Have New York Startups Matured Enough to Train Interns for Tech Jobs?

7/20/12Follow @jpruth

The crop of companies being born in New York and relocating here has revived the city’s entrepreneurial spirit with the potential to transform the economy. Projects such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to establish an engineering campus on Roosevelt Island could help populate the city with more tech-savvy people, but that is still years in the making.

In the meantime, programs such as SummerQAmp and hackNY are working fast to match students with startups at a time when low-cost labor is essential in the competitive job market. But there may be some reluctance among local startups to take on interns in a community that is still early in its evolution.

On Wednesday night, I dropped by a reception at Foursquare’s headquarters for SummerQAmp, a national initiative with local roots that was introduced in early spring. The program gathers youths aged 18-24 who are interested in technology and teaches them skills they will put to work as interns at participating startups. The program focuses on students from low-income and at-risk backgrounds to give them a taste of careers in the technology industry.

SummerQAmp has some notable local supporters, including OnSwipe, Gilt Groupe, and even rocker Jon Bon Jovi. As altruistic as the program sounds, it’s providing a service that the companies themselves probably couldn’t tackle on their own.

A fair number of startups, especially the newly minted ones in New York, are just beginning to understand how to manage themselves—never mind overseeing interns. Some companies were launched by recent college grads, while other founders may have left school before completing their degrees. The point is, New York does not yet have the deep layers of experienced founders compared with other technology hubs. But that doesn’t have to hinder the training of interns here.

Steve Martocci, co-founder of New York-based GroupMe, and David S. Rose, CEO of Gust, spoke to Wednesday’s gathering of about 20 students from SummerQAmp about how they can help startups improve their software and technology. Gust, which has taken on a SummerQAmp intern, is a platform for matching startups with potential investors. Rose is enthusiastic about the program, and believes more New York entrepreneurs should be participating. “I’m really flabbergasted when other companies in the city don’t jump on this opportunity and grab as many interns as they can,” he said.

After his remarks, Rose told me that some entrepreneurs may not see themselves as mentors to interns—partly because they might not feel compelled to serve as teachers. That’s somewhat understandable given the competitive needs of startups that want skilled staffers who are ready to build a product.

Interns may have little to no training, which can seem like a drain on a startup’s scant resources. But Rose said quality assurance skills, which means checking for problems in software or a platform, can be learned quickly and have a positive effect on technology development.

Martocci said the value of quality assurance is frequently overlooked by job seekers as well as the startups that may need such technical staff. “Some companies wait too long to hire in QA,” he said. “Some people outsource the work overseas and there are a lot of great people in the U.S. who can handle these jobs.” He also said entry-level quality assurance jobs offer a glimpse of working on a software development team.

SummerQAmp has placed about 27 interns, through the efforts of nonprofit group CampInteractive in the Bronx, with companies with plans to bring on more. In fact, Martocci said his company’s SummerQAmp intern played a role in the preparation of the Experiences platform GroupMe launched in private beta this month. Experiences lets groups split the bill when paying for things like dinners, concert tickets, or vacations.

Can an ecosystem that is still a bit delicate help shape the minds of the next potential wave of innovators? In their own way, interns may be crucial for the New York tech community to endure beyond this golden period and further cement its place among the nation’s technology hubs.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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