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Student Project Manager Finds a Match in Sandbox Experience

By: Diane Stirling
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  Anne Marie Suchanek (second from right) runs a DevBox meeting at the Student Sandbox office.

The startup culture clicked for Anne Marie Suchanek.

The School of Information Studies (iSchool) senior found that a previous internship in a highly structured, top-down corporate atmosphere left her wondering if she’d ever find a job she truly liked in the information field. Her second internship at the Syracuse Student Sandbox erased those doubts, however, and now the Manhattan native can hardly imagine working in any other type of environment.

Anne Marie connected with the work, intellectual style and professional rewards of startups while serving as the Sandbox’s first-ever DevBox project manager. The DevBox is the Sandbox’s technical development team. In that new capacity, she worked with Entrepreneur-In-Residence John Liddy, Assistant Entrepreneur-In-Residence Elizabeth Ruscitto, and Ph.D. student Doug Crescenzi, plus 34 startup teams. She was the bridge between the startups and the centralized development team, managing the people, pace, processes, and output of the highest number of startups ever seeded in the Sandbox.

Diving In

She hadn’t worked in project management or managed people before, but Anne Marie dove in head-first, in typical fashion.  She reviewed resumes, selected developers, matched skills to teams, gauged workloads and capacities, and directed Sandbox participants older than herself, including an iSchool professor, the 21-year-old noted.   She also ran weekly progress meetings and managed technical documentation for each.

“I feel like I’m really good at thinking of things on the fly,” she said, noting that her plan of “taking things on a week-by-week basis” and finding ways to illustrate “that progress was being made every week” was useful, “because it made everyone feel good.” 

Key to those efforts was bridging the inevitable communication gaps between developers and idea-generators. It was Anne Marie’s role to make sense of each component for the other. She spoke in technical terms to developers about what the idea people wanted to achieve, and interpreted the realities of tech to the creator side.  She became the ultimate interpreter between “two sets of clients,” she explained.

Her learned skills and natural talents worked out well, according to Elizabeth Ruscitto, who selected Anne Marie for the role. Ruscitto said Anne Marie had the necessary management skills, and “really created an awesome sense of community there, to the point that we called it a family.” Ruscitto added that the job required “being nice, but firm about things, being able to put your foot down and negotiate with people who are your peers. It’s a very hard thing to navigate,” she said. “I think Anne Marie is going to be one of those rare people who can be credible with executives or engineers, who can be credible with any audience she speaks with,” Ruscitto added. Sandbox leader John Liddy agreed that Anne Marie’s strength as a people manager and her ability to create a unique sense of community were highly valuable for the first-time Dev Box experiment.

‘Oh My God’ Moments

Anne Marie looks back at the experience believing that she may have underestimated herself initially. “I did something people didn’t think I could do. I had my ‘Oh My God’ moments, but I did it, and that was a really good feeling. I really like talking to people and helping people. I like being involved and interested in a lot of things, and I want to do a lot. I have always pushed myself; that’s how I’ve always been,” she said.

Her actions back up those words.  Anne Marie serves as a peer advisor, a Syracuse University tour guide, leads BeIT (an undergraduate organization), has a job as an ITS student computer services help desk consultant, and writes for the iSchool blog Information Space, in addition to her 12 to 15-credit semester course load.

She wasn’t always that out-front. In high school (where she held a couple jobs, took college classes, was a gymnastics coach and a national gymnastics competitor), “I was always a go- getter, but never very vocal about it.”

Once at SU, that began to change. “Becoming a peer advisor was a big confidence builder. I think I really fell into a lot of leadership positions here at SU, and that really brought out a different personality in me,” Anne Marie said. “I never say no to a challenge, ever.  When someone says, ‘This is a lot, can you do it?,’ I always say yes. I want to prove that I’m capable, that I know what I’m doing, and that it will be great. I am really proud to be here and I want to leave this place better than I found it, and I think I have made a dent,” she observed.

Her advice to other students now is to have faith in themselves and their abilities. “Don’t’ underestimate yourself. If people don’t think you can do it, then prove them wrong. If you want to do something bad enough, you’ll get it done. Sometimes you’re up late and stressed, but you’ll do what you need to do to get things done.”

A 180-Degree Difference

In her earlier internship, Anne  Marie felt that she was “at the bottom of the food chain, being told what to do.” At DevBox, “for the most part, this was my lead. I was never in a position like that before.”  While she understood her function, doing whatever was necessary came so naturally that she didn’t fully recognize her level of responsibility until she saw a photograph of herself alongside Sandbox leaders Liddy, Ruscitto and Cresenzi. It was only then, Anne Marie realized, “I wasn’t just an intern, I was an integral part of the management team.”

As a result of her Sandbox experience, Anne Marie says, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I’d want to work with startups in the future. I met a lot of great people. I felt like could be myself there. It instilled hope in me that I could be happy somewhere. Was it exactly what I want to do? Possibly. But do I want to work in an environment like the Sandbox? Absolutely.”

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