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Tech trek: the next generation

Technology: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Australian technology interns. Their life-long missions: to explore amazing new concepts and projects, to seek out new products and new communities, to boldly go where no students have gone before. ZDNet Australia delves into the lives of interns from Google, Microsoft and IBM.
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor on
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(Sydney University Quad image by
Gordon Wrigley, CC2.0)

From university to enterprise

As the world slowly emerges from a recession, technology companies are looking to hire again. But what if you're still at university? The answer for many lies in an internship.

An internship can not only provide great experience and references for a future job search, but, in some cases, companies will only consider those students who have conducted internships with them for graduate hires. Given this, internships can be highly desired, with companies picking favoured students after multiple elimination rounds.

ZDNet Australia takes an in-depth look at what it takes to get a foot in the door of the best-known technology companies in Australia: IBM, Google and Microsoft.

These interns threw their hats into the ring and came out with a job — not fetching coffee or taking lunch orders, but working on real projects with real budgets and very real deadlines.

And despite having to battle through a university degree and a job at the same time, shouldering the same workload that full-time workers do every day, these students consider it to be a positive experience. Not only because of the skills they gain, but also because of the time and money the companies invest in them and because they enjoy working for a big technology name and being part of its culture.

Click through to the next page as ZDNet Australia talks to the students about the trials and the rewards of their internship experiences.

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IBM Interns

(Credit: CBSi)

Arthur Lee, Elise Walker

IBM interns

As IBM blows out the candles on its 100th birthday cake, it's easy to think that the company would be past hiring new, young red shirts into the business for anything other than fetching a decent latte. But IBM is so serious about hiring great new people out of university that it's even paying for some of their degrees in full, while giving them four years of work experience.

Arthur Lee, a student at the University of New South Wales, is required to take part in several internships through the course of his degree in order to complete his studies. His latest has been with IBM, for which he currently holds a senior role in an on-site project development team, developing applications for none other than one of Australia's big four banks, Westpac. Lee told ZDNet Australia that he is able to do more during his IBM internship than he's ever been able to in other internships.

"Some of the other internships treat you as someone that's not costed to the project, so they can get you to do new things, which can be good. At one of my other internships I was doing some experimental development with the iPhone and also Flex, but, ultimately, it didn't really deliver. It was just something sitting on my laptop.

"With IBM, however, I've got to hand things in and we've got a big project we're delivering, so that's exciting. Our project is about to go through to proof of concept in 20 days, so that's very exciting," he says.

Being an intern placed offsite with an IBM client such as Westpac has provided Lee with the experience working for two organisations instead of just one, but he admits that it can also become confusing.

"Sometimes, especially as a new grad or new intern going into a client as your first gig, you're not sure which culture you're a part of."

And that hasn't been the only trial.

"People at work: when they go home, they're done for the day and can relax; whereas as an intern also going to uni, you finish work, catch the train to uni, study for another three hours and then go home with that assignment that you need to hand in by Friday.

"That would probably be the biggest challenge of a full-time internship: that you have to really know how to manage your time, but that really carries over when you're loaded up with heaps of project work later in life."

Elise Walker is another lucky student plucked from the classroom to work as a server technician with IBM via a scholarship. IBM has paid for her degree at Queensland's Griffith University in full and has also given her three years of practical work experience. However, the training didn't stop there, with the company investing more in her training when she joined the firm as a graduate.

"I had about five training courses in the first year, and one of them was about three and a half weeks long, so there's a lot of emphasis put on developing people and giving people challenges and helping them succeed in their roles," she says.

Walker even admits that her friends were jealous of her scholarship.

"I know that a lot of them couldn't believe that I was working full time, getting paid and I didn't have a HECS [debt] at the end of it. I was getting three years of work experience and I didn't have a cent to pay on my uni degree — my friends liked that idea."

Walker agrees with Lee that the toughest thing about being an intern is juggling a lengthy to-do list.

"[An internship] requires a lot of discipline, so maybe [it's] not for everyone. When I first started I wasn't the most motivated person to do my uni work, but I learnt that if I don't do it then I'm not going to have time to do it, so I actually have to log on and do my assignments before the night before."

The best advice that these two can give students is just to throw themselves into the ring and apply.

"Something I was told a couple of weeks ago is to get involved and put your hand up for everything. It's the same with university, as well; you'll have the best time and you get to meet a lot of different people," Lee says.

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Google interns

(Credit: CBSi)

James McGill, Ian Kilpatrick, Daniel Nadasi

Google interns

There's no arguing that Google is a special place to work. Google created quite a stir in 2006 when it opened its office in Sydney. Having topped the BRW's best places to work list twice since then, Google must be the dream placement for those applying for internships, right?

Google Australia's engineering director, Alan Noble, told ZDNet Australia at the start of the year that he's "bullish" about hiring new graduates into his engineering A-Team.

"If you get the right graduates, they end up being remarkable employees. They tend to be energetic, open to new ideas and processes, and if you get the right type of person, they really want to make a difference and make their mark.

"Obviously we're looking for really creative, bright software engineers like engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, that sort of thing. Someone who is really passionate about building software and products ... and someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit," Noble says.

Three young men embody Noble's vision of the next generation of engineers: Ian Kilpatrick, Daniel Nadasi and James McGill. They all joined the search giant as interns from different disciplines and universities around the country. Now the students have joined Google as full-time software engineers working across two of the company's flagship projects.

Both McGill and Nadasi have landed in the Google Maps team, working with large data sets and new feature additions, as well as building on the existing Google Maps API for use by other developers. Kilpatrick spends his time working in the Google Apps team, pushing out new features used by millions of enterprise users around the world.

According to these three, what a student needs most of all to become an intern at Google is guts.

"The number one thing in people you talk to is that a lot of people are afraid of failure, for example, getting turned down by a corporation, and you are going to have that in some jobs. You are going to be turned down. Best piece of advice, though, is to apply and throw your head into the ring and see what happens," says Kilpatrick.

McGill says that even if you didn't study software engineering at university, Google still has a place for you.

"A lot of people think that maybe their skills won't be a good match for Google. Maybe they didn't do a software engineering degree, but I came through computer systems and my friends came through robotics; my manager's an electrical engineer by degree. It's really just if you have a passion for software engineering, and you want to be part of Google and help us build the huge products we're building, it's a great job," McGill says.

Once an intern makes it through Google Australia's doors, they find a quirky office that's equipped with gadgets, gaming facilities, pool tables and a cafeteria. Nadasi says that while it's easy to be caught up by the workplace and its facilities, the projects and the people are what keep workers motivated.

"It's very cool. There's a lot of perks. We have a games room with an Xbox and a PS3 and we get lunch at the cafe and things like that, but by far it's the work that keeps people coming back here. Not only are you working on some of the most interesting and motivating products, you're also working with some of the best people in the world," Nadasi says.

Kilpatrick agrees, saying that he particularly likes the switched-on staff members that Google Australia attracts.

"I think the people is part of the reason why it's such a great place to work. It's so interesting. If you want to explain something to someone, they'll pick it up instantly; there's no going 10 minutes back and forth just to get a concept across," he says.

All Google staff members are given 20 per cent of their total work time to work on their own ideas and projects, as long as it fits the company's mission.

"If it's one day a week or you can take six weeks out of a year to do 20 per cent time, it's completely up to you, or even just a few hours a day," Kilpatrick says.

McGill, a Google Maps team member, says that an idea can strike anytime, anywhere, and he enjoys the freedom to be able to work on something he's passionate about.

"When the Queensland floods were happening, myself and a few other engineers elected to take a big chunk of 20 per cent time and build a map that showed the current heights of rivers with aggregated data from various government sources, and that was used by a lot of people in the floods to work out where it was safe to go and how their friends and family were faring," he says. "Being able to just have the infrastructure in place to drop what you're doing and chase down something like that is really great."

Nadasi's 20 per cent time project ended up on TechCrunch.

"One project I did was on this internal JavaScript suite called Closure, which includes a JavaScript compiler and a library of JavaScript utilities and widgets that we use internally," he says. "I thought it would be really useful to developers to get their hands on. So I went, and with the help of a few other people I open-sourced it. It took a few months of one day per week."

Kilpatrick and Nadasi explain that interns at Google Australia are given the same level of responsibility in a project team as full-time staff members, and are mostly given a meaningful project to contribute to. No photocopy or coffee duty to be had here.

"Most internships at Google, you're trying to push out a feature into Google.com or Docs.com, so you're definitely diving into the code head-first," Kilpatrick says.

"These interns are way too smart just to be fetching coffee, right?" Nadasi adds.

Internships at Google Australia typically span for three months, and they aren't restricted from doing more than one. McGill, for example, did two internships for the search giant after Google's Noble came to his campus to do a recruiting drive.

McGill now gives back to the student community by trying to find the next brilliant coder to bring to Google.

"I spend a couple of weeks a year going around doing campus recruiting, going out and saying here's what I'm doing as an engineer every day, I'm having an awesome time and I want you to come do it with me," McGill says.

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Microsoft Interns

(Credit: CBSi)

Paul Randazzo

Microsoft interns

Microsoft Australia and New Zealand recruitment manager, Andrew Le Lievre, told ZDNet Australia that a competitive field of thousands is cut down to just 10 to 20 lucky interns.

Yet, Microsoft Australia doesn't assess interns solely on their degree program or academic merit for entry into the business. We caught up with one such intern and his boss to tell us all about working for Redmond's Australian outpost.

Marketing graduate Paul Randazzo is an alum of Microsoft's intern program, having been hand-picked from the cast of thousands to complete his internship before working his way up through the Microsoft Academy of College Hires (MACH) program to become a student audience marketing manager with the software giant.

"I never thought I was technical enough to work at a company like Microsoft; however, I found out pretty quickly that Microsoft in Australia actually hires a lot of sales and marketing graduates such as myself, so it was a great opportunity to get involved in a global brand working in marketing. I was surprised," he says.

Randazzo applied for the intern program in his final year of university, writing a 300-word statement outlining who he was and why he wanted to work for Microsoft. The company assessed his statement along with thousands of others before selecting a shortlist of students to contact for a phone interview.

After more candidates were culled, the remaining students were invited to the North Ryde campus for an intensive day of screening where the students took part in group exercises, challenges and one-on-one interviews. Unlike other positions, however, interns aren't subjected to any isometric testing and their entry is based purely on the results of their introduction, phone interview and screening results.

While the work is hard, Randazzo says, Microsoft is very accommodating to the needs of university students.

"I worked at Microsoft five days a week and studied at night, but Microsoft was always very flexible with giving me time off to study, and whenever I had exams coming up, they let me have a few days off."

Randazzo, despite being a marketing graduate, says that he has an extensive knowledge of technology thanks to the training and support offered by Microsoft Australia.

"The personal development and professional development I've gotten from my short 18 months here has been world class, I believe," he says.

"Once you get into the graduate program, the company really invests in you as a person, so that's a huge thing and it's pretty exciting."

As one of the gatekeepers of Microsoft's intern program down under, Le Lievre says that the intern program is becoming more popular each year, with over 1000 applications expected for about 10 to 20 places.

Microsoft plays host to interns all over Australia.

"We post them all around Australia, so Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and we're even looking at Darwin this year," he says. "Around half get a job with Microsoft at the end of the process... It's a competitive program, there's no doubt about that, but I think that's the same for any tier-one corporate," Le Lievre says.

Going overseas is part of the experience provided to those who take full-time graduate positions receive.

"In the first two years, they'll go to our head office in Redmond to take part in a global MACH program, where they'll meet MACHs from all over the world. They'll do a touchstone event in Singapore, where they do a fantastic one-week business case study where they can basically play with all the engines of the business, like being a CEO for a week. They get superb opportunities to be mentored, and a huge level of support as buddies and things like that.

"It costs us about US$650,000 per graduate to get them to the end of the program. Huge investment of time, and they come out the other side as one of the future leaders of the business. It's a highly prized reward for students who are in the program and really, really competitive," Le Lievre says.

Microsoft tries to take the stigma out of being an intern, which has traditionally been associated with being a photocopy monkey, by investing in them and giving them real project work.

"Many interns you talk to will say that they're at the coal face, with the professionals doing really substantial work. All of our interns will ideally get a choice of project that they can work on, and all of them will have direct client engagement. Some of the projects our interns have led involved international or local travel, have had large budgets or have had significant direct client interaction. No photocopying or coffee [work] here," he says.

"I think grads, these days, want to roll their hands up and do real work. They don't want to be silent in a room working on a hypothetical case study. They want to understand what real work is like and we understand that experience."

Le Lievre says that the intern program was also disproving the Generation-Y stereotype, where those born after 1980 are thought to be lazy and disinterested in work and job churners.

"If you give [Generation Y employees] something that they're passionate about, if you give them the autonomy to deliver the results as they make sense to them, they work hard or even harder than some of our current employees," he says.

"Our interns are a breath of fresh air in the organisation, and bring diversity of thought, passion and drive, and they've been a massive success and have run some keynote events and programs for us across the subsidiary that have been recognised globally as best practice."

Le Lievre says that in the future, Microsoft Australia will be less and less likely to hire university graduates who haven't gone through the internship program, so those wanting to work for the software giant will have to seriously consider the program, or risk missing out on a place.

"Our intern program is the feeder for our grad program. It would be a rare year that we hire directly out of the graduate market," Le Lievre says.

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Watch the video

In this video, the IBM, Google and Microsoft interns speak for themselves.

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