These students go to extremes

Pat Cozzi has been working on a top-secret project at an IBM Corp. laboratory in Almaden, Calif., since June 2. He’s restricted about how much he can say about it, other than that the project centres on archival storage and that the work he and his team are doing could one day have a dramatic impact on future products and the storage market. By the way, Cozzi is a 21-year-old senior computer science major at Pennsylvania State University.

He is one of 100 interns (out of an applicant pool of 5,000) working this summer in IBM labs across the U.S. on technology and business problems that could lead to breakthrough discoveries. They’re part of an IBM seasonal internship program known as Extreme Blue, where teams of undergraduate computer science majors, MBA and doctoral candidates team up on technical and business issues.

Typically, each team has four people: three technical gurus (software or hardware specialists) and an MBA-type who explores the business value behind the project and, in some instances, develops a marketing plan for it.

That’s what Sarah McCahill’s role is on an Extreme Blue team at IBM’s lab in Cambridge, Mass. McCahill, a 32-year-old MBA candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spent seven years selling software for value-added resellers. She’s working on a project examining the potential use of a Web logging/collaboration tool that may eventually have use within IBM or for its utility computing customers.

Extreme Blue “gives you the opportunity of getting into developing a product or service,” McCahill said. “It’s very entrepreneurial; you’re building the business value around it.”

Like Cozzi and other Extreme Blue interns, McCahill and her team travelled in early August to IBM’s offices in Armonk, N.Y., where they presented their projects to IBM fellows and senior executives who gave them feedback on their work.

Work conducted by previous Extreme Blue project teams have already had an effect on the industry. Last year, one such team was charged with examining a technology from a competing vendor that posed a “strategic” threat to Linux, said John Wolpert, lab manager at IBM’s Extreme Blue Innovation Lab in Austin.

The team “crossed over various areas of Linux and took a holistic approach and went to the next iteration of Linux,” Wolpert said. Its work was so well received by the Linux community, Wolpert said, that team members were invited to speak last summer at a Storage Networking Industry Association conference, where they were cheered on to provide an encore presentation the following day.

The internship program is also a great way to forge relationships between an employer and next-generation IT professionals. Regarding his postgraduate plans for 2004, Cozzi said, “IBM is toward the top of my list. I’d like to become a technical lead in product development in the next few years.”