IT Staffing: Six Degrees of Hire Learning

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - Ryan Burnsides spent the summer of 1998 immersed in video games and got paid for it. He got to live in sunny California, took in a couple of ball games and participated in video game tournaments. One might think that Ryan was getting a free ride from Electronic Arts Inc., the company that foot the bill for his summer adventure, but the company was actually the one that reaped the benefits.

The video game maker, which hired Ryan to work on game design, invests in its internship program and woos its summer interns hoping that they will return for full-time employment after graduation. In this case, the investment paid off for Electronic Arts. "The internship gave me a chance to see what it was like to work at EA," says Burnsides, now a software engineer in the company's Tiburon Studio in Maitland, Fla. "I realized this was what I wanted, a job I could really care about."

Increasingly, companies are turning to interns as a way to entice well-educated, highly skilled students to work for them after graduation. State Street Corp. in Boston, for example, set up its internship program to get a head start on the whopping 4,000 new employees it hires every year. John Fiore, State Street's executive vice president and CIO, says the program provides several benefits to the bank. "We can show potential new hires what kinds of technology they'll be working with and give them some experience using it," he says. "And it's a good way to get good, enthusiastic and dedicated resources focused on a particular need."

The statistics tell the real story: Fifty-two percent of interns accept full-time jobs at the companies they've interned with, according to a recent poll of 430 National Association of Colleges and Employers member companies.

With this in mind, a variety of companies, including IBM, Merrill Lynch and Electronic Arts, have retooled and refined their programs over the past two years to bring in more and higher-quality interns in an effort to recruit future full-time employees.

Many of the big players pour money into their intern programs, recognizing that the payoff will come in easier recruiting and a good reputation. But even small companies can attract highly skilled interns by emulating successful programs already in place at other companies. Such programs provide interns with more than experience and a paycheck. They offer mentoring programs, the opportunity to participate on teams working on live projects, access to upper-level executives and outside activities. And in return, these companies get highly skilled new recruits upon graduation-recruits who are eager to come back to a company that offers cutting-edge technology, a creative working environment and supportive coworkers.

Here's how to get the most out of an internship program.

INVEST APPROPRIATE RESOURCES INTO THE PROGRAM. Allow room in the budget for an internship program. Whatever a company invests in housing, salaries, after-hours pizza, special programs and group trips will make the program and-more important-the company that much more attractive.

IBM, for example, has several intern programs sprinkled across the country, but one, now heading into its second year, was designed to attract the cream of the crop of U.S. computer science college students. Extreme Blue targets top universities such as Stanford, CalTech and MIT and touts itself as a highly selective program. By going after the best students and offering work with cutting-edge technology, IBM hopes to snag the up-and-coming IT geniuses and to spread the word about the interesting work the company offers.

Last summer IBM spent more than $300,000 on Extreme Blue. In addition to paying competitive wages, the company paid to bring all 24 students to Boston and sprang for their housing, says Jane Harper, a director of internet technology who oversaw the program. The company also sprang for group outings, a weekend trip to New York City and some meals.

According to the NACE survey, 33 percent of employers pay to bring their interns to their companies initially, either through plane fares or other travel reimbursement. Several companies go a step beyond that and provide the housing itself. Merrill Lynch, for example, provides housing assistance stipends for several of its summer interns and has worked out a deal with Pace University in Manhattan for summer housing. Electronic Arts, on the other hand, sets up most of its interns with housing in an apartment complex just a bike ride away from its headquarters in Redwood Shores, Calif. The company also reimburses interns who rent bikes for the summer to ride to work.

PROVIDE MENTORS. Now that the interns have somewhere to live, they need to feel at home in the office. Successful programs pair each intern with a mentor who guides him or her through the first days of work and then serves as a helpful contact throughout the internship. This isn't someone who introduces an intern on his first day and then waves good-bye. A mentor needs to be a friend, a sounding board, a technology guide and possibly even a classroom adviser who helps the intern choose what classes to take when returning to campus.

The Washington Post's systems and engineering department internship program lined up a mentor for Pavel Krapivin, an MIT sophomore majoring in computer science and electrical engineering who did a technical internship last summer.

His mentor, Linda Botkin, shared plans and details about upcoming projects and developments and helped make him feel connected to what was happening around him.

"Linda was great," Krapivin says. "I felt like I could ask her anything about the company or about technical things," he adds. "I learned about several different paths to career advancement, learned a lot of details about the work itself that I wouldn't have picked up as quickly [if I had] just observed people working."

IBM's Extreme Blue program assigns each intern a mentor at the start and expects mentors to maintain this personal link by telephone and e-mail after the interns return to school in order to make the students feel like they're still a part of the company and connected to ongoing project development. "The more the interns feel like they're part of the company, the more likely they'll want to come back and work for IBM full time," says Harper, the program overseer.

Botkin acknowledges that mentoring takes some extra effort but also brings personal rewards. "Working closely with young people is energizing because of the enthusiasm they have," she says. Botkin says she checked in with Krapivin on a daily basis throughout his internship.

PROVIDE INTERESTING WORK ON REAL TEAMS. Interns are no different from the rest of us: They want to immerse themselves in exciting, emerging technology and work on something real and tangible. "When students weigh internships, they look for projects using some cutting-edge technology that will augment their classroom experiences and give them opportunities to grow," says Judith Mancuso, Carnegie Mellon University's assistant director of employer relations and recruiting.

Regina Dawkins, a college recruiting program manager at Hewlett-Packard and manager of HP's summer internship program, agrees. "Students want to feel like they're making a difference," she says. "So we treat them as employees and give them actual fieldwork." Recent interns at HP have worked on real projects, such as developing new inkjet printer processes and embedded software applications in HP hardware. "If we just set up administrative-type work for them to do,we wouldn't get a sense of their talents and they wouldn't get a realistic impression of what it's like to work at HP," Dawkins says. What's more, giving interns real work takes some pressure off full-time staffers. After all, the company hires interns for their brains, not for their alphabetizing skills.

IBM also understands this. It placed several of its Extreme Blue interns on a team developing advanced internet messaging technology, while others got to roll up their sleeves and dig into some JavaBeans development. Software maker Adobe Systems' 2-year-old intern program in San Jose, Calif., sprinkles its 30 summer interns across seasoned teams that work on a variety of software developments, including refining features, script testing and quality assurance testing. Merrill Lynch's IT interns worked on projects ranging from supporting the ML Direct website to a Blackberry wireless e-mail device project to intranet page creation.

"Students respond well when they feel like they're part of something bigger and when they can see that what they're doing has a tangible benefit to the company," says Natalie Lundsteen, the Internship Coordinator at Stanford University's Career Development Center.

Electronic Arts doesn't fool around when it comes time to assign jobs to interns. "We get them working quickly on pieces with easy ramp-ups so that they don't have to read pages and pages of manuals before they can actually get to work," says Kim Capps, university relations manager at Electronic Arts, developer of such popular video games as "Knockout Kings" boxing, "Madden Football" and "Tiger Woods Golf." "That gets them incorporated into their teams quickly and gives managers a way to judge their advanced skills. But no one gets pampered; everyone gets up to speed and gets going," she says.

"Students also want to be able to come back to campus in the fall and brag a little about what technologies they've worked on," says Mancuso. Recently, bragging rights have gone to Carnegie Mellon students who have worked on high-level web development, data mining and data retrieval projects, she says.

All work and no play, however, will make for a dull internship, so plan some fun outings for these folks. Spring for tickets to a ball game or a concert or a big show. Take them white-water rafting or hiking or get them together for a trip to a demolition derby. Find ways to make sure they're having some fun.

EXPOSE INTERNS TO OTHER BUSINESS FUNCTIONS AND EXECUTIVES. Merely putting interns on teams and giving them interesting projects isn't enough to guarantee success. Internship programs should also provide lunchtime company speakers, technology seminars and access to company executives to round out the experience.

At IBM and Merrill Lynch, executives from all business divisions, from the chief technical officer on down, attend lunchtime sessions with interns to discuss their companies' technology directions and to explain the role that IT will play in current developments throughout the company. Interns should also be encouraged to set up informational interviews with various business executives in the company, giving them the opportunity to talk to people outside their workgroups and to gain a sense of what skills they might need to develop in order to work with those divisions.

At Electronic Arts, the summer interns get together at the beginning of their internship to come up with their own idea for a video game. At midday sessions throughout the summer, representatives from different departments such as legal, graphics, and sales and marketing meet with the interns to explain the role they would play in bringing that game to market. At the end of the summer, Electronic Arts' CEO comes in and tells them why the group's idea would or wouldn't be put into production.

Although The Washington Post's systems and engineering department internship program is small and takes on only five students in the summer, it is known for giving its interns a lot of freedom and autonomy. Krapivin, the MIT student who interned at The Post last summer, says that having access to people outside his department was particularly useful. "I interviewed several company super-users and gained a better understanding of how organizations function and depend on IT," he says. "I had access to all the technology there," he adds. "I could pretty much go wherever I wanted and ask about anything. It was pretty insane."

RECESSION-PROOF THE INTERNSHIP PROGRAM. Once a company has started an internship program, it should work to make sure it doesn't get cut from the budget during lean times. If it does, it will likely take twice the effort to restart. To ensure the longevity of the program, talk it up with the right executives, show off interns' work and demonstrate in hard numbers how the program facilitates the hiring process and saves money on recruitment.

HP's Dawkins makes a point of publicizing the success of her company's internship program to higher-ups through formal, written reports as well as through informal ways that highlight how successful HP employees often got their start as HP interns. "Our conversion rate [of interns to full-time employees] is more than 50 percent and rising. This alone demonstrates how important it is to our recruitment efforts," says Dawkins.

At Electronic Arts, Kim Capps boasts of a 30 percent conversion rate. "Our program is absolutely justifying itself," she says. "It helps us ship products on time and we've had 20-and counting-full-time hires from it in just two years. In addition, 26 percent of the summer 1999 interns have accepted a full-time job at the company after graduation this year.

As a way to showcase interns' work, Electronic Arts adds their names to the video game creative team credits. By doing so, the interns not only have something real to show for their summer work, but others in the company can see that these energetic summer workers played a part in producing the final product.

MONITOR INTERNS' SATISFACTION WITH THE PROGRAM. Last but not least, ask interns how their experiences are shaping up. Doing that after the internship is over is necessary, but successful programs do it along the way too. Mentors should seek feedback from their interns on an ongoing basis and report that information back to the program coordinator. Feedback from interns is also critical to improving programs; nothing gets swept under the rug, and fabulous methods and experiences are spotlighted.

A good internship program will also pay off in ways one might not expect.

Students return to campuses with tales of the interesting and fun work they've just done for fascinating companies, encouraging their friends and peers to consider working there. "It's good PR," agrees Jeanne Koch, the systems manager who coordinates recruiting and training for The Washington Post's systems and engineering department. "It gets our name out there in the marketplace.

Students who've had a good experience go back to campus and tell their friends about us."

But bad experiences work the same way, only more rapidly. Word of one bad internship will spread like the flu in a windowless office building. "If students have a dull or bad intern experience, they'll go back to campus, get on the internet and start talking about it," says H. Michael Boyd, a program manager in human resourcing strategies research at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "Bad programs can collapse completely under the weight of bad publicity."

Some college career offices even reprimand summer employers if students complain of boring internships with absentee bosses who pass off only periodic busywork. Be assured that if college career offices know of a company's miserable program, hundreds of students have already been tipped off. And there's nothing like a company's bad reputation to send smart, eager and talented students running in the other direction.

"Internships are the way to sow the seeds for future recruitment," concludes Barbara Gomolski, research director at Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Gartner Institute, a company started by GartnerGroup. "If you give interns challenging work on high-level technologies, get them involved in the business and give them people they can look up to, you can entice them to work for you," she says.

In a competitive marketplace, that's quite a payoff.

Staff writer Stewart Deck would love to hear other interesting internship and first-job stories. Contact him at with your tales of early adventure.

THESE KIDS ARE CERTIFIED The CIO of Contra Costa County turned to specially trained high school students to address its staffing shortage Steven A. Steinbrecher, CIO of California's Contra Costa County, doesn't spend a lot of time trolling for new IT recruits. But with an IT budget of $25 million and an IT infrastructure staff of only 100 to 125, he needs all the help he can get.

"We're like a compressed multinational company," he explains. "This county has 40 different business units, including a hospital and a jail. We run the elections and manage all the child and welfare support checks for the sixth-largest county in the state of California."

Three years ago, Steinbrecher took what some might consider a drastic measure to address his staffing shortage: He began taking on high school students as interns. Not just any high schoolers, though: specially trained students who had gone through Cisco Systems' "Cisco Kids" (Cisco Academy) program, a two-year, four-semester-based certification program. "These kids push my old-timers," says Steinbrecher. "They're eager, tenacious and smart."

For some of the interns, this is their first real, paid work, so Steinbrecher buddies them up with an adult. "Some are very bright-one is so bright he even showed IBM reps a thing or two about [IBM] thin client NetStations that they didn't know themselves-but some have few social skills. We try to help them with that too."

Steinbrecher also counsels his interns about what more they can do beyond getting paid well to configure routers. "We try to show them that they might not want to be doing low-level stuff forever; that the only way to get into management is to go on to college," he says.

Several high school interns who've worked for Contra Costa County come back to work there during school breaks and the summer. And what about after college?

"Oh yeah, we hope we get 'em all back after they finish college," says Steinbrecher. -S. Deck ARE YOU PAYING YOUR INTERNS ENOUGH?

Average hourly rate by major Computer Engineering $12.70 Computer Science $13.85 MBA $20.33 Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers.

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