South Dakota School of Mines & Technology students pursuing careers in Computer Science can find excellent internship opportunities with Innovative Systems, a tech company based out of Mitchell, South Dakota. Their satellite office, located in the Ascent Innovation incubator on campus, has been providing student interns with valuable, real-world exposure to innovative projects for the past ten years. Linda Anderson Jeremy Thomas, and David Springhetti, who manage the interns, believe Innovative Systems has found their niche here.
"This place is a win-win for everybody," says Jeremy. "There are opportunities for students, and we get to recruit. We've contributed some really good talent for the company from interns who have participated in the program, graduated, and accepted positions with Innovative Systems in Mitchell."
Innovative Systems is a telecommunications and hardware/software engineering firm that provides integrated solutions for communication companies. They sell software to predominantly rural telephone companies and software/hardware combinations for cable providers. Other customers work in municipalities and the Power & Utility industry. With a staff of nearly 200 employees in Mitchell, the company is always looking to add talented individuals to the team. Their internship program offers them direct access to some of the brightest minds in the region.
The program was the brainchild of CEO Roger Musick, an SDSM&T alumni himself. He chose the Ascent Innovation space because of its convenient location on campus, which provides easy access for students between classes and allows Linda and Jeremy to attend senior design meetings, reviews, and presentations. Students gain exposure to other companies within the incubator, providing them with an opportunity to see what else is happening in the local community. It's a good transitional experience for those students who end up going to work for other startups in the space.
Linda and Jeremy find the majority of their interns from career fairs held every spring and fall. Innovative Systems spends a lot of one-on-one time with students at the fairs, meeting with them to learn about their interests and get a feel for their personalities rather than simply collecting resumes. After determining the company's current needs, they figure out how the students will fit in with the next cycle and which upcoming projects they can match them with. Candidates are interviewed by David, Linda, and Jeremy—a situation many students find nerve-wracking, but one that provides them an opportunity to hone their interview skills.
Once they are brought on board, interns undergo a month-long training program, where they are immersed in learning about software development and toolstack, coding standards, and other disciplines that Innovative Systems emphasizes. Of equal importance, they are introduced to other students in the program they will be working with. "We stress working together and helping each other," Linda explains. "That's the computer science profession—you'll be working with others and helping solve problems the rest of your life!"
The training is a hit with students. "We get great reviews," Jeremy says. "It's daunting at first, but the students all appreciate it and tell us constantly, 'don't ever lose that!' It helps foster teamwork and communication."
After completing the training portion of their internship, students are assigned various projects. Jeremy describes these as "greenfield projects"—those that can be started without considering any prior work. They're akin to test projects that have moved beyond the proof of concept stage. Many of these projects gain momentum, and the products are eventually incorporated into Innovative Systems' existing product suite.
Another key component of the program is a book club. Students are required to read one or two chapters every week from computer science books designed to teach them the foundation and SOLID principles of computer science. They meet weekly to review what they have read and discuss what they have learned.
Interns start in May, after the school year ends, and work 40-hour weeks all summer long. They have the option to continue part-time in the fall, when classes resume. The number of interns varies depending on workload, generally ranging 6 and 14. "We have a lot of investment in our students, personally and professionally," Linda says. "We want to see them all succeed, and wish them the best, whether they stay with Innovative Systems or go elsewhere."
Going elsewhere is one trend Innovative Systems would like to reverse. Jeremy sees Rapid City's emerging commitment to technology and innovation as a positive step in the right direction. "We're losing too much talent," he laments. "We have a great school here, but graduates are leaving to find work. We educate them and then we say goodbye. A lot of them would like to stay in South Dakota, but there are few job opportunities for them. Ascent Innovation, in particular, is a key asset to Rapid City's economic growth. Somebody has to have a good influence on students and their contribution is key."
Innovative Systems plans to continue offering student interns the opportunity to immerse themselves in projects that help give them a glimpse of what real life is like.
"We like School of Mines students," Linda says. "They work hard. We usually end up hiring at least one intern, after they graduate, to work full-time."
Adds Jeremy, "We're focused on giving good opportunities to students, and are proud of the reviews we get and the growth we see."