Extreme Blue 2019

IBM shipped all of the North American Extreme Blue interns out to New York City for a few days to present our projects to a panel of executives, to which we had dedicated a summer and no small quantity of blood and sweat. I write this on my flight home from Newark, NJ to Billy Bishop in Toronto.

WIP

Extreme Blue?

IBM runs the Extreme Blue internships like tiny consulting projects. For twenty years (this year being the twentieth anniversary,) groups of four students have been charged with solving pressing internal and multi-client issues. With minimal guidance the team moves to create a practical solution, and IBM being IBM, ideally the solution is unique enough to be patented. Sometimes, the solution is dismal, mistakes are made, and the endeavor is a waste of time and money for IBM. Most of the time, though, the group of students is able to wrangle together something of a unique solution that, at best, can be used in production environments and sold to clients immediately, or provides insights to senior engineers regarding some technical question.

Most of the Extreme Blue (hereon EB) projects focus on applying some bleeding edge or novel technology to a pressing problem with relatively few internal subject-matter-experts (or, at least, few with time.) My project was not like this at all; we had to deal with well documented tools and arcanely documented old things. Some of the older tools and technologies we had to work with were written before stack overflow, before forums, before professional programming information leaked from heavy tomes and arcane scrolles of ye olde systeme programme creation knoweldage into easily digestable bites on the internet. This was an interesting challenge.

Luckily, though, we had a smattering of subject matter experts (hereon SMEs) to help us along and get us unstuck so we can drive towards a useful technical solution from which IBM can, with any luck, take away real useful knowledge, products or insights.

What Did I Do?

Lots and lots of Java. Most teams worked on cool ML stuff in Python. I worked in Java. I swam in oceans of Java. I dreamed in Java. I woke up and found myself thinking about the class structure of a human:

Ryan.getComms().speak(Mood.excited, "Spaghetti, please!");

I’m happy about this, because the additional experience fiddling with Java EE (which is probably the fourth-hardest thing to fiddle with in the software multiverse,) has prepared me for analyzing complex, distributed business logic systems.

I can’t say much else about the technical bits due to the confidential nature of the project.

What I can say is this: We had to develop a business case and a pitch around our technical solution, involving a four-minute pitch for a general audience, a set of posters, tech demos, and factor in business goals while deciding how to scope, structure and sell our technical solution to the problem.

Oh, a Team of Four?

Yes, four! I worked with two other engineering students, and one business student taking an MBA. Working in tight proximity was simultaneously a great learning experience and, well, cubicle hell. High pressure and strong, unique personalities and working styles caused a good deal of friction throughout the semester, but as far as I can tell, all the outcomes are good. Certainly, I was forced to deal with many of my personal inadequacies and weaknesses, and I know the rest of my team was challenged in similar ways. Now that we have finished, I look back on the experience quite positively, as a period of explosive growth and development. One team member in particular seems to hold some resentment towards me, but as I’ve recently learned, it is better to worry about how I treat said member, and not necessarily how my reputation stands with the member in question. Here I insert the first part of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion1.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Do I Recommend Extreme Blue?

A thousand times, yes.

Special shout-out to Jan Napenas2, the EB program manager for Canada, who cares deeply for the success and well-being of her small group of EB interns. The extra attention and investment in training for soft skills, team bonding exercises, and swag was appreciated.

Do I Recommend a Regular Internship?

I can’t say.

The EB experience is more akin to software consulting than working on a software product development team. IBM has very competitive pay and great support for its interns, but I can’t comment on the growth opportunities or work of regular interns personally. I do have anecdotes from roommates and friends, who have said that the IBM experience (as a technical intern) is akin to working as a gear in a giant machine. Work comes in, work goes out, the quality and speed of your work gets you places. The pace at IBM, as a regular intern, is more relaxed than other more ‘hardcore’ companies. You are expected to work diligently, but not to kill yourself. The pace is also not so relaxed as to ensure the only thing you complete during your internship is a few python scripts. This being said, if you are not a good intern, and your performance is terrible, there don’t seem to be many consequences apart from being given less work and, consequentially, receiving less experience from the time you have invested working at the company.

The Best Parts

I’d like to touch on a number of my favourite moments from the semester, if for no other reason, to preserve them better than occasional recall.

Glamping

Jan took the Canadian EBs (EBers? IBMer EBers? IBM-EBers?) (They really do call IBM employees IBMers.) on a camping trip to Long Point Eco Adventures where we got to zipline, hike, play silly games (win silly prizes) and sit to tell spooky campfire stories (Tailypo!) Taking a weekend to go throw a ball around at a beach, chat for hours, leave (most) of our electronics behind, and enjoy a few brews turned a regular weekend into a fantastic bonding experience between the Toronto and Ottawa EB teams. After this event, we wouldn’t see one another until the Expo at the end of the semester in Toronto, and after that, until the trip to New York City.

Oh, yeah, we got to go to New York City.

New York City

These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York3

New York City was a hell of a time. Presenting to the executives, after all of the training and preparation we had done, went smooth as butter. Answering further questions at our booths after was also fun, especially after the catered drinks and snacks arrived.

Canadian EBs were given an additional day to explore the city, which I used to have lunch with a relative and explore the Meat Packing District, the Highline, Le Bain (great view!), and Brooklyn. After some cards and heading off to bed early at 2 AM, I woke at 6 and went for a morning run in Central Park. I’d say I squeezed quite a lot out of my free days and evenings.

The Executive Presence Workshops

All of the Canadian EBs had the privilege of being trained by Brad Antle to embody executive presence, and to present with eminence. I’ll not share all of his sage advice here, but the techniques he taught made a world of difference, dramatically improving our ability to communicate with sincerity, gravity and confidence.

Dragon’s Den

Jan2 put us through three of these events, where each team pitched to a selection of local executives and were grilled to harden our business cases and technical strategies. They became progressively easier as we became accustomed to talking on a stage in a suit. The aforementioned Executive Presence Workshops were fundamental to our preparation,

Learning to Complete Low-Quality First Drafts

I’ll quote one of my coworkers now. This statement was made from the heart, off the cuff- a very real and unfiltered thought.

Wow, I never thought I’d meet a worse perfectionist than me!

At least now I know how arrogant and irritating I can be.

Anyway, I had to learn to just flip out a rough draft without worrying too much; I learned this far too late, and if I had learned it earlier I would have saved a ton of time, but when it comes to written work and conceptual programs, just slapping some rough work together is the best thing to do.

Our team ran into a few situations where thinking ahead was a hindrance, and of course, I continued to think ahead and attempt to carefully form my submission, response, question, or answer. In these situations, the additional time and effort I put into the little details resulted in an excess of stress for myself and others.

There is a time and a place for thoughtful output.

Learning to Trust Others

Continuing from the previous section, I had to learn to trust my coworkers and refrain from criticizing, condemning and complaining for shallow reasons. Micromanagement is not healthy for anybody involved. It sours relationships and burns bridges. Luckily, I was able to recognize this is myself and relax, but not before some damage was done. On the bright side, some groups had this problem but never resolved it, so I count myself lucky.

Conclusion

Extreme Blue was great. If you (the Engineering student reading this,) have the opportunity, I’d recommend applying and trying to get through the interviews. They’re not difficult compared to others I have done, but you need to have a drive. EB proposal owners (those who draft the projects and choose team members,) look for driven people with genuine interest in the project they are looking to hire you for. These people have a great personal interest in seeing the project succeed, and so, will only consider those who they feel can build to and past the project goals. Apply!


  1. The Enchiridion, hosted by MIT Classics, translated by Elizabeth Carter. The Internet Classics Archive by Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. World Wide Web presentation is copyright © 1994-2000, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics. [return]
  2. Jan Napenas M.Ed, is the Canadian Program Manager for the Extreme Blue Internship Program at IBM. [return]
  3. Lyrics: Theme From “New York, New York”, Frank Sinatra, Lyricists: Fred Ebb, John Kander, Link [return]