Extreme Blue : a mentor’s perspective

This summer, I was the mentor for a team of interns on an Extreme Blue project. I’ve written about the project, using machine learning and natural language processing to build a smarter screenreader. But I didn’t explain “Extreme Blue”.

Promotional stuff about Extreme Blue is on ibm.com, but aimed at students who could apply to be interns. I want to talk about what it’s like to be a mentor, as it’s one of the best things I’ve done at IBM.


Extreme Blue is IBM’s summer internship programme. Every year, IBM locations around the world give teams of students projects to work on.

It’s explained on ibm.com but in a nutshell, a team is four students: three with a technical background, one with a business background. Each team are given one project to work on, a challenge they spend their summer trying to solve.

Different IBM sites have different numbers of student teams each summer. In Hursley, we have four teams every year.

Gathering project ideas

At the start of the year, a call goes out across the Lab for ideas for Extreme Blue projects. Thousands of people work at Hursley and any of us are welcome to suggest an idea.

It could be related to our “day job”, but normally isn’t. The best projects are where someone has seen a problem – perhaps at work, or perhaps in something they do outside of work. It’s about someone recognising a problem, and having the germ of an idea for something cool that could be done to improve it.

After this year’s call for ideas in February, I had the idea for “Conversational Internet” bouncing around my head. I’d been to an event hosted by a charity for the blind, RLSB, last December, where they’d pitched the vision, and there’d been a meeting and emails since then. By February, it was fresh in my mind, and I’d got a rough back-of-a-napkin architecture picture for how it might be done.

This is a good example of how projects start. I knew of a problem from an event I’d been to. I wasn’t picking a line item off our backlog we haven’t gotten to and saying we could get students to do it.

Selecting the projects

I had competition. There are a lot of ideas in a place like Hursley, and we only run four Extreme Blue teams each year. A selection process chooses from the dozens of proposals.

From March to May, I did a bunch of stuff to pimp the idea, like writing a formal project proposal, finding an executive sponsor, and giving a presentation to Hursley’s senior leadership.

I tried to show my proposal was:

  • A fun, interesting and engaging idea
    • Something students would enjoy and get excited about
  • An immediately approachable problem
    • Something students could understand without knowing IBM products or strategies
  • Cutting edge technology
    • Something that hadn’t been done before
  • Addressing a real problem
    • Not just cool tech for the sake of cool tech
  • A good fit with IBM
  • A good fit with Hursley
    • Something that showed off Hursley’s strengths. And more pragmatically, something Hursley has expertise in so there would be people around to help
  • A compelling demo
    • Extreme Blue ends with students demonstrating their projects. Some complex technologies are hard to demo in a five-minute presentation, but the impact this could have is easily demonstrable.

It worked – my project was picked.

Preparing for the students

The students arrived in the last week of June, so I had a month or so to get stuff ready.

Technical: I identified tools and technologies they’d probably need, and made sure they were available. I prepared crash courses. I wrote tutorials and samples. The idea was to get everything ready so they could hit the ground running.

People: I went through my network around Hursley to identify people to support the students. One reason Hursley is a great place to run Extreme Blue is the people. The students work on a site surrounded by some of IBM’s best inventors and developers. They’re down the corridor from experts in building text analytics solutions, people with years of experience in natural language processing, developers on our machine learning technologies or voice technologies.

I was the mentor for my team, but I wasn’t the only one who supported them. Just as I call on friends and colleagues around IBM when I need help, I was lucky enough to find generous, talented people willing to support my students. This was both for general high-level advice about how to approach something, and for solving particular technical problems.

Hursley in the summer

The project starts

The students arrived in the last week in June. In the UK they’re typically undergraduates in the summer before their final year at Uni. They don’t know each other before arriving, and come from Universities across the country.

As well as paying them, IBM also sorts out accommodation for the students, so they live together, work together and share an office together for the summer. It’s a bit intense. And maybe a little bit Apprentice.

They arrive at Hursley, and find out what their project will be. For them, Extreme Blue starts here. They have twelve weeks to turn the project idea into a prototype.


I’d had the Conversational Internet vision in my head for seven or eight months by this point. I’d been pushing it inside IBM for months to get support for the project. I’d held meetings with a variety of technical experts across Hursley to discuss approaches and technologies, debating pros and cons. The original vision was RLSB’s, but within IBM, this was my project.

When the students arrive, it has to become their project. The trick is to recognise I wasn’t their manager, I was their mentor. There is a difference between tellng them what to do, and offering them guidance and support. I hope I got the balance right.

It’s a gradual thing. At the start, being a mentor is fairly hands-on, and I’d sit in on ideastorming sessions and join in scribbling ideas on whiteboards. I’d explain the capabilities of the various tools and technologies that might be relevant. I worked with them on early plans and designs.

Over time you let go, bit by bit, so you get to the point where it’s their project. They own it, they’re responsible for it, and you’re available to help whenever they need. It could be helping to fix a bug, helping unknot a tricky problem, or pair programming with them. But the direction comes from them. If you do it right, they make their own decisions about what to do and how to do it, even if not always exactly how you’d do it yourself.

Hursley in the summer

Moving on

Before you know it, the summer is over. The students present the (impressive!) work they did, both to the Press and IBM senior managers and VPs. Then they go back to their Universities to finish their degrees.

The project goes back to being mine again, at least until I hopefully find it a better long-term home.

The summer is a lot of fun. This is the third year that I’ve been an Extreme Blue mentor, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with very talented students each time.

They bring a lot of energy, enthusiasm and creativity, and it’s exciting to work with them. I’m not saying that I don’t normally work with creative people, but the way that the students are brought away from their home, friends and family, even living with their team-mates, means that they get totally immersed in the project. They eat, sleep and breathe this stuff. It makes for an energy that you don’t often get, and it’s inspiring to be a part of it. It’s invigorating and reminds me why I enjoy doing this job.


Comments are closed.