Homegrown TalentTACC Professional Internship Program opening doors to tech workers from non-traditional backgroundsby: Damian HopkinsPublished: Aug. 10, 2023 Feature Story Joshua Medina (left), Tiffany Huff (center), and Austin Darrow (right) were members of the Life Sciences cohort of TACC's Professional Internship Program. The cohort launched in January and concluded in May 2023. For many organizations, creating the next generation of STEM professionals is a lofty ambition. For Tracy Brown and the leadership team at TACC, one of the ways this goal takes shape is in the form of the center’s Professional Internship Program.Created in 2017 as a four-person cohort in TACC’s Advanced Computing Interfaces (ACI) group, program interns spend four months gaining real-world technical experience at one of the world’s leading advanced computing centers. Instead of a weekend workshop or a short-term coding bootcamp, participants learn by working on complex software development projects across multiple TACC teams.Participants study the Python coding language and Docker containers. A Docker container is a lightweight, standalone, executable package of software that includes everything needed to run an application. Python is a programming language designed to help users work more quickly and integrate systems more effectively.The program was initially funded by the NSF-funded DesignSafe project. “This program provides exposure to those who may not otherwise see a future in tech, and we in the tech industry get bright minds to help on projects that are important to the center." “This program provides exposure to those who may not otherwise see a future in tech, and we in the tech industry get bright minds to help on projects that are important to the center, so it’s a win-win,” said Brown, TACC's Web and Mobile Applications (WMA) Manager. “Most interns are adults looking to change careers — how will they consider STEM careers if we don’t inspire them to do so?”Brown has spent nearly 30 years working at UT Austin and credits her experiences working in Information Technology Services as the impetus for this program. She also credits this “wildly successful” internship with creating a welcoming environment for those looking to enter the STEM industry and increasing the number of highly skilled tech workers in the field.“We do our best to teach them the skills necessary to qualify for tech jobs,” Brown said.The success of the professional internship in the ACI group led the Life Sciences group to adopt the program, too. The first Life Sciences cohort launched in January and concluded in May 2023.With the conclusion of the Life Sciences cohort, 27 people have successfully gone through the program at TACC. While TACC doesn't guarantee employment for interns, every participant has found careers in STEM-related fields.Austin Darrow was a member of the recently completed Life Sciences cohort. Darrow spent four years as a high school English teacher at Clear Creek High School in League City before teaching himself coding skills. That curiosity led him to a Stanford summer coding program in 2021 and, eventually, the TACC Professional Internship Program. “Our cohort coded everything as a team, which accelerated our growth because we all brought different strengths to the table." “Our cohort coded everything as a team, which accelerated our growth because we all brought different strengths to the table,” Darrow said. “TACC took a chance on someone with an English degree who was switching careers. I’m grateful for this experience.”Darrow hopes to use his teaching skills to serve as a mentor to future STEM career aspirants.Life Sciences cohort interns utilized pair programming to code software projects like the Drug Discovery Virtual Screening app, which allows researchers to upload a protein receptor file and test that receptor against millions of known drug molecules to find the best fit. This is a key step in the development of new medicines, and the app makes this sort of experimentation possible on a massive scale. The cohort also published an academic paper detailing the research that went into the Drug Discovery Virtual Screening app that was presented at the 2023 Practice & Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC) conference.At the end of the internship, all three interns were offered full-time jobs at TACC: Darrow is a software engineer; Joshua Medina is an enterprise software engineer; and Tiffany Huff is a senior cybersecurity software engineer.“Mentors help interns with their computer and software needs, teach them about TACC portals, and assist them with tasks like coding,” Brown said. “Working so closely together, interns can directly approach their mentors with questions and learn different skills from them.”TACC Director of ACI Maytal Dahan helped found the program. She credits the program with broadening participation in areas like cyber infrastructure and cyber engineering. “It’s important to bring a diverse set of voices and backgrounds to STEM because TACC is a stronger place when we learn from different perspectives.” “It’s important to bring a diverse set of voices and backgrounds to STEM because TACC is a stronger place when we learn from different perspectives,” Dahan said. “It’s inspiring to see the interns successfully change careers after completing the program.”Dahan recalls STEM classes where she was one of few female students and the feeling of not belonging, so she encourages applications from a broad range of prospective interns.“Regardless of your professional background, you can fulfill a role in the tech industry,” Dahan said. “We’ve had interns who came to us from careers like warehouse associates, and after completing the program, they were able to move on and find full-time STEM employment utilizing their software development skills.”Sophie Massie-Perez was alerted to the program by one of her peers in a CS Student Club at Austin Community College and joined the WMA cohort in September 2022. After the pandemic, Massie-Perez — who began studying applied science at Austin Community College in 2021 — felt a desire to return to the computer science field.“Working on the Cook Children’s Pro-TX portal was one of the highlights of my WMA cohort work. It’s still in development, but it was cool to help build out resources for those working to prevent child maltreatment in Texas,” said Massie-Perez, who worked in marketing after earning a bachelors in Linguistics in 2012. “I helped build models and figures that caseworkers and community programs can reference to anticipate an area’s needs and point families in the right direction for support within their area.”“Thanks to TACC’s Professional Internship Program, my growth as a CS professional has been exponential,” added Massie-Perez, who was hired at TACC in February as a junior research software engineer. “The Cook Children’s project was one of the first times my professional work was built to directly improve the lives of people in my community, and having a higher purpose like that is something I’ve wanted in a career for a long time.”Learn more about TACC’s Professional Internship Program.