Attention IT: Your interns have something to teach you

Interns aren't just for grunt work anymore -- properly managed, they can bring new insight to IT problems and processes.

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Shams' division alone brings in 30 to 35 interns each summer. He requires his team members to identify small-group projects that are exciting for interns, not absolutely critical to the organization in the short term, and able to be completed during the period of the internship.

As for Kern, he was given a loose set of requirements for his project, says Shams. The goal was to come up with a way to cost-effectively store and replicate data securely across multiple clouds, says Shams. (He notes that all data is encrypted before it leaves JPL.)

"We described the [compression] algorithm to him, and from there he just ran with it." Kern did additional research, and wrote and installed his own domain-specific language that allows users to dictate the various parameters of how to store data in the cloud.

That's what happens when you give interns room to run, says Shams. "Very often students surprise us and come up with a better solution than what we had originally thought." This one was so much better that JPL has applied for a patent and is in the process of integrating the software into a cloud-based data backup pipeline for future NASA missions.

Executive Office of the President

Lesson learned: Best results come from projects with contained scope.

Value gained: Improved efficiency and effectiveness of everyday office tasks that formerly frustrated rank-and-file employees.

On the other side of the country, interns are making a difference in the halls of government, including the White House's Executive Office of the President. In fact, because one CIO took the time to listen to an intern, the White House has launched a new IT-focused internship program.

David Gobaud, Executive Office of the President
David Gobaud, Executive Office of the President

Early in 2011, David Gobaud approached Brook Colangelo, CIO of the Executive Office of the President, with a proposition. Gobaud, 28, a Stanford University computer science graduate, had a White House internship unrelated to IT -- he was conducting fact-checking and research for the Council of Economic Advisors.

As part of that work, Gobaud had noticed some business process inefficiencies and started, on his own, to automate some of them for employees. For example, he noticed that staffers were manually updating spreadsheets weekly. They would copy and paste data from one spreadsheet to a master spreadsheet, extending rows and manually updating charts, a time-consuming process prone to errors. "I created a macro that turned this into a single workflow," says Gobaud. "Click a button, select the new data file and click 'OK.'"

Gobaud talked with his supervisor and then proposed to Colangelo the idea of creating a team of IT interns who could identify more areas where such small-scale automation could improve efficiency throughout the White House. Colangelo liked the idea. He named it the Software Automation and Technology (SWAT) team and asked Gobaud to help manage it. They selected four interns for the first session, which was last summer.

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