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Laker Connection

Launching Next-Gen Data Masters

On the fifth floor of downtown’s hipster hangout, Ponce City Market, is Mailchimp, a leading email marketing platform known as much for its services as its mammalian mascot. The company’s offices are completely millennial-driven–co-working spaces, street art on the walls, a board room complete with actual skateboards and an espresso machine. It’s a place designed to merge technology with creativity.

But for a group of Clayton State University students, Mailchimp’s office has become a second home that’s flipping the idea of computer science and information technology learning on its head.

In 2018, Mailchimp patterned with Clayton State University and made a generous $300,000 investment to establish a leadership program that prepares students for careers in the IT field. Housed in the university’s College of Information and Mathematical Sciences, Launchpad Academy brings students and Mailchimp staff together to create a learning environment that reaches beyond the fundamentals to develop skills students need to be a valuable employee from day one.

MailChimp Logo
MailChimp Logo

“Talent comes from everywhere, but metro Atlanta’s under-tapped southside stands in stark contrast to the opportunity-rich communities north of I-20,” says Joe Uhl, chief architect and vice president of engineering at Mailchimp. “Partnering with Clayton State gave us the incredible opportunity to tap directly [into] the talent pipeline at the university, not only to help equip talented students with real-world work experience but also allow us to bring in new, diverse perspectives that help make our teams stronger and build better products.”

This is the content for Layout P TagLaunchpad Academy goes beyond classroom lectures and textbook work to show students how to apply what they’re learning through practical application. Lessons are more than just writing code; students are taught to test for website vulnerabilities, fix corrupted code and improve user experience.

“When Launchpad students start their internship at Mailchimp, they tend to know technical concepts in isolation,” says Josh Penny, corporate citizenship manager at Mailchimp. “In completing the program, they can apply those concepts to solve problems and achieve tangible business goals, which helps them grow their confidence and find a deeper connection to their work.”

In addition to being valuable for the participants, the experience also supplements the instruction students get at Clayton State.

“I think that what we give them is the basics... [but] they’re learning stuff we don’t teach them,” says Jillian Jones, lecturer and director of the Launchpad Academy.

Jones remembers sitting in one of the sessions at Mailchimp and watching as students learned html and JavaScript, web development languages they hadn’t been exposed to yet in the classroom. The students got to see the code in a web application and run tests to improve the code.

“They just jumped into it; they weren’t timid. They just started trying to figure it out,” Jones says. “It was really awesome to see, and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. Nine times out of 10 they’re not going to know the exact language that they need. They’re going to need to go figure it out.”

Real-world application of the concepts is what makes Launchpad exciting for many of the students. The program gives them a chance to dive into the latest trends in IT and data management, as well as improve their problem-solving skills with a “learning-by- doing” approach.

“It’s cool to see what’s relevant and what’s not,” says senior computer science major Abu Hassan. “It’s not an ordinary class. It reinforces my love for computer science.”

Beyond gaining insight into software development, cybersecurity and data science, the students hear personal testimony from Mailchimp employees who share everything from best practices for various IT problems to what unconventional paths they took to get into the field. And there is an incentive: Mailchimp selects some members from the cohort to stay on as interns in their offices.

Student reception at MailChimp

But what’s more important, Uhl says, is for students to walk away from the program prepared to enter a workforce built upon a digital economy.

“Launchpad’s purpose is actually quite simple. By helping students gain hands-on learning experiences in a 21st-century work environment, Mailchimp can help bridge the gap between what they learn in the classroom and what they can expect in their careers,” he says. Launchpad is proving to be a success. In its second year, more than a dozen students have entered the program, and three students from the first cohort have spent the last year as interns.

For the instructors, Launchpad has given them the opportunity to step away from behind their desks and take part in shaping the academic curriculum for the students.

“My experience of sharing knowledge of my field that I am so passionate about was awesome. The students were very inquisitive and collaborative. I enjoyed their enthusiasm for the interactive exercises,” says Daneez Owais, senior quality analyst at Mailchimp and Launchpad instructor. “I was able to share things which are not talked about in college classes like Agile, Scrum and user stories.

When they join any engineering team, they will come in with that knowledge and that thought is very satisfying to me personally!”

“Talent comes from everywhere, but metro Atlanta’s under-tapped southside stands in stark contrast to the opportunity-rich communities north of I-20.”

- Joe Uhl, chief architect and vice president of engineering at Mailchimp

Launchpad is already solidifying the career aspirations of some of its participants. Ashley Mains, a computer science major and a test engineering intern for Mailchimp, is already planning to pursue a graduate degree in machine learning and artificial intelligence with the hopes of finding work as a quality analyst once she graduates in the spring.

“It’s almost dreamlike,” she says. “I didn’t think a year ago when I was solving much more theoretical problems as a student that I would end up like what you see on TV. I definitely feel way more confident in logical thinking and my ability to solve problems.”

Mains was part of the first cohort of students in 2018 who entered the program. Since being in Launchpad and then interning with Mailchimp, she has gotten a deep dive into how the company operates, from conducting cybersecurity testing on a cloud platform to working on process improvements for Mailchimp’s framework to creating automated scripts to test software more efficiently and quickly for the user.

“I feel like my coworkers are pleased with my grit and willingness and openness to communicate,” she says of her Mailchimp experience.

Because of the internship, Mains has been a mentor of sorts to the newest class of Launchpad students. She’s also managed to recruit a few students to the program.

“Her enthusiasm caught on to me,” says Shaquille Smith, a senior computer science major.

Student at MailChimp at podium

When he made his first visit to Mailchimp in the summer of 2019, he was surprised by the diversity he saw among the company’s staff and the enthusiasm they had for their jobs. Much like his classmates, Mailchimp’s employees are a mix of women and men of various ethnicities, ages and backgrounds.

“It felt like a real, inviting place,” he says. “I’m a first-generation college student, [so] It was really inspiring just to see people that look like me working there.”

Smith, who plans to become an indie game developer, said the program has expanded his professional network and given him the skills needed to prepare for his career after graduation.

“It’s just a good opportunity to have that leg up in the competition when it comes to applying for jobs,” he says.

Uhl hopes through Launchpad they can expand the available talent pool in Atlanta for employers seeking IT professionals, and as the state of Georgia continues to grow its technology industry in the coming years—with more investment in financial technology and cybersecurity—the state will need to meet greater workforce demands in IT and computer science.

Student at MailChimp at podium

“As we enter our second year of the program, we’re focused on building out our curriculum and hands-on learning opportunities even more,” Uhl says. “One goal is to engage with other companies to help place our students into internships and get hands-on learning experience, even if it’s not at Mailchimp.

We think this program can have even more of an impact if other tech companies join in to offer internships. The more we can encourage companies to build programs of this type, the more opportunities can be made available to Clayton State specifically and Atlanta generally.”

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