Rice University initially captured Adam Zawierucha’s interest because it promised opportunities to build real projects with peers.
“In high school, I developed multiplayer games, which was my gateway to CS." said Zawierucha, a junior double majoring in computer science (CS) and math at Rice.
“So as soon as I heard about RiceApps as a freshman. One of the first projects we tackled that year was a project for the Moody Center for the Arts. I was on the team of developers who created the map app for Rice Public Art.”
The interactive map shows the locations of campus art installations that are publicly accessible, and it provides details about the pieces and their creators. Zawierucha so enjoyed the peer project and mentorship by a senior RiceApps member, that he moved into a team lead role as a sophomore.
“In general, RiceApps has provided a lot of opportunities to grow my communication skills,” Zawierucha said. “There is the mentor-mentee dialogue, and I’ve been on both sides of that conversation. There is the developer-to-developer channel, and there is client communication to discover what they want in their project.
“Later, as a team lead, I had to chunk up the work, distribute assignments, and communicate the outline to the team. As one of the co-chairs of RiceApps, my communication requirements were more high-level, such as outreach, advertising, and general presentations.”
Although pleased with his elevated communication skills, Zawierucha was most proud of the products his RiceApps teams delivered. In his first year as a team lead, one of his groups developed an externship matching algorithm for the Center for Career Development. When the team demonstrated the new one-click button that linked the CCD’s externship host and mentee requests, the immediate results showed a 5% increase in matches and greatly improved the speed of what had been a manual process.
The team’s second project, Match, was a platform created for a non-profit organization, Hives for Heroes. The group connects veterans interested in beekeeping and matches mentors with mentees to focus on honey bee conservation, suicide prevention, and a healthy transition from service.
“Our client was a Rice MBA student, Steve Jimenez, who shared the story of a Marine Corps Veteran with PTSD discovering a coping mechanism through the rush of opening a hive. The founder was looking for a better way to match experienced veteran beekeepers with new veterans, and that was where we came in.”
Unlike the CCD matching application with a goal of a single best match for each student and externship host, the Hives for Heroes client wanted more granular features such as the ability to sort by distance or to manipulate matches based on other criteria. Building on their previous CCD success, the RiceApps team felt confident about creating a more robust solution.
Zawierucha said the Match tool provided great project experience for his team, in part because they had additional features to incorporate with the final solution.
“Many clients do not know what is possible for a team to build, and it is far too easy to under- or over-estimate. Talking out the problem and asking questions helps the technical team better understand the issue and translate a proposed solution into a concise definition that can be implemented.”
That same kind of problem identification and solution brainstorming came into play when Zawierucha accepted a co-chair role for RiceApps along with Cloris Cai. Zawierucha agreed to lead the organization’s technical side and Cai accepted responsibility for the designers.
“We communicated back and forth a lot to define our vision for the club. We also consulted the former co-chairs and cold-called potential clients to determine if they had new projects. Once we were ready to source projects, it was time to interview developers and team leads. Then we met with the teams to help them organize and plan their projects. Now, one of our primary objectives is to publicize these projects as they approach completion.
“One thing Cloris and I agreed on from the start was continuing OSA, our Open Source Accelerator. The previous co-chairs had developed OSA as a summer program to help the 2020 students whose internships failed to materialize in that first pandemic year. We ran OSA again in the summer of 2021, offering small projects to teams of six —two mentors and four mentees— and providing real development experience for the impacted students. In fact, one of those 2021 projects added new features to the Rice Public Art app.”
In addition to co-directing OSA that summer, Zawierucha was completing his own internship with Amazon. Asked if his Amazon experience made him a better CS student and RiceApps co-chair, Zawierucha smiled and said the inverse was true.
“My experience with RiceApps, especially developing projects, made me a better candidate for the Amazon internship - not only in landing the role, but also during the internship itself. It was very similar to what I had been doing with RiceApps,” he said.
“I was able to meet with Amazon’s internal end-users of the product I was working on, and communications played a big part in my internship. They gave me total ownership of the project, so I had to write technical and design documentation detailing exactly how the project would be built out both technically and product-wise. The plan also had to include how we would communicate the product to our internal users and how we would deploy it. Then I presented the plan to a team of Amazon engineers.”
Like his multiplayer game development, Zawierucha had begun working on his presentation skills in high school. He was always willing to accept opportunities to speak publicly, both in the classroom and in his extracurricular activities. Several of his Rice activities also prompted him to further develop his communication skills.
“As a TA (teaching assistant), I discovered it is one thing to learn a concept and internalize it, and quite another to try to communicate that concept to others,” he said.
“Making it digestible and understandable is a whole other ballpark, but I also found I really enjoyed teaching. Plus, TAing puts you in a different kind of interaction with the faculty, and I had the opportunity to further explore the math and theory in those courses.”
“In fact, studying math at Rice really helped improve my communication skills. In math, we are required to write concise, formal proofs and that made my written communications better both in phrasing and in developing better arguments. Studying and writing esoteric proofs helped me become a better communicator.”
His role on the Rice Honor Council, a position he has held since his freshman year, also heightened his communication skills. Zawierucha said responsibilities like listening to testimony, reading documents, and discussing the vote among the honor council members required him to become a better listener.
“Serving on the Honor Council taught me to form my own opinion and to learn how to make my point in a judicial setting. It also developed my courage. I have to be willing to argue and stick by my guns, to not be swayed if what I believe is right, even if I am the only one left on a particular side. Those were all positive communication experiences for me.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.