Big Blue interns get Extreme projects

Eight Canadian students are participating this year in IBM Canada’s top internship program, dubbed Extreme Blue.

The program acts as an “incubator for world-class talent, technology and business innovation — those are the three key initiatives,” said Joanne Moore, IBM Extreme Blue Toronto Lab manager. It’s also a way for IBM to attract top technical talent for future positions within the company, she said.

The program originated in Cambridge, Mass., in 1999 and since then has expanded to 10 other IBM labs worldwide, she said. This is the first year Extreme Blue projects are taking place in Canada.

The participants arrived at the IBM Toronto software lab on May 17. According to IBM, each Extreme Blue project team includes three or four technical students and one MBA student working under the guidance of senior IBM technical subject matter experts and mentors.

This year the teams are tackling one of two tasks: a DB2 Database Management project, which has to do with DB2 query optimization for overall product performance improvement; or a Rational/Tivoli Tooling Project, which involves a certain amount of “horizontal integration” of the two divisions, Moore said.

“Essentially they are given a project idea which they take through the full lifecycle right from designing and architecting through coding, testing, and beta product delivery,” she explained. The program is “enabling students to develop something big,” and places participants, who are paid at the top of IBM’s pay scale, in a student team-based environment where they can “work with other top students…rather than full-time hires.”

The teams get 12 to 14 weeks to turn an idea into a technical solution. Then, in the first week of August they will fly to New York City to present their results to a group of IBM executive leaders from around the world. Students apply online for a limited number of spaces. This year Moore said the program received 600 applications. After an initial screening process, there is an intensive interview process to ensure the student has the technical skills necessary to do the job.

“The interviews are conducted over the phone or through instant messaging,” Moore said, adding that it’s a “very different interview style” that assesses candidates’ programming skills and capabilities. “They have to look at the code, fix the errors and write code.” There is also an online aptitude test, she said.

Ashish Patel, who just completed four years of his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at the University of Alberta and has four months left to go before he graduates, is now working on the Rational/Tivoli project.

Patel said the interview took two hours for him, but the process is a “good thing” because it is “able to assess technical skills right on the spot.” With other internships there is time for a learning curve, but for Extreme Blue, participants have to know their stuff because they are “put on the spot — you can’t spend time learning new technologies,” he said.

The main difference between the internship and what goes on in university classes is that participants work on real-life problems, said Kelly Poon, another Extreme Blue participant who is working on the DB2 project. Poon just received her bachelor’s degree in math majoring in computer science at the University of Waterloo and is moving on to a master’s in computer science at the University of Calgary.

“It’s exciting that (what you’re working on) is going to go into production and will be used by people,” Poon said.

She added that the internship puts a lot of focus on the business aspect of the project. Students look at “whether or not (the product) is marketable, and do a lot of talking with management. We have to pitch…and sell ideas to executives and we get to talk about the value that our projects bring to IBM.”

Business experience is very helpful, especially for students from an engineering background, whose training tends to be “pretty technical,” Patel said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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