Putting HCC computer science students to the test at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
In 2017, facing a back log of work, Tom Spriesterbach needed help.
The group supervisor at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) was short of software testers to root out bugs from important military applications before they are put into action.
Spriesterbach conducted several interviews for the job, but candidates were either underqualified or overqualified.
That’s when he remembered his son Matthew’s experience at Howard Community College. If Matthew, who studied cybersecurity, had the skills to test software, so might other HCC students, Spriesterbach says.
“I thought, ‘At HCC, they’ve probably got a whole bunch of people there that would jump at the chance to have their bachelor’s degree paid for, get a full time or part time job and work in their field of interest,’” he recalls. “We just needed some basic programming skill sets on some of the basic languages like Python and Java.”
Spriesterbach contacted Rose Volynskiy, chair of Cyber Technology at HCC and professor of computer science, with the idea for a partnership.
“When Tom emailed me, I immediately said yes,” she says.
Volynskiy and Paul Hogan, instructor of computer science, invited Spriesterbach to campus, where he held an information session about the lab and accepted resumes for an open tester position. HCC students would still have to apply for the job, just like anyone else. But by attending the information session, they could at least get their “foot in the door,” Hogan says.
Vanessa Rodgers, a then-HCC cyber technology student, applied and got the job. As a tester, Rodgers says she uses the technical skills she gained at HCC to find glitches in software, as well as the soft skills she learned like critical thinking and communication.
“She’s a natural leader and picked it right up,” Spriesterbach says.
Rodgers has flourished in her job and was recently promoted to her team’s lead tester. Along the way, APL paid for several of her undergraduate degree classes. She plans to go for her master’s degree within the next five years.
“I enjoy so many things about working at APL,” she says. “The people, the technologies we get to play with, the flexibility and the benefits. I get to work in an amazing environment, get paid and continue my education for free.”
Rodgers is also a mentor to Alex Gonzalez and Jake Hoffman – two other HCC graduates hired as testers in 2018. Like Rodgers, they shared their resumes with Spriesterbach during APL information sessions on campus.
“The environment is really collaborative at APL,” Gonzalez says. “Everyone gets along, everyone helps each other. And the company overall is really innovative... One day you can work on space stuff, another day you can work on virtual reality research. I like that flexibility.”
Both Gonzalez and Hoffman credit their HCC professors and classes for preparing them for their jobs.
“At HCC, the professors I had were very good at connecting you with good sources and giving you practical advice from their own experience,” Gonzalez says. “Everything I learned at HCC I’ve applied to my work here.”
Like Rodgers, Gonzalez and Hoffman finished their undergraduate degrees while working part time at APL. They, too, plan to go for their master’s degrees, which APL will pay for. Because of the lab’s connection to Johns Hopkins University, employees can take many of their graduate courses right on APL’s campus.
“APL’s always saying even when you get your bachelor’s degree, you’re not done learning,” Hoffman says. “There’s your master’s degree, there’s your Ph.D. They’re very good about making sure you continue to get an education. It doesn’t stop once you have a bachelor’s degree.”
Overall, Spriesterbach says he and his team are thrilled to have established a partnership with HCC – and to have such qualified HCC graduates at the lab.
“The testers do a great job, and they all come out of HCC right now,” he says. “Our software products that we deliver to our sponsor have been spot on… Personally, I think this kind of relationship could be expanded to many other areas at HCC with different groups.”
HCC graduates say they, too, are happy about the partnership and that HCC is always looking out for its students’ best interests.
“I’m really grateful to HCC for networking with other places, specifically APL,” Hoffman says. “HCC is interested in getting its students into the workforce. I sensed that while I was there. You weren’t just getting a degree to get a degree. You were getting a degree to make yourself a better person, a better employee and to give yourself a shot at a better career.”
Wherever you want to go, you can get there from here.