What your interns can teach you

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

It's summertime, which means legions of eager, fresh-faced interns are ensconced in IT departments across the country, hoping to get real-world experience, or at least something that will look impressive on their resumes.

Some will have less-than-ideal experiences. Rather than coding or developing apps, they may spend the summer filing or wiping hard drives destined for recycling.

Alex Kern, an 18-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., is decidedly not in that camp. He spent last summer helping a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., develop software that NASA will soon use to store data in the public cloud. And Kern's name is on the patent application.

"My internship was hands-on -- creating stuff and helping JPL achieve its goals," says Kern, who graduated from high school in May and will start his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, this fall. "Most of my friends were just thrown into internships, usually just following someone around and doing lots of busywork."

As Kern's experience implies, employers that give IT interns more opportunities stand to gain much more in return. Interns can bring valuable insights and new skills to their employers.

"They bring in a fresh perspective, and they are far more current on new technologies, such as social networking," says Suzanne Fairlie, president of ProSearch, an executive search firm that focuses on IT and finance. "It's part of their DNA."

But in order for organizations to reap those gains, Fairlie stresses that internships require planning, and the interns themselves need personal attention. "When [internships] work well, it's because someone internally in the company is identified to take that intern or group of interns under their wing," she says.

Rather than just using interns as cheap (or free) summer help, organizations must treat internships strategically if they want to gain true insight from them. They should plan and structure the intern experience, take care to match interns' interests and experience with suitable projects within the company, listen to what interns have to say and -- most importantly -- give interns room to run.

"The key to all of this is to give the students something meaningful to do, something that actually gets used or at least tried," says Tom Soderstrom, CTO at JPL. "Something that's not a make-work project."

Computerworld gleaned details from three organizations doing just that, and reaping the rewards season after season: JPL, the White House's Executive Office of the President and utility company We Energies. In each case, the employer invested time and personnel, in both planning the internships and in working with the interns themselves. And in each instance, the organization was rewarded with innovative ideas, increased efficiency and, sometimes, talented full-time employees.

Here's a look at how JPL and some other employers have turned their interns into assets.

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