Mar 09 2007

IT Stars Are Born

I.C. Stars mentoring organization lures candidates with a sassy ad: 'In Need of 12 Smart-assed People.'


All photos: Grant Kessler
I.C. Stars graduate Tiffany Mikell says the program’s catchy ad attracted her attention.

After eight months of staying home with her son, who is 10 months old but born prematurely, Tiffany Mikell was looking for a way to make money part time, preferably from home.

She had dropped out of high school in her junior year, supported herself, and was going to school part time. In 2001 she got her GED, but in 2005 still wasn’t halfway to the undergrad degree. In a school system that reveled in mediocrity, Mikell wasn’t being challenged or pushed. Nor was she living up to the full potential she knew she had.

Having found other part-time jobs in the Chicago Reader, Mikell regularly checked the online version of the weekly alternative press. One day “full potential” jumped onto her computer screen in the form of a headline: “In Need of 12 Smart-assed People”.

The ad was seeking applicants for I.C. Stars (Inner City Computer Stars), a program that takes 12 highly motivated people from inner-city Chicago and trains them in information technology.

Though it seemed like a great opportunity, initially Mikell thought of how demanding it would be and all the reasons why she couldn’t do it. She even considered passing the ad on to somebody else.

“But the ad dared me to do it,” she recalls. “It seemed like the challenge I was lacking. So I bookmarked the site, and after three days I registered online for the information session.” 

In January, Tiffany Mikell was one of 12 I.C. Stars graduates.

I.C. Stars

Attracted from community organizations, schools, and word of mouth, 300 to 400 I.C. Stars applicants attend an information session, four interviews, and three written exams that examine aptitude, attitude, and resiliency. Eventually 12 interns enter the very intense immersion learning environment that runs 8-8 daily for four months. There is no absence or late policy. Grads liken it to getting the equivalent of an associate’s degree in four months.

“Some of my educator friends said I was crazy,” says Sandee Kastrul, president and co-founder of I.C. Stars.

“But folks need to work. If they had the luxury of going to school for four years, they would be in school. What’s really interesting is that most who make it are parents, because it’s bigger than them. They’re not just changing themselves; they’re changing the lives of families. People with GEDs also are successful, because they’re applying information versus sitting in a classroom.”

Ishmael Rufus and Kenneth Watkins are entry-level technical support/network administrators for Juno Lighting in Des Plaines, Ill. Both are I.C. Stars graduates.

Juno Lighting IT Director Ron Mathis has hired I.C. Stars graduates and says the program instills top-rate skills.

“We brought Ishmael and Kenneth in as interns, and converted them into full-time employees after a trial period,” says Ron Mathis, Director of IT at Juno, which manufactures residential and commercial lighting products. It’s a division of Schneider Electric North America, better known as Square D.

In addition to supporting the program monetarily, Juno execs also volunteer time, and ask members of the Chicago chapter of Society for Information Management (SIM) to consider graduates when they have resource needs.

“One of the strengths of the program is that only the top applicants are selected from a very large pool,” Mathis says.

“Between the screening that occurs before entering, and the program being so rigorous in terms of time commitment, by the time they graduate they’ve demonstrated a strong work ethic, and have developed the soft skills that are sometimes difficult to develop in people.”

Once accepted into the program, I.C. Stars interns are divided into teams and assigned three projects.

The first project involves working with a nonprofit to design and build a Web site. Participants gather requirements, look at objectives, and build a working prototype. The second phase involves working with venture capitalists. A fictitious dot-com has imploded, leaving only a matching engine that teams develop a profitable business around. The third project has been going on for four years: building an application for x-based United Stationers IT department. Mentors assist the teams with gathering requirements and design, from interface to back end. Depending on what role an intern is most likely to seek in the industry, they perform that role on the project.

One daily exercise combines relationship building with leadership training. At 4 p.m. the whole company stops for high tea. Everyone gathers round a conference table, taking turns introducing the person next to him or her, as they pour each other tea. Every day a different business leader tells his or her story.

“Sometimes people on the same team don’t get along,” said Ellen Barry, CIO, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), who also serves as I.C. Stars secretary and event chair.

“And when they have to find something special and unique, it gives them an opportunity to strip away the emotion and go straight to an appreciation for the individual. To let everyone know what someone else thinks about a person is so much different from what we usually do when we introduce ourselves. And because they do it every day, it reinforces the need to understand that specialness of each person on the team.”

“I’ve spoken at high tea several times, and I think it’s a very valuable tool for the participants,” Mathis said. “It gives them a real world sense of the experience of being a senior IT leader.”

Kastrul defines leadership as having the social, financial, and intellectual capital required to generate change, and making opportunities for others.

“At high tea we see real people, and the resilience and drive required to run a successful business,” she says. “It proves that business, community, and technology leaders mirror the tenacity of the young people in our program. The question for our alums is: How are you utilizing technology, leadership, and business to effect change in our community? I think that’s what differentiates us from other schools. How do we take those skills and give back?”

I.C. Stars contributes to society by helping those who have strong potential overcome their challenges, and provides an opportunity for them to develop into IT leaders.

“Not only do I have a source of quality entry-level IT professionals, but also it’s a way to pay back and do something for the greater good of the community,” Mathis says.

“They come out of the program very well-rounded technically; you could not successfully complete the program without demonstrating a strong sense of teamwork and team participation, as well as business analysis. They’re not going to be college-educated IT pros, but you know they’re going to be hardworking, conscientious folks who take pride in their work, which is important.”

Another 'Smart-assed' Person

Johnny Ruiz credits the training with building his confidence to work in an office environment.

Johnny Ruiz discovered I.C. Stars via word of mouth. 

“I was in between jobs as a bus operator,” he says. “The Census Bureau was looking for people, and a few of us in the training class became friends. One of them asked what I did, and I said the odd computer thing on the side, but mainly I was a bus operator. This person told me about the opportunity to train and advance my skills in the program.”

Ruiz called the next day, and went to the Web site (www.icstars.org) to learn more. He applied online, and was granted an interview.

“The selection process was pretty hard; I was used to being interviewed once, but they did several, plus tests,” he says.

“From what I understand 80 people applied, and only 10 were chosen.” (When told the actual number was 300-400, Ruiz said he was glad he didn’t know that at the time. It would have added more pressure.)

“It was pretty intense; it was the first time I was in an office environment,” he recalls. “Most of the jobs I’d had were very different. It was great to get more advanced in computers and learn programming, which is what I really wanted to do. And then we learned how to create a business out of it.”

“Some of the exercises I.C. Stars gave us really helped build my confidence, when I really didn’t have any,” Ruiz says. He is now a System Support Center documentation analyst with Grainger, a supplier of facilities maintenance products in Lake Forest, Ill.

“My specific role was to serve as a mentor for Johnny Ruiz, one of the graduates we brought into Grainger,” says Mike Smuda, VP, Enterprise Systems Process Management at Grainger. “He’s been here now for about three and a half years. And I’ve been his mentor since he came to the organization.”

When Grainger brought in Ruiz, he was put in a rotating program, known internally as GSTAR (Grainger's Systems, Training and Rotation Program), to work and learn in different technologies. He was assigned a mentor in each area, and Smuda was his general mentor for the organization.

“Two of us were accepted into a two-year rotation where we could pick any department for one year, and then pick another department the second year,” Ruiz says. “Within the program there were two mentors; they set us up for success.”

Ruiz started with the Web application development team, went to the desktop team, and then became an assistant analyst, with more flexibility in building applications to help support the System Support Center (SSC). Recently there were a few changes in the company, and he was offered his current position as a documentation analyst in the SSC.

“I’d meet with Johnny, and also with his mentor in the tech area to find out how he was doing in general, what specific issues he was having, and whether or not the role he was engaged in was one he would enjoy doing long term,” says Smuda.

“We hired Johnny because he is intelligent, he has leadership potential, and a willingness to learn and experience. He has a lot of good attributes,” Smuda explains. “Our job was to figure out which opportunity we had that best met the capabilities and career opportunities that Johnny was looking for.”