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Getting value out of internships, on both ends

What happens when you treat an internship as it's intended - as on-the-job training for the interns, and a pipeline of potential new employees for the company?

By Lorinda Brandon, Director of Strategy at Smartbear Software

After my article about providing software testing programs in college, I heard from several people directly and have seen multiple Twitter debates pop up about the subject. I am trying to contact as many people as possible to hear their perspectives and stories. Obviously, the subject hit a nerve and I think that makes it worthy of more discussion. So, over the coming weeks, I will be posting their stories and perspectives. When they allow me to use their names, I will – when they don’t, I will still try to represent what they offered. Let’s have a dialogue, but let’s keep it classy and productive. The software industry is an ever-evolving beast and we need to examine it regularly to make sure we are adapting in ways that keep it healthy.

It’s here. Employers wait for it all year long, piling up little junk projects that they need to get done but don’t want to give to their experienced employees. And then they come. The Interns. All hail the Interns, with their shiny faces and eager energy, ready for anything that comes their way. And although that is the yearly ritual, it happens more often than not that the intern picks up far more meaningful work and turns out to be the one with the freshest ideas, the clever solution, the process improvement that makes everyone’s life easier. So what happens when you treat an internship the way it was intended to be treated – as on-the-job training for them and a pipeline of new employees for you?

With so many college students looking for good jobs after graduation, it’s no wonder that the world of internships has become increasingly competitive. Companies are often looking for better ways to qualify their interns as well as give them more meaningful work to do while they are inside the organization. I recently wrote about an internship training and placement program for software testers called SummerQAmp. SummerQAmp focuses purely on summer internships in key cities and the folks who run it are Quality Assurance fanatics. But often companies are looking for interns throughout the year, tapping into their local colleges to fill part-time positions inexpensively.

That’s where companies like Maverick Software Consulting come in. Maverick sees it as their mission to not only provide training to the IT professionals of the future but also provide well-qualified productive employees to the companies they serve. Marty Hebig is enthusiastic about this topic and has devoted a lot of his time and energy to developing a training program with local companies and colleges to build a skilled group of interns in multiple disciplines, including testing. Where Maverick sees the gap is with real-life scenarios. In college, Hebig says, “you’re going to work on brand new programs that you’ve written from scratch… whereas in the real world, you’re going to work on a larger team on systems that have been around for years, code that has been written by 10-100 developers and it may not be written right... There’s a big difference between what you learn in college and what you do in the real world.” These interns work 20 hours per week during the school year and 40 hours per week during the summer period. Marty and his business partner are both ex-software testers so they have a natural affinity for the discipline. The students who work with Maverick come from multiple disciplines, but about 40-50% are testers who are mostly learning automation. They teach their interns things like best practices for writing bugs, writing Selenium scripts, regression testing (both manually and with automation). Maverick’s model is to establish an office near campus and build a remote workforce that is dedicated to a particular company. By the time they graduate from college, they not only have relevant job experience, but also skills that make them better candidates for full-time jobs.

Because they work so closely with colleges and universities, Hebig and his colleagues at Maverick have a strong familiarity with the gaps in what students are learning and what employers are looking for. As a result, they are working closely with MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) to create a new program that would integrate the same model Maverick uses. Basically, the students would be required to work 15 to 20 hours a week while taking classes in the third and fourth years of the program. Those internships will also include software testing. “There’s not enough IT professionals coming out of college today – why not offer a software testing major so they can make 50-60K a year and have a great career?” Imagine hiring a skilled and experienced automation tester fresh out of college. I know that as a manager, this was an area I always struggled with – finding experienced automation testers who could step right into the job but still come in at a level that provides them with a career path.

Anna Grecco, Vice President of Editorial and Content Technology at Thomson Reuters Legal, couldn’t agree more. "More colleges should offer software testing classes because it would provide a stronger foundation for students that want to pursue careers in technology regardless of whether they are interested in software development or software testing," Grecco says. "Offering software testing classes would also help provide more visibility to software testing as a career choice and could help reduce some of the perceptions that exist regarding software testing and software quality professions." Her firm has been a client of Maverick Software Consulting since 2006 and she projects that they have worked with about 340 students from multiple colleges over that time. When asked what kinds of skills would best prepare a tester coming to Thomson Reuters, Grecco said “our software testers partner very closely with our software developers and we work predominantly with the Agile development methodology, so skills working in teams and with Agile development practices would serve them well coming in the door. Our software testers write code to test software applications, so coding skills are also necessary. In addition, skills in writing acceptance criteria, expected results of a test, test case design, testing strategies, and testing techniques would be beneficial."

Certainly, Maverick Software Consulting isn’t the only internship program that offers training to its students, but perhaps its partnership with colleges and universities is a signal of what is to come in this competitive technology landscape. We need qualified professionals to keep our software-driven world functional, and the proliferation of extra-curricular training programs is an indication that what students are learning in the classroom may be only the tip of the iceberg.

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About Lorinda Brandon, Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear

For more than 25 years, Lorinda Brandonhas worked in various management roles in the high-tech industry, including customer service, quality assurance and engineering. She is currently Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear Software, a leading supplier of software quality tools. She has built and led numerous successful technical teams at various companies, including RR Donnelley, EMC, Kayak Software, Exit41 and Intuit, among others. She specializes in rejuvenating product management, quality assurance and engineering teams by re-organizing and expanding staff and refining processes used within organizations. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter @lindybrandon.

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