What it Takes to be Extreme Blue

Chen: Extreme Blue, an IBM internship program that allows some of the best students to work on projects-from grid computing to Linux-that are actually integrated into IBM products and service offerings.

When my 21-year-old brother started looking for a job this year, I knew hed be up against some tough competition. As graduation and summer approaches, hes still looking, and from the amount of reader mail I receive asking about job leads, hes not the only college senior wringing his hands wondering what it takes to get employed.

This week, I spoke with Jane Harper, director of university talent programs at IBM, to see what it takes to get that elusive post-graduation job. Harper sees more than 15,000 undergraduate and graduate school resumes a year. Since 1999, she has run Big Blues Extreme Blue internship program, an IBM incubator of sorts that allows some of the best students to work on projects—from grid computing to Linux—that are actually integrated into IBM products and service offerings.

IBM started Extreme Blue during the Internet boom, when the corporation, like everyone else, was losing the best and the brightest to dot-com start-ups.

"It was obvious that IBM was not relevant to the Michael Jordans of computing back then," she said. "We had to do something different to get the best talent."

Today, students from MIT, Caltech, Stanford and other prestigious schools compete for about 100 slots per semester (fall, winter and summer). The students work on projects in teams of four, with each team composed of three technical students and one MBA candidate. Roughly 85 percent of students from last summers program received offers for full-time employment. Ninety percent of those students work at IBM today.

Harper says successful candidates for Extreme Blue show up prepared. Theyve done internships at IBM or at other companies every summer theyve been in school. Running your own start-up, or doing research at the university level, isnt too shabby, either.

You also need to be able to discuss your skills and how youd apply them in particular situations. During a 90-minute interview, Harper asks students to talk through complicated business and technical scenarios.

But prior experience isnt the only thing Harpers looking for: She wants students who are actively involved in the community—either through work in open-source circles or mentoring schoolchildren in after-school computer classes. "We love it when students are part of the open-source community and spend time talking to other people in the industry," she said. "Were looking for people who are really ready to give back."

At the same time, Harper said sometimes, some of the top students arent selected. Like most corporations, the IBM hiring process is skills- and project-driven. If shes looking for interns experienced in pervasive computing, shell bypass a star in cryptography.

"We look for skills, experience and passion," Harper said. "But were looking for specific skills to work on a particular project. It doesnt mean a student wont be selected next time, though. What we want are people who are totally passionate about the industry and about their work. If a candidate is motivated, well see them again."

IBM is currently accepting applications for its fall 2003 and spring 2004 Extreme Blue program. All candidates must be enrolled in an undergraduate program or pursuing a graduate or post-graduate degree. More information can be found at www.ibm.com/extremeblue.

Hows your job search going? Let me know at anne_chen@ziffdavis.com.