Part II: Last week we kicked off our commemoration of five years of the Digital Media innovation (DMI) program by highlighting some of our successful alumni. We continue showcasing alumni this week, but first let’s take a look back at the origin of the program.

What eventually became the DMI degree began with a few faculty sharing ideas for their dream degree on a collaborative document. In August 2014, a group of faculty, which included current professors Cindy Royal, Dale Blasingame and Jon Zmikly, participated in a design thinking workshop organizing their thoughts with color-coded Post-it Notes to explore the mission and elements of a potentially new degree. A full proposal was developed that included input from surveys of alumni and professionals. After a two-year review process that went through multiple levels within the school, College of Fine Arts and Communication, university and Texas State Board of Regents, the program was approved, launching in August 2016.

Cake from 2016 DMI launch Welcome Digital Media Innovation

“In a way, we were practicing what we would be presenting in the degree,” said Cindy Royal, professor and director of the Media Innovation Lab, who led the program through the approval process. “We went through a systematic analysis to define needs and generate innovative ideas for solving them, approaching the program as a product.”

From this session, the core of the program emerged with courses in web development, social media analytics and digital product management. Electives in data journalism, interactive coding, multimedia production, immersive media, drones and more are available, based on a student’s interest.

Graduates of the program work in a range of roles in web development and design, digital marketing, social media and other technology-based positions. But the characteristics they share are the passion for innovation and using technology to make a difference and the appreciation that digital opportunities exist in all organizations. This week, we showcase alumni working in digital roles supporting retail, real estate and small businesses.

Developing Websites for Pets and Pet Parents

2018 DMI graduate Claire Hansen

Claire Hansen graduated as the DMI Top Student in 2018. After doing freelance design work, she moved into a web designer role for a digital signage company in San Diego, then transitioned her career with the pet health and wellness retailer Petco, where she is a Senior Web Content Developer.

In her job with Petco, Hansen builds landing pages, banner graphics, interactive components and other promotional pieces, using several of the skills that are presented in the major.

Hansen chose the DMI degree because of its forwarding thinking philosophy.

“Although I had always been fascinated by new technology and the future, I hadn’t quite found that spark in anything I was studying before DMI was introduced,” Hansen said. “When I learned that the DMI program focused on the cutting edge of media technology, I knew I had to be a part of it.”

“My main job is to code out the new content for Petco’s website using HTML, CSS and JavaScript,” Hansen said. “I schedule where and when they’re going to appear, and I also schedule the hero banner graphics on the Petco app.”

When I learned that the DMI degree focused on the cutting edge of media technology, I knew I had to be a part of it

Claire Hansen, 2018 DMI graduate

Hansen thinks the most important aspect of the DMI program is how well it prepares students for the broad technology and strategic needs of the workplace.

Screenshot of Petco site mockup

“It sets you up to be a jack of all trades,” Hansen said. “With more traditional communication programs, I think there could be a more narrow range of what is learned as opposed to the diverse offerings of DMI.”

Hansen advises students to practice their craft to improve their skills.

“Web development takes lots of time and dedication to become good, so it’s important to appreciate the trial-and-error process,” Hansen said. “Take every opportunity to learn and understand why something works.”

In terms of job hunting, Hansen recommends customizing communications for the job in which one is applying.

“I believe it’s more effective to spend an hour perfecting your application to one job you’re really interested in than to rapidly apply to five jobs using the same resume and cover letter,” Hansen said. “Your extra effort will stand out, and if you’re a good fit, the company will notice that.”

Community Engagement with Real Estate Clients

Ashley Romo graduated with the DMI degree in 2020, attracted to the degree because it offered an alternative focus on technology innovation to other programs.

2020 DMI graduate Ashley Romo

“I first thought that computer science would be what I pursued,” Romo said. “But when I found the DMI program, I knew that it was the perfect combination of tech innovation, creativity and communications.”

She began working for Khoros, an Austin-based, customer-engagement platform company, as a Community Manager in a part-time role, quickly moving to full-time, where she was on the Strategic Services team supporting Fortune 100 clients.

“I created analytical reports, focusing on community metrics such as community engagement and sentiment towards the content, and I engaged directly with the various communities,” Romo said of her Khoros responsibilities.

Within a year, Romo moved to OJO Labs as a Content/Engagement Specialist. OJO is an Austin startup that makes an AI-driven real estate platform. She describes her role as fluid, based on the needs of the growing company.

“In one day, I will work on marketing initiatives such as targeting specific consumers through the various social media platforms, encouraging community engagement in our social media groups and tracking the progress of engagement initiatives through various metrics,” Romo said.  “Then I’ll also be in a product design meeting discussing how to best optimize the user experience.”

Romo appreciates having learned the practical processes to which the DMI program introduced her.

“During almost every meeting I’m in, we use design thinking methodology to address our challenges and improve our successes,” Romo said. “The first time I’d ever encountered design thinking was through the DMI program, and I’m so grateful to have had that experience so that I could jump right into these discussions at work.“

The first time I’d ever encountered design thinking was through the DMI program, and I’m so grateful to have had that experience so that I could jump right into these discussions at work

Ashley Romo, 2020 DMI graduate

The program introduced Romo to problem solving strategies and the need to learn from failure.

“The various classes throughout the program guide you to think big and to not be discouraged when something doesn’t work,” Romo said. “I learned that when something I was trying to create, whether it was a website design or coding a chart, didn’t function the way I wanted, there was always another way. Or perhaps I simply needed to look closer at the problem.”

“The DMI program helped me develop the courage and confidence to know that I could create ideas and solutions to existing problems and effectively implement them,” Romo added. “I’m so grateful for the impact that developing my innovative thinking processes has had for me.”

Romo thinks the most valuable aspect of the DMI program is the skill stacking it supports.

“Knowing enough about HTML to code a functioning website, creating analytics reports, dabbling with JavaScript, telling a story with data, maintaining a blog and clearly communicating your message is all incredibly valuable to employers,” Romo said.

Like other alumni, Romo encourages students to make the most out of their remaining time in college to hone their skills and develop a strong portfolio of projects.

“I encourage you to try to develop each of those skills while within the safety of a college class to the best of your ability,” Romo said. “Try not to view it simply as a class you have to take or project you have to do.”

Supporting Local and Small Businesses at GoDaddy

2019 DMI graduate Emily Ferris

Two DMI graduates work in the Austin office of the Internet service company GoDaddy. Emily Ferris graduated in 2019 with the DMI degree, and secured a position as Events and Promotions Creative Specialist. Her initial role had her working with a book of local companies, managing their online reputations and social calendars. Most recently, she is in a graphic designer position, creating visuals for GoDaddy customers.

“The DMI degree set me up to have a more forward-thinking perspective when it comes to traditional media versus digital media,” Ferris said. “By knowing what digital storytelling looks like and the tools needed to do so, DMI helped prepare me for a position that deals strictly with digital marketing.”

Noah Ainsworth graduated in 2019 with the DMI degree, also moving into a position as Creative Specialist for GoDaddy. He chose DMI as his major because it matched his technology interests.

2019 DMI graduate Noah Ainsworth

“I’ve always been interested in the Internet and related topics, so it felt like a great fit,” Ainsworth said. The program, he said, exposed him to social media strategies and encouraged him “to learn more about how digital tools work.” His role includes supporting social media for numerous companies and working with analytics.

“I create social media posts for approximately 140 local businesses across the country and answer their reviews,” Ainsworth said. “I also help collect data on posting strategies to see where we can improve.”

Ferris recommends that students embrace constructive criticism, learning from her own experience seeking the promotion to the graphic design position.

“Take feedback to heart,” Ferris said. “Hearing what didn’t work out the first time was a huge help in identifying what would work for me next time, and knowing where your weaknesses are is a strength in itself.”

“Just because something doesn’t work out the first time, doesn’t mean you’re not capable of getting it right the next time around,” she added.

Innovating into the Future

DMI program coordinator Jon Zmikly said he is proud of all the diverse and unique positions these graduates are finding.

“The more traditional jobs in media are being completely transformed by digital technology,” Zmikly said. “It has been really exciting to see our students put to use the innovative skills they’re learning in our program. Our goal is to continue to develop our program to meet the needs of our increasingly digital industry.”

We know that there are many more successful DMI graduates who are working in exciting, emerging roles. If you would like to be spotlighted in a future article, please email Dr. Cindy Royal at croyal@txstate.edu. We look forward to the next five years when even more of our graduates will be working in and influencing the future of communication and media. Part I of this series is available here.