4 questions to ask before recruiting student talent for your innovation practice

Leveraging student talent in innovation and prototyping opens the door to unconventional ways of solutioning, serving as an invaluable innovation asset.

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Wherever you might be in your innovation journey, you will inevitably invest a considerable amount of time thinking through all aspects of talent acquisition, retention and everything in between. After experiencing the results of over 60 students at The Tech Nest, I thought I’d share a few perspectives that will help jump start the cornerstone of your innovation practice – student talent.

As hiring managers, many of us rely on a candidate’s years of experience and accomplishments to assess their match and future success. But how do you evaluate and recruit students? There are many questions to consider, such as:

  • How do I design an innovation practice that utilizes student talent?
  • What are the benefits in hiring students?
  • What should I look for when evaluating student talent?
  • What should I look for when evaluating my staff?

1. How do I design an innovation practice that utilizes student talent?

Before your search for talent begins in earnest, it is paramount that you have thought through the foundations of an innovation practice that utilizes student talent. Some key areas include:  

  • Diversity – It’s important to consider diversity. Diverse backgrounds are always important, but also consider diversity in terms of academic programs. Strive to have computer science and finance majors paired up, particularly if the finance student has a desire to learn to code and the computer science student what to learn about the interworking’s of finance. Diversity leads to different approaches and different perspectives, which is always an asset to experimentation.
  • Orientation – A strong and repeatable orientation process is important. Here you should cover the basics of the organization, their mission and purpose. How is the firm organized?  What function or organization will they report in to?  It’s valuable to set expectations regarding cultural norms and behaviors, especially with regards to confidentiality and social media expectations.  
  • Coaching – An important aspect of our work at The Tech Nest is ensuring that students are assigned a mentor. A mentor engages in everything from career experiences to aspects of the organization they are working in. This is just as fulfilling for the employee as it is for the student. It affords students the opportunity to develop a relationship with someone outside of their work assignment and for us it has been a differentiator and a reflection of our culture of caring for the individual.
  • Outcomes – Sometimes we go beyond defining an outcome and target a specific technology. It’s been my experience that while innovating, it’s important to focus on the outcome and not the technology. Many times, the students have come back after a few days and proposed a different technology. Granting teams the authority to change the path to achieving an outcome often leads to amazing results.
  • Onsite rotation – If logistics permit, take the opportunity to have the students visit your headquarters. It not only gives them a true sense of your corporate culture but might afford you a learning or two. I once had a student ask how work got done with everyone behind closed doors and offices. It was remarkably insightful and something that now resonates given our adoption of an open floor workspace.

2. What are the benefits in hiring students?

Innovation is as much about curiosity and experimentations as just about anything else. A lot of the emerging and disruptive technologies present radical departures from the designs and architectures that have shaped our experiences. From maintaining data center infrastructure to leveraging infrastructure as code in a cloud environment, there are significant shifts in how we approach building solutions.

The underpinning of emerging technology in most instances presents a departure from how we have built and deployed solutions in the past. An argument can be made that it has leveled the playing field between experience (with current technologies) and experimentation (with emerging technologies). The results become exponential when you pair the right mix of experience with student talent. Additionally, students can invigorate your organization by challenging conventional wisdom and diversifying your perspective.

3. What should I look for while evaluating student talent?  

Now that you’re sold on leveraging student talent let’s discuss some essential criteria. In the early days of standing up The Tech Nest, I reviewed over 200 resumes, selecting 40 and interviewing 20 before selecting five students for the semester. While course work, major, GPA, and internships are all important aspects while evaluating student talent, I have found that confidence, curiosity and communication have set a great candidate apart from a good candidate.

  • Confidence – A successful student candidate showcases confidence with humility. Confidence in their ability to challenge a long-standing approach or way of operating is something I look for during the interview process and while examining a student’s portfolio of work. You will find this skill students who are comfortable asking questions and equally comfortable walking through his/her thought process..      
  • Curiosity – A successful student candidate is curious about the business outcome as they are enamored by the technology. You will find this skill in students who ask about how a solution with make a difference to the organization. Likewise, ensure they are curious about the myriad of ways to approach a problem.
  • Communication – A successful student candidate understands the importance of translating complex solutions into simplified concepts. You will find this skill in students who reach into the core of a problem, communicate practical solutions, and effectively hold your attention.

4. What should I look for while evaluating my staff?

Identifying and selecting student talent is only a third of the equation. A student’s success is also about who on your team can guide them through the learning and innovation process.. n employee’s agility, attitude and ability are important criteria to pair with your student talent..

  • Agility – A successful employee candidate is someone who can passionately advocate for zero defects in a data-center migration initiative, while adapting their mindset to accept the flaws in voice-enabled prototype. You will find this skill in employees who are willing to accept different approaches of designing and delivering across emerging technologies and who are passionate about inviting diverse and different perspectives.
  • Attitude – A successful employee candidate is someone who displays positive, passionate energy by going the extra mile for the team. You will find this skill in employees who believe students can accomplish what may have seemed impossible. On many occasions, I’ve seen employees who set a low expectation for students, only to be blown away by their limitless potential..
  • bility – A successful employee candidate is not only someone who openly invites technical and business challenges but is comfortable with others challenging norms and conventions. You will find this skill in employees who have the expertise required to assist the student with business outcome and user design questions while remaining open-minded to other methods of solving a problem.

Bringing it together

By its very nature, student talent serves as a potentially untapped resource, opening the door to unconventional ways of solutioning and offering a proving ground to solve some of your organization’s most challenging problems. Before the talent search begins, it’s important to consider the design of your student program and the key ingredients needed in an ideal student candidate as well as the staff selected to guide and mentor.

We work hard to make sure our students at The Tech Nest have an opportunity for learning beyond the assigned projects, with a rich orientation and coaching engagements so that this is an amazing experience to start off their careers. The results are reflected in breaking applicant records at university recruiting events.

Technology, process, and business value are all vital to success, however, I didn’t count on how the rich interactions with our student talent would bring me such personal and professional fulfillment. I am continually in awe of their perspectives, their potential, and their passion. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with such amazing talent and I hope this affords you a perspective on your future innovation endeavors.

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