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.

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Executive Office of the President

Lesson learned: The best results come from projects with contained scope.

Value gained: Improved efficiency and efectiveness 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.

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 and error-prone process. "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.

The SWAT team worked with Colangelo's enterprise business solutions staff, which focuses on application development and solving business problems. The interaction with real business users was a valuable experience for the interns. "We would watch people perform various tasks and listen to what frustrated them, what was consuming their time," says Gobaud.

Users may have one solution in mind while being unaware of other technologies or techniques that can help, says Colangelo. For example, they may not know that macro templates can make publishing memos quicker and easier. "Our job as technologists sometimes is to say to people, 'I hear what you are asking for, but have you thought about X, Y or Z to solve the problem instead?' "

The team first gained an understanding of the customers' objectives and needs, says Gobaud, and then proposed a way to improve the process and, with customer approval, started developing. "We used an agile development process and worked to get a beta version to the customer ASAP," he says. "We would then iterate and continue development while getting feedback from the users."

The program has been expanded to seven interns this summer, and Colangelo thinks that it just might inspire some IT students to go into government.

Already, it has reinforced Gobaud's goals. "I saw the amazing ability that technology has to revolutionize internal government operations and create a lean, effective federal government," he says. "Working at the White House cemented my career goal of becoming a government technology leader."

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