How to Hire the Right Students
One of the foundational features of the CATLab is its focus on employing students. A week and a half into the summer, CATLab’s founder, Zak Landrum, quipped that the students had already become so self-sufficient and comfortable in Salesforce that they had overtaken him and reduced his job to “the snack guy.” Even before the CATLab or the pioneer program last summer, Zak has been passionate about bringing students in to help solve the school’s problems: describing his work with Advancement Services last year, Zak said, “After working with Kaylee Yoon and a couple other students, it became clear that if I gave more work to students we could actually get pretty far pretty quickly.”
So what is it that students have to offer that distinguishes them from more established professionals? What are the resulting benefits and challenges? And perhaps most importantly, how can an employer discern how to hire the right students for the task? After a few conversations with Zak as well as Kim and Nancy, who are Westmont and CATLab staff who use Salesforce in the office, some themes began to emerge.
1. Look for students with the ability to learn
Something all three staff members highlighted was students’ ability to learn—unsurprising, as learning is a student’s primary task. According to Zak, Westmont students in particular “are trained to think and to absorb new ways of assimilating information.” Similarly, Nancy noted that “all of our students are amazing… and can learn stuff that I’ve been working on for a long time really quickly.”
This ability to learn allows students to adapt easily to the different demands of their workplace. “When I need to hand them a completely new tool that they’ve never seen before—in this case, Salesforce,” said Zak, “they are able to just pick it up incredibly quickly. Between Google searching and talking to each other and assimilating what they’ve learned in class, the rate that they can learn is incredible.” Adaptability applies not only to gaining technical knowledge, but also to making the transition from the classroom to the corporate. Zak noted that in academia, most projects are very individual, whereas in an office, workers need to be able to function as part of a team. At the CATLab, such collaboration includes “things like documentation and commenting code and making it such that the things that a student writes is immediately accessible for someone that [comes] after them.”
2. Seek students who are marked by enthusiasm and curiosity
Zak mentioned enthusiasm as one of the key things he looks for in students. During the hiring process for the CATLab this summer, he repeatedly prompted students with sentences like “Talk to me about what excites you about this job.” Zak also asked students about their plans, career goals, and passions to get a sense for how each student’s unique interests converged with the mission of the CATLab.
Meanwhile, Kim talked about how refreshing it was to have the energy students bring into their work. She was also inspired by their willingness to ask questions. “It’s good that they ask, ‘So, why is it this way?’ a lot,” she said. She expressed the importance of continuing to ask questions “even if I feel like I’ve been doing it for a while,” adding that working with students has taught her to “keep maintaining curiosity”—one of the CATLab’s core values.
3. Seek people who can bring a fresh perspective
Because students have so much to learn, they also have a lot to offer. “If we’ve been looking at [something] forever or just been in the field for a long time,” said Kim, “it’s really nice to have another perspective.” One specific perspective students today can offer comes from their connection to technology. Nancy pointed out that the current generation of students has grown up far more integrated with technology than any previous generation, stating that “even over just a couple years, things have changed.” Similarly, Zak said, “You think about the internet of things, you think about artificial intelligence and blockchain and a lot of these emergent technologies—there’s going to be always stuff that students, because they learn quickly and because they’re at the forefront, they’re gonna need to step in to help Westmont envision the solutions of the future.”
Having people who can bring new, creative perspectives helps not only with technological problems, but also allows innovation to blossom. When Don Patterson and Rachel Winslow (Computer Science professor and director of Westmont Downtown, respectively) visited the CATLab last week, they led a session on creativity and innovation. After challenging us to practice creativity by creating structures out of straws and paper clips, they facilitated a discussion on the importance of diversity within a group for its overall creativity. “Often, we think that creativity is an individual process,” Dr. Patterson said, arguing that instead, we should realize that in order to generate creative solutions, we need “a diverse set of opinions.” Dr. Patterson noted that not only does seeking diversity help promote social justice and equality, but it also helps to draw in more people and generate more innovative ideas.
Such diversity of perspective also fits well with Westmont’s mission as a liberal arts college. Not only does Westmont encourage students to study a variety of disciplines, but it encourages students to integrate these different veins of knowledge in their own learning and also through collaboration. The CATLab provides such a place of collaboration.
4. Find students who have integrity
Because the CATLab is solving real problems and crafting real solutions for the school, one of the main concerns with hiring students is security. Students are given direct access to important (and sometimes sensitive) data. Nancy argues that the CATLab’s projects are worth the risk, and Zak goes as far as to say that this level of trust and responsibility is key to the CATLab’s success. According to Zak, “there has to be a complete, full investment of hiring these students into the mission of what you’re doing.” Only by trusting student developers as equal members of the team can programs like the CATLab allow students to contribute to their full potential. This trust will also inspire commitment from the students, who will recognize their own importance to the project.
5. Be aware of issues of overlap and continuity
One of the biggest challenges with working with students is the inherent high rate of turnover: as Kim pointed out, “They’re not full-time employees here indefinitely; their first job is to be a student….and [soon] they’re graduating or moving onto other things.” Zak’s solution to this problem of continuous change is “cross-training: always having a couple of people—a younger and an older student—working together, ensuring there’s a continuity of work.”
The plus side of having to be conscious of continuity is that students can bring in their friends and classmates. In fact, when asked how he chooses his employees, Zak responded, “Frankly, most of my students come to me through recommendations from their friends and peers.” His primary advice for hiring the right students is to “go to the most successful people and have them draw in more successful people.”
6. Think about what the students gain
Finally, Kim, Nancy, and Zak also talked about how programs like the CATLab also benefit the students. “It’s about paying forward the opportunities that we had when we were students and giving the same to them,” said Nancy. Kim agreed that “real world application is so valuable for students,” adding, “They’re wanting it, we’re needing it, so it seems like the perfect little marriage—why aren’t we doing this more?” One of Zak’s goals for the CATLab is to give students “a bridge into full-time employment immediately after school.” The CATLab is a way to complete Westmont’s mission by creating a way for students to transition from learning to think well in academic spheres to making an impact in the wider world.
If you’re interested in learning about the CATLab from the students’ perspective, read this interview with three of the returning students who helped pioneer the program last summer.
Hear Zak talk about Westmont’s investment in Salesforce, his initial experience in hiring Kaylee, and how that inspired him to hire more students and start the CATLab in this podcast.