New co. gives IT students real-world experience

As the dot.com and technology sectors recover from last year’s blow to the economic solar plexus, thousands of students enrolled in computer science and IT courses – along with seasoned industry professionals – faced diminishing job prospects. Fortunately, an entrepreneurial young woman with experience on the job at Digital Equipment Corporation, Quantum Corporation, and later with a technology training and recruiting firm, got an idea – and FishTrax was born.
A smart, impassioned woman, Sharon Van Dyke, president and founder of FishTrax, saw how difficult it was for students graduating from network administration, electrical engineering and software development programs to get the real-world experience they needed to get hired. As a result, in 2000, Van Dyke prepared a business plan and opened her doors as FishTrax. “The name is based on the real word, ‘fishtracks’ which comes from physics,” she said. “Fishtracks is what scientists call the visible trail left by active particles in a cloud.”
Van Dyke likens her student-clients (who range in age from 22 to 62 years of age) to that definition – going into companies as unpaid volunteers in search of real-world knowledge and leaving a trail of impressive work behind them. “What sets you apart?” is her company’s tagline – underscoring the importance of developing skills that separate top-level employees from the pack.
In a monthly newsletter, appropriately called Fish Tales, sent to companies and to prospective students, high school and college placement departments and to a growing client list, FishTrax profiles enrollees in the rigorous program. They range from Bill, who has completed assignments at HyTech and plans to move on to Harrison District #2, to Martha, who holds an Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications degree and has completed her first assignment for the City.
The “Holy Mackerel” column in Fish Tales also features Mike, who has disinfected the City’s network from the serious Goner virus and handled a range of Help Desk jobs. He is an Air Force Academy graduate (Class of ’82) who holds a Master Degree in Aviation Management, but decided to make a career change. He has already made valuable inroads on the Harrison School District network – troubleshooting printers, imaging computer labs, installing software and “whatever else comes up.”
“We are NOT an employment agency,” she clarifies. “Tuition for the 12-15 week course and mentorship program is $1500 – paid for by the student.” In exchange, the company preps, refines and educates each student on the protocols of business. They also assist in resume creation and provide professional references for each enrollee for use in an eventual job search.
Sometimes students are hired by a mentoring company, but Van Dyke’s primary goal is to further her client’s knowledge through six assignments that require donated time under the supervision of a corporate or educational, or government employer.
Van Dyke is assisted in marketing the company’s concept by Victoria Stone. Together, the two women have created a company list of some of the area’s premiere employers. “I’m in conversations with the City of Colorado Springs – and Colorado Springs Utilities,” she said. Other companies who utilize FishTrax interns are Classic Homes, Protocol Communications, and G.E. Johnson Construction.
Bob Baker, IS Manager at GE Johnson, one of the FishTrax STEP (Student Transition Education Providers) companies, applauds the program. “In my field you get used to “paper engineers” – people who have the theoretic classroom knowledge but have never applied it in the real world. They may be MicroSoft certified, but if they have never applied what they’ve learned they’re still naïve and take a while to train. So far FishTrax has provided us three interns in three weeks time, and they’re great.” One of Baker’s mentored students is Jody, who works full-time for Agilent. Another intern, Yvette, offered to take a CISCO project home to work on it. “That’s the type of dedication an employer loves to see,” said Baker. “Mike was awesome,” he adds. “I lost my assistant and we’ve been short-staffed. He walked in and went to work with minimal supervision. He is what any employer is looking for – knowledgeable, savvy and ready for real-world situations.”
Van Dyke has recently decided to move from her current location at TechWise on North Academy Boulevard, a technology education center, to the offices of the Pikes Peak Work Force Center. “We’ve found a lot of interest from the staff there in our job-training approach. She expects to work on a contract basis and may eventually apply for non-profit status, as a way to generate donations and grants from private and government funding sources.
In fact, she admits that her original business model has changed completely from the original concept. “Of course I want my business to be successful,” she said. “But, more than that, I want our students to succeed.” It is that commitment and focus that keeps Van Dyke looking for ways to finance scholarships and grants for FishTrax’s interns. She’s already filling out forms to become a bona fide 501c3 non-profit, hoping to parlay technology and business community contacts into eventual grantors and contributors. “We will provide an elite level of intern to the business community – and in return, we hope to develop a financial support base. The new organization will eventually be called Internovations.”
FishTrax may represent an unconventional business model, but one that is a natural by-product of the new millenium. The company has been well-received by job placement advisors at schools like Education America, Colorado Technical University, DeVry, and Pikes Peak Community College. “Many schools are so busy teaching curriculum that they don’t have the time or budget for marketing their students. We provide that transition, that bridge between the classroom and the company that hasn’t existed before,” Van Dyke said.
FishTrax is indeed blazing a trail – and no matter which side of the business fence the company ends up on, a non-profit serving business or a private sector entrepreneur, Van Dyke seems destined to leave her FishTrax as well.