What your interns can teach you

Interns aren't just for grunt work anymore. When properly managed, they can bring new insight to IT problems and processes.

It's summertime, which means legions of eager, fresh-faced interns are ensconced in IT departments across the country, hoping to get real-world experience, or at least something that will look impressive on their resumes.

Some will have less-than-ideal experiences. Rather than coding or developing apps, they may spend the summer filing or wiping hard drives destined for recycling.

Alex Kern, an 18-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., is decidedly not in that camp. He spent last summer helping a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., develop software that NASA will soon use to store data in the public cloud. And Kern's name is on the patent application.

"My internship was hands-on -- creating stuff and helping JPL achieve its goals," says Kern, who graduated from high school in May and will start his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, this fall. "Most of my friends were just thrown into internships, usually just following someone around and doing lots of busywork."

As Kern's experience implies, employers that give IT interns more opportunities stand to gain much more in return. Interns can bring valuable insights and new skills to their employers.

"They bring in a fresh perspective, and they are far more current on new technologies, such as social networking," says Suzanne Fairlie, president of ProSearch, an executive search firm that focuses on IT and finance. "It's part of their DNA."

But in order for organizations to reap those gains, Fairlie stresses that internships require planning, and the interns themselves need personal attention. "When [internships] work well, it's because someone internally in the company is identified to take that intern or group of interns under their wing," she says.

Rather than just using interns as cheap (or free) summer help, organizations must treat internships strategically if they want to gain true insight from them. They should plan and structure the intern experience, take care to match interns' interests and experience with suitable projects within the company, listen to what interns have to say and -- most importantly -- give interns room to run.

"The key to all of this is to give the students something meaningful to do, something that actually gets used or at least tried," says Tom Soderstrom, CTO at JPL. "Something that's not a make-work project."

Computerworld gleaned details from three organizations doing just that, and reaping the rewards season after season: JPL, the White House's Executive Office of the President and utility company We Energies. In each case, the employer invested time and personnel, in both planning the internships and in working with the interns themselves. And in each instance, the organization was rewarded with innovative ideas, increased efficiency and, sometimes, talented full-time employees.

Here's a look at how JPL and some other employers have turned their interns into assets.

Jet Propulsion Lab

Lesson learned: Challenge interns, but keep requirements loose enough to encourage innovation.

Value gained: Patent applied for; intern-developed software in process of being deployed.

JPL is a poster child for great internships. That's probably not surprising, as education is one of the missions of this federally funded research lab that's managed by the California Institute of Technology. It has 30 programs and brings in some 500 students (from both college and high school) during a typical summer, according to Paula Caterina, group supervisor of university recruiting in human resources at JPL.

What may be surprising to some is the extent to which interns are allowed to not only stretch their intellectual wings, but also work on real projects that are used in real NASA missions.

The emphasis on internships comes from the very top. JPL Director Charles Elachi started as a graduate student summer intern more than 35 years ago. "He's always stressing that we need to capture the imagination of the students and JPL as an innovative, fun, exciting place that's always coming up with new research," says Soderstrom.

Indeed, on the JPL website, Elachi says interns are the future of JPL. "I consider student employees to be among the lab's most important and valued staff members," he says. "They are often the source of many new ideas because nothing seems impossible to them, and that's right in line with our line of work. We are in the business of making the impossible possible."

Both Kern and a fellow intern -- 18-year-old Andres Riofrio, who had just completed his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara -- so impressed their JPL mentors with their research that they were asked to give a talk on cloud computing to the entire lab. "Both Alex and Andres were doing things that are significantly more advanced than what a lot of the rest of the people in the lab were doing," says Khawaja S. Shams, lead cloud architect at JPL.

That's what happens when you give interns room to run, says Shams. "Very often, students surprise us and come up with a better solution than what we had originally thought," he says. In the case of the cloud software that Kern worked on, the idea was so good that JPL has applied for a patent and is in the process of integrating the software into a cloud-based data backup pipeline for future NASA missions.

Executive Office of the President

Lesson learned: The best results come from projects with contained scope.

Value gained: Improved efficiency and efectiveness of everyday office tasks that formerly frustrated rank-and-file employees.

On the other side of the country, interns are making a difference in the halls of government, including the White House's Executive Office of the President. In fact, because one CIO took the time to listen to an intern, the White House has launched a new IT-focused internship program.

Early in 2011, David Gobaud approached Brook Colangelo, CIO of the Executive Office of the President, with a proposition. Gobaud, 28, a Stanford University computer science graduate, had a White House internship unrelated to IT -- he was conducting fact-checking and research for the Council of Economic Advisors.

As part of that work, Gobaud had noticed some business process inefficiencies and started, on his own, to automate some of them for employees. For example, he noticed that staffers were manually updating spreadsheets weekly. They would copy and paste data from one spreadsheet to a master spreadsheet, extending rows and manually updating charts -- a time-consuming and error-prone process. "I created a macro that turned this into a single workflow," says Gobaud. "Click a button, select the new data file and click OK."

Gobaud talked with his supervisor and then proposed to Colangelo the idea of creating a team of IT interns who could identify more areas where such small-scale automation could improve efficiency throughout the White House. Colangelo liked the idea. He named it the Software Automation and Technology (SWAT) team and asked Gobaud to help manage it. They selected four interns for the first session, which was last summer.

The SWAT team worked with Colangelo's enterprise business solutions staff, which focuses on application development and solving business problems. The interaction with real business users was a valuable experience for the interns. "We would watch people perform various tasks and listen to what frustrated them, what was consuming their time," says Gobaud.

Users may have one solution in mind while being unaware of other technologies or techniques that can help, says Colangelo. For example, they may not know that macro templates can make publishing memos quicker and easier. "Our job as technologists sometimes is to say to people, 'I hear what you are asking for, but have you thought about X, Y or Z to solve the problem instead?' "

The team first gained an understanding of the customers' objectives and needs, says Gobaud, and then proposed a way to improve the process and, with customer approval, started developing. "We used an agile development process and worked to get a beta version to the customer ASAP," he says. "We would then iterate and continue development while getting feedback from the users."

The program has been expanded to seven interns this summer, and Colangelo thinks that it just might inspire some IT students to go into government.

Already, it has reinforced Gobaud's goals. "I saw the amazing ability that technology has to revolutionize internal government operations and create a lean, effective federal government," he says. "Working at the White House cemented my career goal of becoming a government technology leader."

We Energies

Lesson learned: Put some teeth in your internship program by asking managers to justify student positions, not merely fill them.

Value gained: New hires already steeped in company culture and corporate values.

In years past, We Energies, a utility company that provides electricity to parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, hadn't put much effort into its summer opportunities for students, typically starting the process too late to recruit the best candidates.

Recognizing that both the company and the students could be getting more out of the partnerships, We Energies revamped its program a couple of years ago to make a distinction between IT interns and student summer workers, according to John Brewer, service desk manager at the company. "We wanted to turn [internships] into a program rather than just a summer hiring exercise," he says.

The company now has a formal IT internship program that runs for two summers, with three to four students joining the program each year. Meanwhile, it continues to hire other students to work in less specialized summer jobs. The new program gives interns an opportunity to shine and gives the company an opportunity to hire top performers.

One change involved asking IT managers to give a business justification for hiring interns. Rather than just hearing that the managers hope to bring in students, "we want to hear what they plan to do with them," Brewer says. "We want to make sure that it isn't just grunt work." This approach not only makes better use of interns, but also ensures that they are matched with projects that suit their skills and aptitudes.

The company also extended the program over two summers, giving interns more opportunity to work in different parts of IT and also giving the company a longer window for evaluating their potential.

"Since December of 2011, five interns have graduated from school; all five have been offered permanent positions, and all five have accepted those positions within our IT department," says Brewer.

One such intern was Scott Sullivan, now 24 and an associate IT application consultant for We Energies.

"Through my internship, I was able to apply my appreciation and passion for IT to initiatives that support critical processes and functions," recalls Sullivan, who spent one year in the old summer worker program and one semester as a new IT intern. "I was given the opportunity to join the application support team and participate in an ongoing companywide software upgrade."

"They haven't seen any limits yet," says JPL's Soderstrom. "What we have to do as managers is to harness and support that energy, and of course, when they break a few eggs, help them clean it up."

Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy and a frequent Computerworld contributor.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "What your interns can teach you" was originally published by Computerworld.

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