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York College juniors jump into think tank during internship at Harrisburg incubator

Adrian Castro and Collin Brandt with computers at their internship
Brandt left, Castro right

Small, minority-owned construction businesses can find themselves at a disadvantage when competing with larger companies for contracts. Their size and depth of knowledge might work against them when it comes to navigating the bidding process. That’s a problem tailor-made for Catamaran, the Harrisburg incubator where teams of thinkers—including York College of Pennsylvania students—tackle business issues and transform high-tech ideas into startup companies.

Computer Science majors Adrian Castro and Collin Brandt, both juniors at the College, served over the summer as the technical advisors on their individual Catamaran teams that assessed problems confronting those businesses. The three-person teams of interns also included a designer and a strategist.

Adrian, from Dover in York County, and Collin, of Ephrata, Lancaster County, approached the internship armed with knowledge they’d gained from their courses. Adrian cites a project in which he researched problems relating to website data. Collin says one of his tougher courses, Software Engineering, helped prepare him. “There’s a lot of learning for yourself,” he says of his class project to create a database and “take it as far as you can.”

Entering the think tank

In a cerebral environment of focused research and after-hours camaraderie that included playing board games, the teams got to work. They had two months to discover why the businesses, often owned by ethnic minorities, women, or veterans, weren’t competitive in the bidding process and how to correct that.

They pored over studies of disadvantaged businesses and tried to understand their thought processes. They compiled a list of those area companies and interviewed their leaders, along with developers and Harrisburg officials who try to connect them. “I tried to act as if I was the company trying to bid on a contract,” Collin says of studying the city’s website that lists available projects.

They found that even before attempting to bid on jobs, the small companies faced a lack of personnel, connections, and time when it came to acquiring certification as a minority-owned business. “The paperwork can take weeks. That’s a long time for a business to become certified,” Adrian says. “They ask, ‘Is all this work worth it, giving me enough opportunity?’”

Certification is just the first step, Collin notes. “To be certified as a small, diverse business is like getting a college degree: It doesn’t guarantee more work, but carries more weight than just being a business,” he explains. “It’s a convoluted process.” The resources exist to help those businesses, he points out, but they can be scattered and hard to locate.

Finding solutions

When one intern dropped out of the project, Collin took on the added role of strategist for his team. Then the groups combined their efforts. They came up with two main findings: The contractor information on the city’s website needs to be better organized, and city officials, developers, and disadvantaged contractors should meet monthly to network and discuss available projects.

Adrian and Collin suggested a redesigned, more user-friendly city website. Dubbed Harrisburg Works, it would walk small businesses through the process of attaining minority certification, finding projects, and bidding. It would include a list of those businesses to help larger companies hire subcontractors. The interns reported their recommendations to city officials.

Learning for a career

Adrian and Collin came away from the project with the realization that a multifaceted team has more tools to solve problems. Their fellow thinkers included students of Psychology, Business, Graphic Design, and Information Sciences. 

They believe the internship experience will pay big dividends in their careers. “I’ve already worked on a diverse team of interns…and had the experience of being handed a problem that no one knew how to solve efficiently,” Adrian says of the project. “We researched and analyzed the problem, and it turned out well.”

Collin liked having his ideas heard and saw the importance of listening to others. “I got a greater respect for different disciplines, how they can bring their skills to the table,” he says.

Adrian has set his career sights set on predicting the direction of technology in the development of software. Collin expects to earn a master’s degree in Computer Science before working in software engineering and perhaps eventually teaching.

The summer project “is going to be huge” in his future, he adds.  “It gave me confidence that I could jump into a project by myself,” Collin says. “When I get a job, I will have to jump into something that already exists. I’ll have to bring myself up to speed, and I feel confident that I can.”