Q&A: Business student Rachel Downs shares lessons learned in “Radical Collaboration @ IBM Design” class


October 26, 2017

Rachel Downs is a senior Management Information Systems major and Marketing minor at UT who is currently enrolled in the Design Strategies class “Radical Collaboration @ IBM Design.” The course, taught by Lecturer Brooks Protzmann, is hosted off-campus for three hours one evening a week at the IBM Design Studios in North Austin Growing up in Austin, Texas sparked an early interest in technology and business that has guided Downs’ studies throughout college. She has held internships at varying sizes of companies, namely data.world, Indeed and Facebook, and she plans to work in product-focused data science upon graduation. We recently caught up with her to discuss her experiences in her “Radical Collaboration” class.

How did you hear about the course "Radical Collaboration @ IBM Design," and why did you apply to join this class?

I initially received an email from UT about the new Center for Integrated Design and an information session they were having. At the info session, I remember hearing Doreen Lorenzo speak about how she sees the future of business becoming increasingly collaborative, and that employees who can synthesize information, solve complex problems and think creatively will become increasingly valuable. The format of the Radical Collaboration class was particularly exciting—working with students from different disciplines is something we don't get a lot of exposure to in a typical major-specific course. Pairing that with a long admiration of IBM, their innovative design studios and the chance to learn their best practices of which I had been exposed to through my student organization, I was sold.  

Is this the first Design Strategies/Integrated course that you've taken from the Center for Integrated Design?

Yes, this is the first class that I've taken but I hope to take another class in the spring. I wish these courses were around my freshman year!

Tell me about your experience in the class. What kinds of projects are you working on in there?

Our first few weeks were spent in a somewhat "crash course" on IBM's design thinking methodology where we worked on a small project for a local non-profit, NAMI. We then were given our large group project, and my team is working on researching, understanding and redesigning IBM's Executive Briefing Center experience, which is a really exciting project! Each week, we work through a phase of the design thinking process as a group, such as building empathy, conducting interviews, formulating hypothesis and bringing those findings to class where we do a "playback" to the rest of the class, our professors and other IBM designers to get feedback and ideas to help our project.

What's it been like working in IBM's design studios off-campus for the class? How is it different from your other classes on campus?

It definitely feels different to go to an off-campus space for class. Breaking outside the confines of a classroom has made this one of the most collaborative and family-feeling classes I've ever taken. It's kind of funny—we all get taken to and from IBM in a shuttle, and that leads to a lot of fun conversations about our projects, our majors and even life. I've made a lot of new really good friends that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise. I also feel a lot more engaged during the class because you can really tell everyone wants to be there.

What's been the most surprising thing about the class?

I was really pleasantly surprised with how real the curriculum is. I've had other electives that touch on design thinking principles, but I've really liked how in-depth we've gone into learning and applying it to our projects. We've also been given very real problems. For example, I've learned a lot about the IT sales process and gotten to talk to CTOs, CIOs and VPs from big Austin tech companies to gather the research for our project, which is very abnormal for a class project.

What's been the most challenging part of the class?

Other students will understand me when I say that I wish I was only taking this class. It's exhilarating to be in a class that you want to spend all of your time on, but I'm still in four other courses.

How are you applying skills or lessons learned at IBM outside of the class?

We got a little "IBM Design Thinking Field Guide" at the beginning of the class, and I've been carrying it around everywhere. I applied some of the frameworks in one of the committees I lead in my student organization and in my current internship at data.world, and I expect to keep using these skills going forward. I think the biggest takeaway for me has been a mindset: when facing a new problem, pause and think; don't immediately jump to a solution.  

Would you recommend this class to your peers in McCombs? If so, why?

100 percent. I underestimated how much I could learn by complementing my business classes with studies outside of McCombs. I've already been a huge advocate to all of the CID courses among my friends because I think learning the principles of design thinking will only help us in becoming the next generation of business leaders.

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