A Q&A with the Alum Behind Scarlet Data Studio, an Alumni-Run Internship Program
IN AN INDUSTRY where there aren’t enough internships for everyone—and competition for those that are available is steep—Vinesh Kannan (CS ’19) and his peers realized they could fill a void.
Thus, Scarlet Data Studio was created. A six-week summer internship program for Illinois Tech students interested software engineering, the program is run by Illinois Tech alumni. Kannan, who is a staff software engineer at Nuna Inc., funded the first two cohorts of interns—two in 2020 and 10 in 2021—with bonus money that he earned from his full-time job. He served as the interns’ mentors the first year, with five more alums joining in 2021 as mentors. In 2022 the program partnered with Illinois Tech’s Career Services office to serve 20 interns, with nine total mentors, including Edwin Zamudio (CS ’21), one of the program’s first two interns in 2020 and its first alum-turned-mentor.
Of the 12 interns in the first two cohorts, 11 have accepted offers for their next roles: working professionals.
“They have an alumni who’s worked with them closely and can advocate for them in new ways. We can say [to prospective employers], ‘This is someone that I’ve managed as an intern. I’ve seen them tackle the challenges that a real software-engineering team would run into,’” Kannan says, adding, “That’s a much more powerful way to open doors for our students.”
Q: Why is a program like Scarlet Data Studio important?
Kannan: Career Services emphasizes the importance of talking to alumni and industry professionals—ideally, the best scenario is when alumni see the potential in students. Still, connecting with industry professionals can be challenging. Students will talk to industry professionals, and instead of those professionals recognizing the huge amount of potential they have, or the obstacles they’ve overcome to even be at this point where they’re working on their degree, they’ll see all the things that are missing and say, ‘Well, OK, you don’t have what I have,’ or ‘You’re not ready to be a software engineer.’ That’s shooting us in the foot as alumni as well, because we are depending on an influx of strong graduates so that we can help our teams be more successful, so that we can build new kinds of digital innovations, so that we can have a group of really smart and thoughtful technologists who are tackling the problems that we face both in our careers and in our industry. I used to think it was the name brand of another university, the reputation that gets them there. But it’s also a really strong alumni and student connection where you have alumni who are pushing their companies to hire more people from their schools, alumni who are opening up the path for those students to land internships, other students and upperclassmen who are telling their classmates here’s exactly what you have to do to find an internship.
Q: How does the internship program work?
Kannan: Students get the chance to launch features in a production system. This year, the 20 interns worked on building Butterfly, a social matching app that pairs people with others in their community every week. Students worked on developing new matching algorithms, building features for the chat app, creating new data sources, building pipelines for new services, and other projects that are technically challenging and provide ownership over a part of the system. Students learn how to read and contribute to a large codebase, how to write tests, how to participate in code review, and how to launch a new feature. After their first big launch, students meet with their mentor to design a stretch project that will elevate their technical skills and explore an area that interests them. The students submit a schedule of when they’re available next to all of their other commitments. I match them up with mentors who have a similar schedule, and then they’ll have several meetings throughout the week to check on their progress. They’ll have a one-on-one with their mentor where they can discuss their career interests, how projects are going. They also have a pair of programming sessions, which are a time for the mentors to give them specific feedback on their code to help them get unblocked. Outside of that time, the students have time to work. They can plan their 10 hours whenever they want to make progress in their code, ask other people for questions on our Slack channel, talk to their mentor, or to ask for resources when they get stuck.
Q: How do you create a balance between your professional life and Scarlet Data Studio?
Kannan: There’s a similar reality that a lot of students run into, which is that the technology industry is changing so fast that often you need to have time to learn outside of your job to pick up new skills. I’m really lucky to work for a company that makes that time for me during my workday. A challenge that all of us on the alumni mentor team face is we do have to do a lot of work outside of our existing jobs to go through this program. The same is true for the students. They’re realizing, even outside of their coursework, they have to take on other projects and learn new things to really explore the interests that are important to them. Our hope is that by creating this kind of environment we can do a lot of that within this context where we’re supported by the school, we’re supported by our support network. It makes it easier to do that than if we were all just doing it on our own.
Hawks Helping Hawks
Mentors for Scarlet Data Studio include:
Aleksandra Kukielko (CS, M.S. ’18)
Andrew Tolentino (CS ’20)
Anna Benson (CS ’19)
Arushi Rai (CS ’20)
Divya Soopal (CS, M.S. ’20)
Edwin Zamudio (CS ’21)
Erik Quintanilla (CS ’20)
Morgan Peters (CS ’18)
Prince Hodonou (CS ’20)
Rachael Brooks (CS ’19)
summer 2021 and summer 2022
Ramir Aguilos (CE ’19)
Spriha Jha (CS ’17)
Vinesh Kannan (CS ’19)
winter 2022, summer 2021, and summer 2022