Advice for college students seeking a tech career: Turn to internships

IT internships give students the practical tech work experience employers are seeking

By , IDG News Service |  Career

When Katie Smith interned with Capital One, she expected to spend the summer fetching beverages for her manager -- instead, she started on a career path that led to a full-time IT job at the banking and financial services company.

"I thought I would be getting coffee for my manager or, in my manager's case, Mountain Dew," said Smith, who interned as a business systems analyst in 2012 before starting her senior year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "I wasn't doing that at all. I was actually contributing and my work was used by senior directors."

Smith's positive experience at Capital One led her to "try something new and take a risk," accepting a job with the company in McLean, Virginia, after graduation rather than pursuing a master's degree in materials engineering. Last summer, Smith, who holds dual degrees in materials engineering and biomedical engineering, began working as a business systems analyst on the Web analytics team. That role exposed Smith to Web and mobile programming, which, she discovered, shared traits with engineering.

"It's very similar to the engineering mindset of the problem solving, the building something and hoping to make somebody's life easier," she said. "You get to code something, compile it and you have something that functions."

Solving computing problems will soon become Smith's career. She's transitioning to an iOS developer job on Capital One's mobile team. Without the internship, "I'm not really positive what I'd be doing now, but I would not be developing mobile apps," she said.

Employers realize that today's IT interns become tomorrow's IT professionals and are treating college work experiences as test runs for full-time positions. Interns who see themselves as valuable contributors instead of temporary labor will learn the technology and business skills employers need and be better equipped to make career decisions.

"We want them to work for us and not find jobs elsewhere," said Devon Cavanagh, director of data management at Capital One, of the IT interns working at the company over the coming weeks. "Like other employers we're looking for technology candidates who have more than just academic course work. We're looking for people who have practical hands-on experience using technology."

And, as Smith's experience illustrates, Capital One uses internships as a recruiting tool to give the company an edge in the competition for IT workers.

"The demand for STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] and specifically computer science majors is right now at an all-time high," Cavanagh said. "The supply is just lagging behind pretty dramatically right now."

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