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MSU Story: Rumble Disrupted

When four engineering students from Michigan State University signed on to update one of Vectorform’s new inventions as part of a Capstone experience, they got a lesson in disruption that none of them bargained for.

And when they rose to the occasion and delivered innovative solutions of their own, we got an inspiring lesson in adaptability and teamwork that seems well worth sharing. It’s a glimpse into how remote learning can succeed even in unlikely circumstances, and how innovation always finds a way—even when a global pandemic wrecks the best-laid plans.

Vectorform has relationships with some of the best universities in Michigan, and as an MSU alum I jumped at the chance to work with engineering students from my alma mater. I had just helped launch a beta version of Rumble, our smart solution for legacy appliances, and it was time to update and test the product under real-world but low-risk circumstances. I procured a miniature washer and shipped it off to MSU’s School of Engineering. The students now had an ideal lab environment: designated space to collaborate side by side and troubleshoot as they worked with the Rumble Test Suite and developed the iOS app, algorithm, and web front-end and back-end to create a fully connected product.

The plan was win-win. In addition to the hands-on engineering work, the students would gain valuable business experience working with a real “client”—Vectorform—and go through the process of assessing customer needs, hitting milestones, attending business meetings, collaborating with professional engineers and designers, and making a formal presentation that would demo the team’s results and determine a big portion of their grade. Vectorform gained value as well. We were able to have a third party make key updates and test Rumble’s functionality before we took it to market, and we got to work with bright young engineers who might one day consider a career with Vectorform.  

The project started smoothly. Each student played a role in the process and could see how the Rumble hardware, algorithms, and connected app were performing together. The team met regularly in the MSU lab, and came to Vectorform’s offices for in-person meetings with VF engineers and an insider’s look at a successful innovation start-up. They also had direct access to me as a mentor, and I was able to offer feedback and dive into code to help them think through problems as they cropped up. When the first COVID-19 cases broke on the West coast, it seemed like a distant threat. Our project hummed along for a few more weeks … and then the world turned upside-down.

Project Planning in a Pandemic: Keep Calm and Rumble On

As U.S. shutdowns spread to academia in mid-March, MSU joined other universities in closing campus buildings and sending students home to finish the semester online. The Rumble team’s lives were thrown into turmoil. Campus closures sent three of the students back to their hometowns, while an international team member had to scramble to secure safe housing in the middle of a global pandemic. Like millions of business professionals around the world, the students were launched into a completely remote work environment overnight. Their full course load was now online. They were forbidden to access the engineering building. Stay-at-home orders meant they couldn’t sit next to each other and talk through problems (which every engineer knows can be incredibly helpful!). It was unclear how the team could complete the required testing of multiple physical components (a phone, a washer, and a Rumble device) without proximity on their side. And since the project was supposed to culminate in an in-person demonstration with Vectorform leaders, how could that work now?

Honestly, I couldn’t have blamed the students for trying to downgrade or back out of the assignment. We thrive on disruption at Vectorform, but this was unlike anything we could have imagined! Yet none of the students ever asked for an easy way out. Instead, they immediately set to work devising alternatives to adapt to their new reality. They shifted in-person meetings to Microsoft Teams, improvised new ways of engineering complementary product components , and made videoconferencing work as a troubleshooting platform. Still, on the day of their Capstone presentation, I was nervous for them. If you’ve ever had to give a live technology demo, you know how often those can go wrong—even under normal circumstances. This team was new to professional presentations, working through unprecedented disruption, and broadcasting from multiple distant locations. Normally they would have rehearsed multiple times standing side by side, reviewed each other’s work, and been able to observe whether the components worked together end to end as expected. Instead, they had to make their first real-life client presentation for a semester’s worth of work without being able to do a single dry run in person.

Honestly, I couldn’t have blamed the students for trying to downgrade or back out of the assignment. We thrive on disruption at Vectorform, but this was unlike anything we could have imagined! Yet none of the students ever asked for an easy way out. Instead, they immediately set to work devising alternatives to adapt to their new reality.

As it turned out, my worries were wasted. Their demo was flawless. They had split the project into distinct components: the iOS app; the web back end and front end; and the Rumble hardware itself. They had each of those components working seamlessly in separate homes, hundreds of miles apart. When the big moment arrived, I saw a washing machine on one screen vibrate, which sent a message to the cloud in a different screen, and an iOS app notification popped up on another screen. The students didn’t miss a beat as they talked through the technical requirements they had met and exceeded. Not only did their solution/Rumble Test Suite use deep learning to distinguish when a washing machine starts and stops, it’s also generalizable to any type of washer and wash cycle so their platform can be widely deployed without any additional development overhead. Their iOS app also configures the Rumble device while it’s deployed, allowing Vectorform developers to quickly diagnose and fix any future problems. Against all odds, the team had completed their Capstone project with flying colors.

Maybe Normal Is Overrated

Looking back at a semester none of us could have anticipated, here were three key lessons learned (literally) outside of the classroom:  

  • Adaptability is king. When you’re working in an innovation environment, you have to expect the unexpected. No one could have predicted in January that a global pandemic would close the university, scatter the team, and cut off access to their test lab. Being resilient and malleable to their new reality made all the difference in the students’ success. 
  • There is always opportunity in disruption. It’s a matter of rising to the occasion and seizing those opportunities that separates the leaders from the laggards—in business and in life. The MSU students stepped up as leaders and impressed us all. They not only made their final presentation even more compelling than it might have been under “normal” circumstances, they also found ways to add value to the Rumble solution.  
  • Adversity can bring out the best in us. While none of the students would have ever wished for a global pandemic, the challenges it presented taught them more than they would have learned otherwise. They had to tap into creativity as engineers, support each other in new ways as teammates, and dig deep into their inner drive to succeed when circumstances and logic told them it was an uphill battle.   

These are lessons every innovator learns at some point—and if the project had unfolded normally, it might have been years before the students were able to conquer them. As universities contemplate the possibility of remote classes in the fall, the Rumble Capstone project serves as an example of how successful virtual learning and teamwork can be.

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