IBM’s ‘Extreme’ recruiting tactic

How Big Blue reaches out to young talent

Nancy Wang always thought the only work she wanted to do was in academia. As a fourth-year computer science and biology student from the University of British Columbia, she was only interested in a job that would let her do research.

That was before she became one of 24 students across Canada taking part in IBM’s Extreme Blue program, a 14-week paid internship program it has offered since 2004 in Canada.

“I had this image of IBM as a very serious and corporate company,” said Wang. But after getting a taste of the innovation work and meeting and working with the IBM mentors while tackling her team’s project, Wang has thrown that image out.

Anumpa Mukherjee, Extreme Blue site manager for the IBM lab in Toronto, described Extreme Blue as an incubator program for IBM’s future top talent. Over 14 weeks each team, consisting of three technical interns and one business intern, works on a business problem IBM is trying to solve. Working under the guidance of IBM mentors, they develop a solution and a go-to-market strategy — much as if they were running their own software company.

Projects are selected from across the organization. Business units submit their ideas, which are then selected on the basis of scope, impact, target and clarity.

This year, there were six projects in all — three in Toronto and three in Ottawa. They came from divisions such as information management, e-commerce, systems and network management, application development and workplace collaboration software. The mentors, as well as funding for the projects, most of which goes into the interns’ pay during the 14 weeks, come from the business units that have been selected for the program.

“(The results) get integrated either as new features or new products. Sometimes the results will go into IBM research, to further technology or business innovation,” said Mukherjee. “And sometimes they’ll go into a white paper that says, ‘Here’s what the next step will be’ and lays out the basis for further investigation.”

One of the objectives of the program is to attract talented students.

“Our philosophy is recruit once, hire twice,” said Mukherjee, so there’s an effort to recruit students who are close to graduating.

In fact, in the last weeks of Wang’s stay in Toronto, she was approached with a job offer and, counter to her early intention to work in a university setting, she took it.

Aran Donohue, a fourth-year cognitive science student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was on a team working on an information management project. His team looked at open source tooling to create an application builder.

His summer was punctuated with stress-filled Fridays when the team rushed to meet deadlines, staying into the night sometimes while, over pizza, trying to figure out why a program wasn’t working.

As the summer wound down, Donohue said he spent more of his time e-mailing strangers at IBM to ask if they would meet him and tell him about their jobs.

“I’d talk to people and ask them, ‘So, what do you do all day?’ I’d learn about the different areas within IBM and figuring out where I might fit in. It’s ridiculous how willing people have been to talk about things. They’ve been very happy to help out.”

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