Attention IT: Your interns have something to teach you

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

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Jet Propulsion Lab

Lesson learned: Challenge interns, but keep requirements loose enough to encourage innovation.

Value gained: Patent applied for; student-developed software in process of being deployed.

JPL is a poster child for great internships. That's probably not surprising, as education is one of the missions of this federally funded research lab that is managed by the California Institute of Technology. It has 30 different programs and brings some 500 students (both college and high school) into the organization in a typical summer, according to Paula Caterina, group supervisor of university recruiting in human resources at JPL.

What may be surprising to some is the extent to which interns are allowed to not only stretch their intellectual wings but also do real projects that are used in real NASA missions.

The emphasis on internships comes from the very top. JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi started as a graduate student summer intern more than 35 years ago. "He's always stressing that we need to capture the imagination of the students and JPL as an innovative, fun, exciting place that's always coming up with new research," says IT CTO Soderstrom.

Indeed, on the JPL website, Elachi declares that interns are the future of JPL. "I consider Student Employees to be among the lab's most important and valued staff members," Elachi states. "They are often the source of many new ideas because nothing seems impossible to them, and that's right in line with our line of work. We are in the business of making the impossible possible."

Both Kern and a fellow intern -- Andres Riofrio, an 18-year-old who had just completed his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara -- so impressed their JPL mentors with their research that they were asked to give a talk on cloud computing (view the flier below) to the entire lab. "Both Alex and Andres were doing things that are significantly more advanced than what a lot of the rest of the people in the lab were doing," says Khawaja S. Shams, lead cloud architect at JPL (see Groundbreaking cloud projects from NASA JPL interns for details on their projects.)

This was Kern's second internship at JPL. (It's not unusual for interns to return again and again, and eventually to work full-time at JPL, says Shams, who himself started as an intern in 2005.) In the summer of 2010, when Kern was working on motor control system testing at JPL, he attended a seminar by Shams on how JPL planned to use cloud computing for the Mars Rover. The presentation sparked Kern's interest, and he approached Shams and worked out an internship for the following summer.

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JPL interns Alex Kern and Andres Riofrio
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