Computer hacks pitch ideas to IBM, nab jobs

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Seven computer science students at Elizabeth City State University were invited to IBM's BlueHack in October. Participants included (l-r) I’ran James, Disaiah Bennett, Hunter Eason, Kevin Benton, Billie Jean Simmons, and Hagen Hodgkins and Jacob McPherson(standing).

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By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pitching her ideas to IBM in late October was a "dream I didn't know I had," said Billie Jean Simmons, a computer science major at Elizabeth City State University. And her dream just keeps getting better. Last week she received a job offer from the tech giant.

Simmons and six others at ECSU were invited to IBM's first-time BlueHack for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Atlanta on Oct. 18-20.

They joined 103 upperclassmen from 32 institutions who were divided into teams and tasked with completing a project in 48-hours using emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and voice recognition. The teams then pitched their ideas SharkTank-style to IBM judges focused on the customer appeal of the projects.

"It was a great opportunity to go down and meet their people and be in that environment," said Simmons.

Simmons said the hackathon offered a new experience and opened up new options for her future. She and all the other ECSU students were notified by IBM last week that they have been selected for hiring or internships, stated Antonio Rook, computer science instructor at ECSU.

Participants included Simmons, Jacob McPherson, Hagen Hodgkins, Hunter Eason, Kevin Benton, Disaiah Bennett and I'ran James. IBM paid airfares and expenses for the invitation-only BlueHack that featured two of its technologies: Bluemix and Node-Red.

ECSU students were on two teams that placed 3rd in IBM contests. The five-person teams included members from other HBCUs as well. Participating schools also included Kentucky State, NC A&T State, Morehouse, Southern Florida A&M, Alabama State, Albany State, Bowie State, Delaware State, among others.

Teams were tasked with one of two projects. The first involved using voice recognition software to provide mental health therapy via computers to people at home. Other teams were tasked with building a program that would help patients find specialized medical help and confirm if their insurance covered it.

Hagen Hodgkins said a highlight of the contest was getting to interact with IBM employees, who served as mentors. He was surprised at how frequently workers changed jobs within the company as a way of keeping their ideas fresh.

Kevin Benton said he liked being able to work with a team to complete a project. 

"I learned how to actually work with a team to build a program and project instead of working by myself," he said.

Rook said IBM contacted him about the event, and he contacted students, who then had to fill out an application, before being accepted.

Rook said he expects that ECSU's new contacts with IBM will be the beginning of other opportunities, including visits to the company's office in Research Triangle Park.

Malcolm D'costa, computer sciences assistant professor, said ECSU's participation in the event speaks well of the department and students.

"This is a matter of pride for our department and university as it represents our students and gives us a chance to compete with the big names out there," said D'costa.

The event also provided the opportunity for students to interview for internships or possible jobs. After the competition, students met employees in a big room to talk about their career ambitions and interests in the information technologies field.

"It was the equivalent to speed dating," Jacob McPherson said of the experience.

All seven ECSU students were notified last week by IBM that they have completed the interview process and are awaiting job offers or summer internships, said Rook.

“We are excited about the Hackathon opportunity and how it has materialized into working for the IBM for career and internship,” said Rook.