Hiring Interns from Harvey Mudd – The Real Story

Don’t do it! It was awful!! Armageddon. Pipe cleaners run amok and all of our spaceships sent to the void. Don’t talk to the students there – Run Away, Run Away!

Ok, here’s the real scoop. They’re beyond exceptional. But do you know how hard it is to find A+ programmers? The fact that most companies are unaware of Harvey Mudd College is a gigantic advantage to those of us that are familiar with the quality of their students.

The Beginning

This all started when my youngest daughter decided to go to Harvey Mudd College. I’d heard of the school but barely. She then would tell us about school over the year and it was impressive. And then the next summer at work we had a code war (great way to have a morale building day). And she asked me to do that for the students at Mudd. It’s so rare as a father that you can do something for your daughters once they hit the teens that I jumped at the chance.

So I asked the C.S. department at Mudd and they said sure. And then I sat down to write the code war framework program. And it was a lot of work. A lot. So I figured, why not invite other schools in. And with that the Windward Code War was born. Most of the top schools participated. And out of all those schools, some with over ten times the student body of Mudd, the school with the largest number of participating students was… Mudd. And not just the most students participating, I think it was also the only school where many of the participants weren’t C.S. majors (my daughter is bio-engineering).

That code war participation rate is what really peaked my interest. There are a handful of schools where most of the students are brilliant. But that level of participation where students spent their Saturday for the pure joy of programming, that to me signifies what’s special about the students, and their school.

Hiring Interns

So this year, for the first time, we decided to look for interns outside of Colorado. I sent an email to all Mudd participants in the code war asking them to apply for an internship at Windward. And three applied. When we get applications from students at C.U., about 20% of them pass our interview process. So I was figuring with three applications I would be lucky if one was acceptable. I was not optimistic.

All three did awesome. One of them gave me one of the best answers I have ever heard to an interview question. They struggled with the coding problems I gave them and then worked them through to good solutions. They walked me through code they had written showing a very good understanding of it and where it could be improved (their entry in the code war in each case. They nailed it.

I went in hoping to find one that was acceptable. I left having to pick two out of the three. That just doesn’t happen. And keep in mind we’re picky. We’re very very picky. And all three nailed it.

Work, Work, Work

My approach to interns is when they show up I push them into the deep end of the pool, and then throw them a cinderblock. Not to be mean, but we have things we need to get done and the interns are part of the development staff. So it’s here’s what you need to do, figure it out and get it done.

It was definitely a shock.

Mudd may be challenging, but the problems are defined and the criteria for success (an A) very clearly defined. The first job for Sarah & Wendy was “make run report better.” Now lots of people had opinions about what better was, but many of those opinions conflicted with each other. So they had to dive into existing code, learn C# and ASP.NET, redesign a web app, and complete it in 2 weeks.

And before they could take a breath with that completed, they were thrown into creating datasources for our main product, Sarah on MongoDB and Wendy on SFDC. Now keep in mind both of them just finished their Sophomore year. They hadn’t really even done much with SQL in classes yet. Our main product is over ½ million lines of code. And the job was to figure out how to use these datasources (what query language, etc.), learn our API for datasources, write the datasources, learn the API for the design wizard, and write the datasource select wizard.

Each was paired with an intern from C.U. and those four interns, over the summer, created two complete datasources each. This was an outstanding achievement if the four people had been developers with five years’ experience. For four students, it was incredible. And they’re Sophomores! And the quality of their code was great.

Fun, Fun, Fun

The energy level at Windward goes way up over the summer because we have more interns and all the interns are full-time. It’s great. Sarah & Wendy added to that big time.

First off, they rock at games. Apparently the students in the East dorm at Mudd spend every waking minute playing games. For the first two months Sarah won every game played here (Tuesday nights we play games after work). Every single time either just Sarah won with Wendy second or Sarah & Wendy tied as winners. It impressed the hell out of everyone here (there’s good coding, but kicking ass at games is even more impressive).

We have had pipe cleaners lying around because our CEO read some blog about how they spur creativity. Mostly they spurred collecting dust. But Sarah & Wendy went crazy with them. We still have pipe cleaner art hanging all over the place. Still puts a smile on everyone’s face.

Mudd Students

According to Sarah & Wendy, they’re nothing special compared to the other students at Mudd. If so, that’s an incredible statement about the quality of the students there. Both of them were given very high level requirements and from that turned out well designed products and well written code. And they did so quickly. As one of the developers here said, they’re better than he was at that age. This is world-class by any measure.

They’re also both personable & outgoing. While that is not universal at Mudd, it is pretty common. The environment there fosters collaboration and community and that carries over to how they operate at work.

My absolute rule on hiring (interns & full-time) is every hire must be better than the average here. That’s the only way to raise our skill level (do the math). Mudd makes that a lot easier. We will definitely continue to hire interns from Mudd. And we will make job offers to both Sarah & Wendy next year.

If you’re looking for the best of the best, and you have a work environment where people at that level will thrive, Mudd is an awesome place to recruit. But don’t tell anyone else – students at this level are very hard to find.

ps – Attention Mudd students – you want to work at Windward (it’s an amazing experience).

Postscript

We have been lucky that by making offers to our best interns when they graduate, we can fill all full-time entry level positions from those interns. (And every intern who has been offered a job has accepted.) It’s a great system because the individual knows exactly what work here will be like and we know exactly what we are getting. That’s why the above does not discuss hiring graduates (from Mudd or anywhere) for full-time positions.