Leveraging College Interns as an Innovation Partner
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Leveraging College Interns as an Innovation Partner

By Vennard Wright, CIO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC)

Vennard Wright, CIO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC)

As Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which is a public water utility serving 1.8 million customers in Maryland, I am ultimately responsible for providing the requisite leadership to transform the management of WSSC’s business technology capabilities and transformative services to support the Commission’s 24x7 operations by ensuring that service delivery is in full alignment with the General Manager and Commissioners’ strategic goals and objectives.

Among those defined goals are leveraging innovation to become the world-class water utility, where excellent products and services are on tap. However, one of the most critical challenges I face daily is balancing strategic goals and innovation against operational or tactical requirements such as periodic refreshes of network infrastructure and workstations.

Many IT leaders can attest to the fact that day-to-day responsibilities tend to win out over aspirational goals such as developing and proving that new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain will work in the enterprise, so we fall into the recurring rut of simply maintaining the existing technologies and delivering on a few operational commitments and priorities per year, while only providing cursory attention to industry advancements in cutting edge technologies.

I’ve addressed this challenge over the past two summers by working within our existing WSSC summer intern program to identify college students who are majoring in STEM fields and interested in technologies that we’re seeking to explore for viability and possible implementation within our environment.

“We’ve been able to engage with industry partners who can work to continue development of our new technology applications beyond the period our interns are available to engage with us”

During the summer of 2017 we tasked our cohort of college interns with developing multiple video games in the Stencyl platform that would teach curious high school students about careers in water, in partnership with the MD Bio Foundation who helped to provide industry oversight, guidance and suggestions to the interns as they created their respective gaming scenarios. This helped WSSC realize some of its outreach goals and addressed the need for cultivation of its career pipeline, while providing new ideas for succession planning.

This summer we opted to follow a similar model and chose augmented reality (AR) as the technology we wanted to explore for eventual use within WSSC. To proceed, we selected eighteen tech-savvy college students and divided them into two teams which were focused on the development of new use cases, to create additional efficiencies within our day-to-day operations. We also selected World Services, LLC, as our industry partner to reduce the time it took for the interns to be familiarized with the technology and to serve as mentors to our IT interns throughout their ten-week engagement.

The ten-week paid internship program culminated with a review by a panel of judges led by our WSSC Deputy General Manager for Operations who judged the AR projects based on several factors that included creativity, viability and alignment with WSSC’s mission. In the end,the AR projects delivered on several key objectives including continuation of WSSC’s experiential learning model and extension of the IT department’s ability to test and implement new technologies.

My experience with our internship program over the past two summers has helped me to develop a working model for extending the capabilities of our IT development and has exponentially scaled our ability to evaluate new technologies and to work on development projects that our team otherwise would be unable to tackle, because of existing commitments.

In addition, we’ve been able to engage with industry partners who can work to continue development of our new technology applications beyond the period our interns are available to engage with us. As a result, we’ve been able to continue with support of our critical infrastructure and to deliver on key technology commitments that enable our enterprise to continue running efficiently.

Because of our success with this program to date, we’re already planning for next summer which will explore AI use cases around machine learning, robotic process automation and chatbots that help to expand our operational capabilities as we seek to improve customer service levels and responsiveness to our external stakeholders.

To ensure that we are prepared, we are broaching conversations with industry partners such as Google who will help to identify additional possibilities within AI such as pattern recognition in lab samples or association of disparate datasets to arrive at obvious conclusions about improved customer service faster than would otherwise be possible.

We are also engaging more closely with local colleges and universities to execute memorandums of understanding and related agreements that support their respective missions for aligning their curriculum with industry needs and providing career pipeline opportunities for their students.

Long term, this model cultivates the express ability for us to continue the exploration of pronounced advancements in technology and to innovate in ways that were previously not possible because of our existing workload. As a result, we’re well on our way toward becoming THE world-class water utility, where excellent products and services are always on tap!

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