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How IT grads are shining brightly in Summer of Tech's world

For a long time, there has been a gap between what tertiary institutions can provide and what Kiwi tech employers want. Tertiary insitutions try to put in that 'real world experience', but how do students carve out their tech talent? Ruth McDavitt, Summer of Tech CEO, talks to Techday about how her programme works its magic over the last ten years.

"We are a matchmaking programme for students coming out of tertiary study to get their first IT Jobs in New Zealand. Our goal is to work with industry to make sure that they've got the right skills when they finish their studies, and also get them some work experience so that they're ready to hit the ground running when they start their careers," she says.

For employers, it's a great avenue to find fresh and upcoming new talent. Organisations can run bootcamps, list intern roles, participate in recruitment events and run internships from mid-November to mid-February.

"We run events for students - they're all free, and they're all led by industry people who want to either give back and give people a hand up to get them started in their career, or they're actually looking to hire so they want students to know certain things so that they'll be more work-ready."

Students have the chance to get industry experience in a range of areas through bootcamps and hackathons.

"Students will get a range of technical skills and professional skills by attending our events. The technical skill stuff is more of an 'inspiration information'. We're not going to make them experts - they're quite short, sharp events but at least they're exposed to how these particular tools and technologies are being used in industry right now," she explains.

McDavitt explains that the bootcamps are short, sharp training sessions, with a focus on complementary skills.

"The bootcamps are kind of like a finishing school, where we're trying to be complementary to what they're learning at their formal study. So they're really about inspiration, education and upskilling. That could be theoretical or practical exercises and they go across technical and professional skills."

There are also premium events called hackfests, which are similar to hackathons or startup weekends.

"Our hackfests are for teams of students who probably don't know each other, they're probably at very different skill levels and backgrounds. They work together over a short period of time and they deliver something by the end of one or two days. They work with industry mentors so it's very intense. Some students say they learn more in one day than they do in an entire semester of study. They also get something for their portfolio, in terms of 'this is something that I built in my spare time, look what I did'," she explains.

The internships are much longer and are real jobs with an employment contract. They run from November through to February. Students have a website profile to connect with each other and employers. McDavitt says that 80% of interns are retained beyond the summer internship period.

"We're not a placement service, we're more of a marketplace. So the events that we run are to help students get ready to be chosen. The recruitment season is starting this week so it's about get get lots of sun in the world of Summer of Tech!"

"The benefits to those employers are basically that it's their talent pipeline. They're using it as a strategic recruitment tool. It's much easier, much faster and much more customised for student and grad employment than anything else. They also get willing helpers to work for them over the summer," she explains.

"So as long as they mentor them and support them in the first couple of weeks, employers will get value for the balance of the internship. So they're getting an extra pair of hands, fresh ideas, fresh thinking. People who don't need retraining," she says.

"That's often what we hear is 'oh we like students because they don't have bad habits yet. So they're getting new employees. It's also a really good way to grow new managers or new team leads. Mentoring an intern is a really great first management role and sometimes teaching skills to others is a great way to embed those skills in yourself," she continues.

Sponsors on board include Solnet, Catalyst, Pushpay, Assurity, Datacom, Trademe, Powershop, Xero, ATEED, Callaghan Innovation and Paper Kite. With names like that, McDavitt says there are a lot of giant success stories.

"One of the ones I like is the story of YouDo, which hired an intern in 2007. He was working on a brand new project that was out-of-the-bottom drawer crazy idea. The project turned into a product, which turned into a product that was used quite successfully by a lot of customers, that turned into a company that got sold to Cisco," she explains.

"So Luke, who was the intern, moved to Europe to run this product for Cisco. He's just come back to New Zealand last year because it's run its course. He's ready for his second job and he's come back to me, so that was quite a nice story because it grew into a business," she says.

Women in tech is another area where McDavitt is keen to shine a spotlight.

"A lot of the time they won't be confident to apply for technical roles but with a lot of support and encouragement we can get them really started into some cool stuff. It's really hard. My main strategy is role modelling, so I try to have half female presenters at all our bootcamps," she explains.

"All our mentors try and make everything as inclusive as possible - that's not just for women but for anyone who's a bit shy or not confident in their skills. We're getting good results, last year we had 20% female candidates but 35% actually placed into internships. This year we've got a higher proportion of women candidates than ever before, so I'm super excited about that."

McDavitt says that cybersecurity programmes have also been a big focus, thanks to a connection with Duo.

"We've done a big push this year to try and support the cyber industry, which is screaming out for talent. We've done extra bootcamps and extra promotion amongst students who really have no idea that this is a field. We are super excited and working hard to get some fresh local cyber talent coming into the market, so that is one area that we have been focusing on this year," she says.

"Aura Information Security is one of our sponsors who's worked in this area, and they actually ran a bootcamp for us in Wellington and they were extremely impressed. They set 10 challenges for the students. They didn't think anyone would get to level 10 and they were actually pleasantly surprised that quite a few did."

The sun is also shining bright for Summer of Tech, with plans to extend programmes to be more on-demand.

"Next year we're quite interested in exploring things we can do beyond summer. We know that for some companies and some students, summer is not the best time to be working on new projects so we're exploring ways that we can have an on-demand talent pool next year," she concludes.

Learn more about Summer of Tech here.

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