When Jennifer Sayre graduated from high school with honors in 2009, the American economy was unstable. Having grown up in a low-income household, she wasn’t in position financially to enroll in college, nor was she comfortable with the idea of accruing student debt.

She had taken some advanced technology classes during high school. The work came naturally to her, and she enjoyed it. It was enough for her to get her foot in the door in the technology sector. She accepted a position in computer sales and began her career.

“It is possible to get started without taking the traditional path,” Sayre said. “I pivoted to a computer support role and occupied IT roles, starting systems analysis and IT project management work in late 2014. Now, I’m an IT systems analyst and project manager of enterprise technology projects. I’ve been able to advance incredibly.”

She acknowledges that it’s not typical to find someone who has progressed to her level without a degree.

“Around 2018, I was thinking about next steps. I wanted to get into leadership and shaping strategy. That advancement is a tougher sell without a degree,” she said.

Stopping work to attend college wasn’t an option for Sayre. She needed something that would allow her to work full time without a commute.

She researched computer information science programs and found that PennWest California had what she wanted academically.

“I liked the combination of coursework. It seemed most relevant and most aligned with my goals,” she said.

Just as importantly – PennWest California offered the degree online.

“I live in Beaver County, so it’s an hour-and-a-half to the California campus. If PennWest didn’t offer an online program, I would have had to select a different school.”

To maximize tuition reimbursement benefits, Sayre started at the Community College of Allegheny County in 2019; leveraging CLEP exams and summer courses, she earned her Associate of Science in computer information systems, magna cum laude, by December 2020. She was able to transfer those credits to California, where she started in 2021. The campus also offered prior learning assessment, so she submitted a portfolio of professional work and was awarded credits for two classes.

From that point, she spent her days working, then she swiveled in her chair and tackled her degree work. Her weekends, too, were devoted to studying.

“I live and die by my calendar,” Sayre said. “When the semester starts, I plot it on the calendar and start working backward.”

California’s computer information science program requires completion of a team capstone project.

“Since I'm a seasoned professional in the field, I was not comfortable doing free work for a for-profit business, which some capstone groups do,” Sayre said. “If this wasn't a school requirement, this would be a consulting engagement for me. It was important to contribute to something that wasn't going to profit from it.”

Her capstone team was on board with the approach.

“We explored a few nonprofit options, including SMRequests. I proposed it because I’m familiar with it and am a member of the community that uses it. Our nonprofit leads didn’t pan out, but SMR checked all the boxes,” she said.

It is open source, which means the code is publicly available, and anyone can contribute to it.

“The people who currently run SMR do not charge for it or make money from it. It’s a passion project for them, and it helps people have fun and cultivate community,” Sayre said. “I noticed the ‘problem’ that we solved with our senior project: People can’t manage their own settings without help from those administrators, whose time is limited.”

Sayre’s team developed SMRequests Management User Interface, which helps those administrators and the people that use the SMRequests system by giving them more autonomy.

Sayre explained:

StepMania,the game that the SMRequests tool is for, is like Dance Dance Revolution. Some people livestream that game on the popular gaming streaming platform Twitch.tv., but it is hard to focus on the game and make your audience feel engaged and valued. SMRequests creates the means for audiences to interact with the person who is showing their gameplay by requesting songs of them, similar to requesting from a DJ or queueing a song on a jukebox. That helps the audience feel recognized, valued and like they are a part of the content. They are then more likely to stay longer or return to watch in the future. This matters for a few reasons:

  • That engagement motivates them to keep playing. Since many people play this game as a form of exercise, it can create an accountability system and remove some of the mental load of, "I want to keep playing but can't decide on a song to play!" Bam! The audience helps by asking for what they'd like to see and hear.
  • It creates and strengthens community. Friendships form, in part through people connecting over finding this tool. It creates some great dialog in livestreams from people who want to learn and improve their gameplay.
  • Some people make ad money from the streaming platform based on the number of people that stick around and for how long. (They don't earn money from SMRequests, but SMRequests can enhance their content to give them a greater chance at earning.)

Sayre likens developing a web application for an existing platform to a home construction project.

“If you’re building a raised deck onto a house, you need to know about the house,” she said.

Likewise, the team needed to examine what was already in place for users of StepMania.

“Once we understood that, we had to consider dependencies – if people need to log in, they need to sign up,” Sayre said, analogous to a raised deck needing railings or stairs.

“Then, we created the basis for the web pages and how they relate to each other, like how there is pennwest.edu, pennwest.edu/apply, or my.pennwest.edu,” she said. She compared this stage of the process to the foundation for and frame of the deck.

The next steps were building the pages and what they needed to do – the things that allow users to log in and to see and change their settings.

“So, installing the patio itself, an exterior gate, the awning,” she said, in comparison to the home project.

“At each stage, we checked in with the SMR admin team to ensure it met their requirements. When we were done, we tested it by making sure we could sign up, log in, make changes, and that those changes stuck,” Sayre said. “After testing, we handed it over to the admin team, which might be like getting the homeowner to sign off on the deck.”

SMRequests is expected to be publicly available by mid-summer, pending some integrated testing that wasn't possible for the project team to do.  

Sayre is a summa cum laude graduate of the spring 2023 class. She received the Blank-Novak Math and Computer Studies Intern Award. She is continuing her career with her current employer, Equinix, and in June will kick off a major, two-year technology transformation project. She is in queue for a promotion, which she expects to happen no later than March 2024.

She plans to start an MBA program this fall.

“When I make up my mind to do something, I chart the course and get there as quickly as I responsibly can,” Sayre said.