the Rutgers app or the Rutgers URL shortener (go.rutgers.edu), a service similar to Bitly that provides the university with officially-branded shortened URLs.

Generally, between 10 to 14 students are a part of the organization from semester to semester. Their responsibilities include working with the mobile app, systems and web development, DevOps work and site reliability engineering.

The opportunity allows them to grow in an environment that welcomes teamwork and helps its students get better together.

“I think the most valuable thing is getting to work with other people,” said Ridhwaan Anayetullah, a student worker with OSS. “The selling point is that collaborative environment because you get to learn from others and find out what you know.”

Chen estimates that he has had more than 70 former students come through the program and land a job in the industry, saying it’s like being an “NCAA coach watching his players make it big in the pros.”

The overall goal is to provide students with the tools to be successful well beyond their time with OSS.

“That’s what it’s really about. Prove yourself and get some job experience,” Chen said. “Log in those few years of experience, so when you’re out on the market, you know more than just about anybody out there.”

Colin Walsh, a former student worker with OSS, is now a full-time application developer with the university, continuing to work alongside some of the group’s current student workers as they bring the Rutgers app into its next phases.

Like many others, Walsh got the job experience with OSS that was necessary for him to advance into his career. But there is a learning environment with the organization that is different from an internship or other job experiences. It allows these students to try new things, figure out what their interests are and learn more about their strengths in the field.

“If you are curious about something and you really want to look into the viability of anything, you can just download it, run it, and figure out its pros and cons on the fly,” Walsh said. “I think that you really wouldn’t be able to have that experience in a lot of other jobs where you’re focused on being specialized. If you only work on one thing, you’re not encouraged to go outside your comfort zone.”