Attention IT: Your interns have something to teach you

Summer interns at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center share their work at a poster session. Credit: flickr/NASA Goddard/Bill Hrybyk

It's that time of year again. Legions of eager, fresh-faced interns have invaded IT departments across the country, hoping to get real-world experience, or at least something that sounds impressive to put 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 comment, and his patent application, imply, employers that give IT interns more opportunities stand to gain much more in return. Interns can bring fresh insights and valuable 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 for organizations to reap those gains, Fairlie stresses that internships need 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," says Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer of IT at JPL, "something that actually gets used or at least tried. 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 and utility company We Energies. In each case, employers invested time and personnel, in both planning the internships and in working with the interns themselves. And in each instance, the organizations were rewarded with innovative ideas, increased efficiency and, in some cases, talented full-time employees.

Read on for ideas on how to turn your interns into assets before another summer day goes by.

Jet Propulsion Lab

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

Value gained: Patent applied for; student-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 is managed by the California Institute of Technology. It has 30 different programs and brings some 500 students (both college and high school) into the organization in 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 do real projects that are used in real NASA missions.

The emphasis on internships comes from the very top. JPL Director Dr. 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 IT CTO Soderstrom.

Indeed, on the JPL website, Elachi declares that interns are the future of JPL. "I consider Student Employees to be among the lab's most important and valued staff members," Elachi states. "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 -- Andres Riofrio, an 18-year-old 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.

This was Kern's second internship at JPL. (It's not unusual for interns to return again and again, and eventually to work full-time at JPL, says Shams, who himself started as an intern in 2005.) In the summer of 2010, when Kern was working on motor control system testing at JPL, he attended a seminar by Shams on how JPL planned to use cloud computing for the Mars Rover. The presentation sparked Kern's interest, and he approached Shams and worked out an internship for the following summer.

Shams' division alone brings in 30 to 35 interns each summer. He requires his team members to identify small-group projects that are exciting for interns, not absolutely critical to the organization in the short term, and able to be completed during the period of the internship.

As for Kern, he was given a loose set of requirements for his project, says Shams. The goal was to come up with a way to cost-effectively store and replicate data securely across multiple clouds, says Shams. (He notes that all data is encrypted before it leaves JPL.)

"We described the [compression] algorithm to him, and from there he just ran with it." Kern did additional research, and wrote and installed his own domain-specific language that allows users to dictate the various parameters of how to store data in the cloud.

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." This one was so much better 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: Best results come from projects with contained scope.

Value gained: Improved efficiency and effectiveness 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 process prone to errors. "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, then proposed a way to improve the process and, with customer approval, start developing. "We used an agile development process and worked to get a beta version to the customer ASAP," he elaborates. "We would then iterate and continue development while getting feedback from the users."

That first team completed more than 40 projects in eight weeks, says Colangelo. Among the projects were an improved parking management system, a memo generator and a dashboard showing the status of printers around the White House. (No one wants to let the President of the United States run out of printer ink.) The program has been expanded to 7 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 that provides electricity to parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, had not put much energy into its student summer opportunities, typically starting the process too late to recruit the best students.

Recognizing that both the company and its 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 takes on 3 to 4 new students each year into a more formalized IT internship program, which runs for two summers, as well as continuing to hire student summer workers on a more ad hoc basis. The new program gives interns an opportunity to stand out and the company an opportunity to hire the best performers.

One change was to ask IT managers to give a business justification for their hiring of interns. Rather than the managers saying just that they would take a student, "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." That not only makes better use of the interns, but also ensures that they are matched up 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."

That process, he says, taught him the importance of stakeholders, deadlines, communication and client needs. "I wasn't merely treated as an intern, but as a team member. This internship allowed me the opportunity to grow both personally and professionally."

Interns want strong managers

In summary, their managers agree, interns are so hungry for knowledge and experience that the trick in managing them lies in striking the right balance between constructive control and unfettered freedom.

"They haven't seen any limits yet," reflects 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."

Groundbreaking cloud projects from NASA JPL interns

Last summer, interns Alex Kern and Andres Riofrio gave a 50-minute presentation on their cloud computing projects in front of a live audience of several hundred researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, according to lead cloud architect Khawaja S. Shams. Here are brief descriptions of the two projects.

JPL is looking at how it might use the cloud to store the hundreds of terabytes, soon to be petabytes, of data it gathers from space. Kern's task was to figure out how to store such data cheaply, reliably and securely in a public cloud. The software he developed compresses the data, secures it, and allows it to be divided among three different public cloud vendors.

The most interesting feature of Kern's solution: If one third of the data is lost because of a failure at one cloud, it can be reconstituted by using the other two-thirds of the data in the other two locations. How? Kern can't explain more because the process is being patented.

Riofrio's project involved the Carbon in the Arctic Reservoir Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE). "It's basically an airplane that flies around Alaska and collects carbon samples," explains Shams. "It's very computationally intense, and very bursty."

Riofrio's project was to port certain algorithms used in CARVE, distributing them in parallel across many servers in the cloud. The project will save the mission hundreds of thousands of dollars by storing data in the cloud rather than buying and maintaining more dedicated servers in house, according to Shams.

"The code that he worked on and the capabilities he added to our code base have been incorporated already into the Mars Science Laboratory . . . that will be landing on Mars in August," he says. "That's a pretty big feat for anyone, let alone a student who's here for the summer."

This story, "Attention IT: Your interns have something to teach you" was originally published by Computerworld.

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