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

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

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."

All Capital One interns go through the full-time recruiting process, which makes them eligible for a permanent position when the internship ends, Cavanagh said. The conversion rate from intern to full-time employee is "extremely high," he said.

Capital One interns work on projects improving internal systems and processes, Cavanagh said. One intern developed an automated system for testing Java code that became the standard for Java developers to use. Another intern developed APIs (application programming interfaces) to help determine which of Capital One's online ads generated the most return on investment.

Work experiences help students' distinguish their resumes from other applicants when they apply for jobs, Cavanagh said. Additionally, they provide students with experiences to draw on during an interview with a potential employer.

And interns shouldn't underestimate the value of learning about corporate culture, Cavanagh said.

"The old days of kind of just going to work and it being a job are over," he said. "You want to work in a place where you enjoy who you are working with."

Learning about how a business operates was a key reason Smith applied for an internship.

"Just being in a corporation and understanding how the organization lives and breathes, those are valuable experiences regardless of what occupation you choose later on," she said. "I was a little surprised they accepted me into their technology internship [program] despite only having beginner-level programming experience."

At Wayfair, an e-commerce retailer that sells home furnishings, job applicants have an advantage if they have interned at the Boston-based company and experienced its culture.

"We'll pick them over someone off the street," said CIO Jack Wood, who noted that 90 percent of Wayfair interns return for internships the following year or apply for a full-time job.

"We get so many resumes that it's really hard to put a face and a name to a piece of paper," he said. "We put a high a value on culture because it keeps people here."

Woods encourages interns to have an idea of what technology they would like to work with and what kind of projects appeal to them.

"One question I almost always ask the interns is, 'What do you like to do?'" Wood said. "What is a hobby related to this industry that really gets you excited?"

Interns have helped develop some of Wayfair's best internal products, Wood said.

After a site outage revealed that Wayfair lacked an end-to-end tracking feature that followed customers across all its disconnected systems, interns were challenged to create such a feature at last year's annual intern hackathon.

"This team of interns created this ink-dye test where they could inject a stream on the front end of a client session and it would follow all the way through the database and the Web servers," said Wood.

Wayfair spent the next six months using this foundation to create a viable product, Wood said.

"It's one of the core metrics that we use to see how user sessions are flowing through all of our systems," he said.

At RunKeeper, a Boston startup that develops a mobile application for tracking fitness activities like running and cycling, the 50-person company needs interns "who can contribute very much like a full-time resource," said Doug Williams, vice president of engineering. "They're actually an important percentage of the company."

RunKeeper's interns work on projects that impact how consumers use its app. When the company wanted to offer the app in foreign languages -- more than half of RunKeeper users are outside the U.S. -- it relied on interns to lead the project.

"That was about as mainstream and critical a project as you could offer," Williams said.

Interns also led a project aimed at increasing user engagement among the 30 million people who have downloaded the app. The interns transitioned from students to employees soon after they arrived, said Williams, and began figuring out how to motivate users to set fitness goals on the app.

Students should use internships to work with technology they're interested in but haven't had a chance to learn about in school, especially if it's an area they want to use it in their career, Williams said.

"If we're going for a full-time hire and they have coding experience but don't have mobile work it's hard for us to gauge how real that interest is," Williams said.

The lessons learned from an internship extend to life as well, Smith added, and help alleviate some of the anxiety that accompanies entering the workforce.

"Part of the goal of the internship is to really give them [interns] an opportunity to figure out how to balance work and your personal life, how to find an apartment and pay your bills," she said.

Whatever their motivation, internships may lead to students discovering a job track they never considered.

"I thought banks were boring, but I was actually completely wrong," Smith said. "I wasn't expecting it to be so interesting. I'm excited to see how the apps you use on your phone every day are built."

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'

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