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IBM gets extreme

Monday, August 14, 2000

By Hiawatha Bray,
Boston Globe Staff

Harvard senior A.J. Shankar has never had any trouble finding a summer job. His studies in applied mathematics and expertise with computers have made him one of those ”golden geeks” so eagerly sought after by Internet companies. He’s done multiple stints at new tech companies that offer lots of cash and stock options; he could have done the same again this year.

Instead, Shankar picked long hours, a lower pay rate, and a chance to work on something really cool at a company not known for being cool: IBM Corp.

”I’ve worked for three start-ups,” Shankar says, ”and none of them were as interesting as this is.”

He’s talking about his work on Sash, a piece of Linux software that’ll help amateur programmers easily produce complex and sophisticated programs. Shankar and a team of bright undergraduates have spent the summer grinding out the code that’ll make it work. IBM provides a salary, room and board, and the best laptop and desktop computers that money can buy.

”We’re treated like mature developers,” says Shankar’s colleague, Andrew Wu, a junior at the University of Illinois. In exchange, IBM gets relatively cheap labor from a band of absolutely brilliant youngsters.

IBM calls the program Extreme Blue, and the company values it not only for the work the students do but also because it gives IBM first crack at the world’s best computer students.

The seeds of the program were planted in 1995. John Patrick, IBM’s vice president for Internet technology, was working on projects to build large heavy-duty Web sites to provide the public with information on major sporting events, such as the Olympic Games in Atlanta. During the summer months, Patrick began hiring bright college students to work on his projects.

”The Internet had actually started in a university environment,” said Patrick. ”We found it very useful for students to be involved because they knew about the Internet.”

But then Patrick noticed that the same students came back the next summer and the next, excited by the chance to work on real-world computing projects.

Of course, IBM already hired lots of summer interns, but these kids were different. They were unusually smart and strongly motivated, and they worked as much for the challenge as the paycheck. Patrick and his colleague, IBM distinguished engineer David Grossman, realized they’d stumbled across a superb way to hire the next generation of distinguished engineers. ”We thought, well, if it works for us on this scale, let’s try and expand,” said Grossman.

Instead of ad hoc hiring, Patrick and Grossman set up a rigorous program to identify and woo the best of the best. They culled resumes from the nation’s top colleges and subjected the candidates to intense interviews.

One common question: How do you design a high-security vending machine? The idea wasn’t to find the ”right” answer, but to see if the students had a basic understanding of the difficulties involved and confidence they could tackle the problem. The goal, said Patrick, was to find ”24 really good computer science students who have no fear.”

The first Extreme Blue team came to IBM’s Cambridge subsidiary, Lotus Development Corp., in 1999. Students were divided into seven teams, each led by an experienced IBM engineer, each devoted to the creation of practical software that IBM planned to bring to market.

For example, one team developed improved software for managing large Web sites. IBM will use this software to manage its Web site for the Olympic Games in Sydney. Another project, Gryphon Message Broker, enables a Web site to automatically send updated news headlines to Internet computers around the world. IBM used this product to provide up-to-date scores from the Australian Open tennis tournament earlier this year.

Patrick was so pleased with the results that he doubled the size of the project. This year, there are 48 Extremists – half in Cambridge, and half at IBM’s research operation in San Jose, Calif. The Cambridge team was recruited from the nation’s top schools: Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon.

This year, the Cambridge team is totally devoted to software for the open-source Linux operating system. All their work will be published on the Internet, allowing fellow Linux programmers around the world to offer improvements, criticisms, and even a few geekish insults. ”Everything we write, people will be able to see and make fun of,” Shankar said. That’s a strong incentive to get it right.

Shankar is part of the team that’s creating Sash, a program that will allow someone with limited coding skills to write powerful programs. ”There are very, very few hard-core C hackers,” says Ari Heitner, a team member from Carnegie Mellon.

But while few people know advanced languages like C or C++, many thousands can write simpler scripting languages such as HTML or Javascript. In the Sash system, a script writer will be able to write Web-based applications that can automatically run advanced program modules downloaded from an online code library. Instead of having to learn how to build a simple spreadsheet program, the Sash user will be able to find a prepackaged one and have it work with his other code. Another Extreme Blue team is designing a drag-and-drop interface to work with Sash. Other projects include an effort to port IBM’s Workspace-on-Demand network management software to Linux, and a Linux program that can be used to ”benchmark” the performance of computer systems.

It’s not all work. IBM keeps the Extremists entertained with outings to museums, Red Sox games, and the like. After all, the idea is to entice them to come to work for IBM once they graduate, not to work them to exhaustion.

Then again, these students love to work – so much so that most of them plan to continue working on their Extreme Blue projects once they return to school. IBM will continue to pay them for the hours they work, and will let them keep the company laptops for as long as they contribute fresh code.

For the Extremists, the chance to work on real-world computing problems is far more than a part-time job. It’s a vital part of their education, and perhaps the best part. ”This is like another class,” said Shankar, ”except it’s cool.”

Hiawatha Bray is a member of the Globe Staff. He can be reached by e-mail at [email][email protected][/email].