.Prepped for Launch

1511 news1Internship ecosystem primes new local tech talent

Several days a week, Gregory Ruffin goes downtown to NextSpace, where he sits next to his mentor, Gabriel Kopito, a web developer at local web company Launch Brigade, which specializes in building websites. Under Kopito’s supervision, Ruffin is creating an online automatic billing system. A participant in Launch Brigade’s internship program, the 22-year-old computer science student from Atlanta is learning firsthand how real-world web development works.

“I know coding and programming from school, but I don’t have a practical use for it,” says Ruffin, a Cabrillo College student. “If you asked me to do something, I don’t know if I could go out and make that project.”

Launch Brigade’s goal for its internship program is to bridge the gap between what computer science students learn in school and the practical skills they need to work in the industry.

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Launch Brigade and its sister company, Scratch Space, set interns up working on website design or development projects for nonprofits and community organizations. At the end of the 120-hour unpaid internship, if the intern works well with the team and there is enough work to employ them, Launch Brigade brings them on.

Chris Miller, president and CEO of Scratch Space and Launch Brigade, sees it as a win for everyone involved: community organizations get web products, the intern gets trained on real-world projects, and the company gets to know the intern—watching him or her closely to see if they’re a good fit for the team. If they are, they’ve already been pre-trained in how to work at the company. Miller says the interns who don’t ultimately join the Launch Brigade team leave with practical skills and a better understanding of the industry that will serve them elsewhere.

Over 30 interns have gone through Launch Brigade’s internship program. Of its current staff of 10, all but two went through its internship program. Miller started the program because he couldn’t find the local tech talent he needed to grow his company, so he decided to create it.

Launch Brigade trains interns not just in web and IT skills, but in how to be part of a web company. Judith Wellner, project lead and art director likens it to an apprenticeship, where the staff works with the interns to help drive them through their project.

“This industry is moving really fast, which is why any college or university can’t keep up with the speed of improvement in the industry,” says Wellner. “Through the apprenticeship program we can actually give people real-life projects that will be on the web. They can learn the most cutting-edge techniques.”

Launch Brigade is now part of a growing Santa Cruz internship ecosystem. Cabrillo College and USCS both have tech internship placement programs. The county’s Regional Occupation Program, which works with Launch Brigade, connects students with on-the-job training. Local tech opportunities for tech-savvy young adults abound, stretching from software development to financial services.

One group currently creating a new internship program is local tech resource hub Santa Cruz Works.

Mark Adams, program manager at Santa Cruz Works, says having a strong internship network is important for the community. Companies can woo students, especially from UCSC, into local work. At campus career fairs students meet recruiters from Microsoft and other Silicon Valley giants. So, to bring attention to local tech opportunities, Adams, a 2014 UCSC grad, and Amanda Rotella from the city’s Economic Development Department are working to create a Santa Cruz Works central internship platform where companies and interns can connect.

“Students don’t realize they could be working in town,” says Adams. “They don’t know there’s an opportunity to stay local and intern with comparable companies.”

“That ultimately provides a terrific, contextualized learning experience,” says Matthew Weis, program coordinator for Work Based Learning at Cabrillo.

Miller works with Cabrillo to identify technical skill gaps in the curriculum that can be developed during the internship. From there, he’s able to recruit interns and target ideal candidates. If a candidate shows interest, but doesn’t yet have the necessary skills, Miller provides them with online resources, server space and guidance to get them to the point where they could possibly become an intern.

A non-hierarchical company, Launch Brigade relies on its staff to be well-rounded and always engaged. There are both designers and developers, but there aren’t hard lines drawn between the two, and their skill sets often overlap. Simply following directions, Wellner says, is not a creative or effective way of getting results. Everyone at Launch Brigade has different strengths, she says, and employees must think for themselves.

“I strongly believe that people do their best when there’s a space created for them where they can actually do their best,” she says. “I’m better at managing big-picture stuff, but that doesn’t mean it’s higher up. Everybody is encouraged to work at the company as if it’s their own company.”

Introducing interns to this flexible model gives them the freedom to pursue their passions within the industry. Ruffin, the intern putting together an online billing system, has focused on development and would eventually like to work in the game industry. One of Launch Brigade’s former interns, Albert De Guzman, is now an employee mentor who is described as both a great designer and a great developer. That makes him a valuable asset.

De Guzman wants to create the feeling of family within the internship program. “The idea of having that [closeness] made me want to make this team grow,” De Guzman says. “They’re the ones that brought me into this industry, and they are making me learn more about my craft everyday.”

The program’s first incarnation in 2010, though, had a set curriculum that interns would work through. The model proved to be cost-prohibitive. Right now, Launch Brigade’s internship program is hands-on, driven by mentorships and individual projects.

Miller would eventually like to create a free training program on the tech industry. His vision is to secure funding to create a boot camp for emerging developers. In doing so, he could help create local tech talent which, in turn, would create more Santa Cruz jobs.

“There are plenty of people who are underemployed or unemployed that could have jobs in the tech industry,” he says. “They’re just not fortunate enough to have the financial resources to get there themselves.”

PHOTO: Chris Miller (far right) started an internship program to create the kind of tech talent in Santa Cruz he wanted to see. KEANA PARKER


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Cat Johnson
Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: catjohnson.co.
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