Interning in the US off-season

EMMA RAWSON
Last updated 05:00 30/05/2014
Craig Elliott
Craig Elliott with intern Gen Li

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For a trio of New Zealand software engineering students, doing  work experience at Silicon Valley startup Pertino was a cool way to spend the summer holidays. But for Pertino's CEO Craig Elliott, bringing Kiwi tech whiz kids to the other side of the Pacific is part of a bigger plan to strengthen the global IT community.

A big-talking, rambunctious entrepreneur, Elliott is a bit of a legend in Silicon Valley. Famously given a Porsche by Steve Jobs in 1984 when he won Apple Computer's Salesman on the Year award, the Iowa native went on to found networking startup Packeteer, which he sold for US$268 million in 2008.

Elliott, who was named Friend of New Zealand at the World Class New Zealand Awards, is mad about all things Kiwi. He first fell in love with our country when he was general manager of Apple Pacific in the 1990s, and now owns a house in Wanaka. But it's not just the landscape of Aotearoa he has a soft spot for.

Elliott believes that New Zealand has some of the best technology talent in the world, and is on the boards of Xero and San Francisco IT development hub, The Kiwi Landing Pad.

"I look at the creativity of the folks that I know in New Zealand and it's phenomenal," he says.

"I think in three or four years, New Zealand will be known as a world-class technology centre. 

"But it's far away [from the US] and we need to break down that gap. If we can integrate these counties more it will be a huge boost to both economies."

Elliott's new cloud networking engine company Pertino is gaining traction in the US IT market, and he turned to budding Kiwi tech students to help drive his business in their internship.

While they expected to be shuffled into a dimly-lit backroom and left to do rudimentary coding, on their first day of work students Micah Cinco, Michael Shafer and Gen Li found themselves going out for lunch with Elliott - and sitting in the same restaurant as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

"Seeing Steve Wozniak, that was when it hit me we were in the big place where everything happens," says Shafer, who is in his third year of a Bachelor of Software Engineering at Auckland University.

While in New Zealand internships are a relatively new idea - completing work experience has only become a prerequisite for Victoria University's software engineering degree in recent years - student workers are a well-established part of the culture of America's IT industry and academia.

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There's a belief in the Valley that learning fuels tech development, and the idea of sharing knowledge is strong, Elliott says.

Companies such as Google and Apple even refer to their premises as "campuses". Interns play a valuable role in providing cheap and enthusiastic labour for fast-growing companies, he says.

"Bringing young people into the company keeps you on your toes and it keeps things interesting.

"Quite frankly, I've got some very expensive Silicon Valley engineers who get paid a ridiculous amount of money. Interns free them up to do other more complex things.

"I have engineers who would groan if they had to put up 50 servers on Amazon, but to an intern, the chance to do that might be exciting."

The problem for Elliott is that when the summer ends and the interns go back to school they leave a winter time hole in the ground level of his business. 

"I thought, 'where can we find another summer?' Of course New Zealand came to mind," he says.Elliott piggybacked on the Kiwi Landing Pad's existing InternNZ programme to fill the winter work experience places. He has dubbed the Kiwi Pertino recruits his "winterns". 

Set up with an apartment and a car in San Jose, the students got more than they bargained for when they arrived at the office. Each student was given a project they could develop independently.

Cinco, a network engineering major at Victoria University, worked on a Quality Assurance assignment. Li performance-tested software, and Shafer built an administration platform that the company now uses every day.

"These guys did real work, trust me," Elliott says.

 "It's surprising if you come up with a defined project, interns do really well."

Cinco says although she worked hard, she appreciated the challenge.

"You hear about other internships where people would be doing things like cleaning up code, but I actually learned so much from a tech perspective," she says.

Pertino keeps its staff on all levels of the business (including interns) updated on financial decisions - board of director meetings are even re-enacted once a month.

 Li, who recently completed his Bachelor of Engineering at Auckland University, admits the re-enactments were sometimes over his head.

"I personally did not understand the boardroom re-enactments," he says.

"Right now my head is in software engineering, but one day that financial reporting might come in handy."

At the beginning of the trip, Elliott sat down with Cinco, Li and Shafer and explained how he funded both Pertino and his first startup Packeteer with money from venture capitalists.

 For budding entrepreneur Shafer, who has several ideas for apps and websites of his own, Elliott's talk got him thinking.

"For someone who wants to ideally one day start a startup, it was really valuable.

"Now I sit in lectures and I'm thinking about more than just the engineering, I'm thinking how I could use something in a startup."

Cinco adds that Elliott's presentation helped her think about more than her own job, and focus on how her work fitted in the business as a whole.

"Seeing how our workflow affects customer experience which in turn drives sales was interesting. I didn't really see the relationship before," she says.

Back in New Zealand, all three students say they would consider returning to San Jose one day. Elliott adds that he would gladly have them back, and was impressed with their work.

"We have had other interns from the States, but the three Kiwi winterns were very, very bright kids," he says.

"Michael wrote a phenomenal piece of software. We've already told him, 'next New Zealand summer, you are coming back, buddy'.

 "I even threatened to call his parents and tell them he had been kicked out of school just so he could stay on working here."

Where to from here?

The Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP) in San Francisco is working closely with Elliott to make the winternship programme a bigger, annual event.

KLP, which helps New Zealand companies launch into the US tech market, is working with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) to create a programme which encompasses more than just Pertino, chairman John Holt says.

Adds Elliott: "Google, Apple and a number of other startups that I know well are interested in bringing over more New Zealand computer science students.

"Three years from now, I'd also like to take students from the US to New Zealand to work in the IT community for three months."

They'd have a lot to learn from Kiwi IT companies, he says. "In Silicon Valley we're a little spoilt and sometimes the problem is that there are too many resources. 

"Someone has a marginal idea, and a venture capitalist gives them as a whole bunch of money and it just ends up being a mess.

"But in New Zealand, to start a company it has to be a really good idea and there's no latitude for error."

NZTE has committed $300,000 to KLP for three years, and is in discussions about financing part of the winternship scheme.

The government agency currently funds InternNZ - which sees an AUT marketing student complete work experience at KLP each season - and also backs KLP8, a business exchange where Kiwi entrepreneurs spend time in Silicon Valley.

Although it's early days for the winternship project, programme leader Steven Mayo-Smith says part of NZTE's mission is to broaden the international outlook of Kiwi tech entrepreneurs and businesses. 

"We're seeing the benefits of New Zealand's presence at the America's Cup last year flowing through into closer business relationships for New Zealand companies in the US," he says.

"NZTE's Digital High Impact Programme is also looking to expand the (KLP8) model by partnering with accelerators and innovation hubs in other geographic areas. 

"The time is right to assist New Zealand digital companies to perform on the global stage."

Holt sees the winternship project as a small part of a bigger movement in Silicon Valley to bring overseas talent into the US. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman are among a group of entrepreneurs who have founded the Fwd.us movement, which is lobbying Washington for a change in US immigration laws to make it easier for tech companies to hire overseas staff.

"I've been working in Silicon Valley for nearly 20 years, and this idea has been on the agenda for a while," Holt says.

"What's happened is you have extended and accelerated globalisation... but what's stagnating a lot of businesses is the immigration requirements."

While New Zealanders have difficulty getting US working visas, Australians are able to work there more easily, he says.

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