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Industrial Affiliates Program Forms Bonds Between Students and Companies

May 23, 2016
Josh Becker sits at his desk and writes code for programs for Handel Information Technologies.
Josh Becker is one of many UW graduates employed at Handel Information Technologies.

If you look hard enough, you’ll see an interesting development in the southeast corner of the Cowboy State.

Technology-based companies have begun popping up in the area, with startups located in places like Laramie and Cheyenne. With that comes a need for skilled workers, and that’s where the University of Wyoming’s Department of Computer Science and its Industrial Affiliates (IA) program converge.

Developed in 2012 by department head Jim Caldwell, IA was formed to link business partners with potential employees and faculty members. According to IA, “forming these constructive relationships between industry and the department drastically reduces recruitment costs, while also developing a channel of communication between affiliate partners. Collectively, the mutual needs of business, industry and academia are supported.”

Caldwell developed the program using a template provided by the University of Washington, which uses a graduated funding model for its affiliates program. Small companies pay a yearly fee of $500, with large corporations giving up to $10,000 annually.

Over a period of time, Caldwell had two big fish on the line: Microsoft and American Express. Shortly after, he added to the group with smaller companies from Colorado and Wyoming. There are 14 current company partnerships in place, with more in the works.

“It costs a fortune to recruit one person to a job,” Caldwell says. “If the company gets even one student out of the program per year, it really pays for itself.”

The IA program uses funds from its membership fees for various projects, such as sending female computer science students to an annual meeting for computing. The department has been able to install crucial lab equipment like a computer graphics projector, and allow notable speakers and industry personnel to come in for seminars.

“It’s a way for the department to be able to do things it couldn’t do otherwise,” says Caldwell, who does most of the recruiting and stewardship for the program. “That’s the kind of excellence that IA members support and the support the department gets in ways we didn’t have before.”

Even Brande, president and CEO of Handel Information Technologies, was the first affiliate member of IA. He earned a degree in business administration and later an MBA from UW in the 1990s. Despite never taking a computer science course, he was passionate about technology at an early age, and learned his first programming language in his teens. After graduating from UW, he worked for Aspen Tree software, a tech company in Laramie. After that company sold, he started Handel Information Technologies, also in Laramie. Over the years, Handel has employed about 40 UW computer science students.

“Laramie is a great place to run a tech business,” Brande says. “I knew enough to program, but started hiring professional engineers. Over the years, the department has been a great resource for us to recruit. The students work for us part-time while they go to school, then we make permanent job offers. That’s a big reason why I wanted to give back to the department.

“It is easy for us to support the Computer Science Department. The high quality of their students makes a big difference in our business and is a great source, if not the most important, for our recruitment. It is a win-win for all parties involved: the students, the department and us.”

Handel is a major player in the software market for juvenile justice and tribal government.

“Most of our competitors are in bigger cities. They have much higher expenses when it comes to hiring engineering talent,” Brande says. “We can hire students who are still in school, yet we get benefits from them because they do entry-level programming for us. The students get paid while learning.”

Another early fan of the program was Heather Shoemaker. She worked at several startups in Denver in the 2000s, and decided to start her own company, Language I/O, in Cheyenne, Wyo. Her company provides multilingual customer support automation software, but she soon found out how hard it was to find qualified engineers in Wyoming. She reached out to Caldwell.

“He was interested in working with me to create a path by which students could take on internship roles here and work themselves into full-time positions and it’s worked out really well,” Shoemaker says. “If there’s any place I might be able to find fresh engineering talent, it would be at UW. We were able to get interns from UW who were awesome. It was such a good experience and they were such quick learners, it made the process very affordable.

“What I’ve found works best is to get someone as an intern where they’ll still learn and slowly move on to bigger projects and groom them into a full-time position. By the time they graduate, they already know our business and feel comfortable. That ability for a student to gain some experience while they are still in school and move straight into a full-time position makes it better for us and them.”

Brande and Shoemaker often attend the yearly IA meeting. The annual convention typically coincides with senior design presentations, so companies get a look at the kind of work and research that’s being done in the college. Meanwhile, students in the program have the opportunity to learn more about life after college by interacting with industry professionals.

“A lot of computer science students are so focused on the process of getting their degree,” Caldwell says. “The IA program is a way of getting them to look forward and ask ‘What am I going to do when I graduate?’ Having that tie with industry is helpful.”

Another success story of IA is the addition of Underwriters Laboratory. The department was a key player, among others, in attracting the global company to Laramie. UL now employs 10 graduates and is growing, building a new office space in the Cirrus Sky Park that’s slated to open in May.  

What does the future hold for the Industrial Affiliates program? Caldwell has hopes to use the yearly meeting as a tech gathering for Wyoming software developers to come together and encourage entrepreneurial efforts across the state and region.

“We certainly are looking to expand in a lot of ways,” he says.

Industrial Affiliates (past and present)

-Microsoft

-American Express

-Gannett Peak Technical Services (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

-GHX (Louisville, Colo.)

-Green House Data (Cheyenne, Wyo.; Portland, Ore.; Newark, N.J.)

-Handel Information Technologies (Laramie, Wyo.)

-HCMS Group (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

-Language I/O (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

-Logimesh Technologies (Fort Collins, Colo.)

-Medicine Bow Technologies (Laramie, Wyo.)

-PitchEngine (Lander, Wyo.)

-Synergy BIS (Arlington, Va.)

-Total Benchmark Solution, LLC (Fort Collins, Colo.)

-Underwriters Laboratory (Laramie, Wyo.)

-Wyolution (Lander, Wyo.)

-Wyoming Business Council (Cheyenne, Wyo.)


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