The Pandemic Recodes Computer Science Summer Internships at Yeshiva College

Prof. Judah Diament, chair of the computer science department at Yeshiva College

As the summer of 2020 approached, the students in the Yeshiva College computer science department saw their internship opportunities at many companies being cut back or cancelled because of COVID-19.

This presented a serious problem. Not having a productive summer project to add to the résumé and losing out on chances for networking with tech professionals could have a negative impact on their academic and professional careers.

But Prof. Judah Diament, chair of the department at Yeshiva College, and his faculty were resolved to make sure that that their students would not lose out on a summer of opportunities because of COVID-19.

Prof. Diament worked with his faculty and industry volunteers to implement imaginative in-house software development programs to help students sharpen their computer science skills. “I’m not aware of another university,” said Prof. Diament, “that took on that level of responsibility for its students.”

They also contacted their networks of professional and industry contacts to see if some of them could offer virtual comprehensive internships where the instructors, mentors and students would work remotely but collaboratively on challenging and interesting projects.

Judged by the responses of the students and their instructors and mentors, what could have been a catastrophe turned into a productive and exciting educational experience.

Yonatan Berner ’23YC, Eitan Jeselsohn ’23YC and Elimelekh Perl ’22YC worked with alumnus Alex Porcelain ’13YC, vice president of cybersecurity at Goldman Sachs, with Berner working with three other students on automating workflows and Perl and Jeselsohn and two others designing a chatbot.

The chatbot designers, according to Porcelain, had to create “a legally compliant online chat service for YU’s registrar and student finance offices,” work that would touch upon technical issues like cloud computing and security and integrating with open source software and other real systems (like databases) as well as teaching the students about team dynamics and development cycles.

Jeselsohn was very pleased to have had the chance “to learn about Amazon Web Services (AWS) and how to use the different tools they provide as well as how to develop a full-stack application from scratch. I also learned some different project management methodologies, like Scrum and Waterfall.” He also found it valuable to learn what it took to collaborate with teammates and correspond with stakeholders.

Perl’s original plan had been to do computer science research in Israel and was grateful that the department was able to secure a project for him. While, like Jeselsohn, he loved the chance to learn “a totally different method of computer science problem-solving than I’ve experienced in the past” when grappling with AWS, he was also relished learning about the group dynamics of working on a development team. “Effective communication, delegation and cooperation are all essential for productive and efficient workdays,” he noted. “It’s incredibly helpful to be able to brainstorm or debug with a group-think mentality, but at the same time, distributed coding projects require careful coordination.” He was also pleasantly surprised to find out “how much of a given day was spent in conversation with my teammates hashing out ideas rather than just sitting at my console typing away.”

Berner and his classmates worked on automating workflows for the YU registrar and student finance offices. “We gained exposure to AWS, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, Java, and Spring/Spring Boot,” he pointed out. “And while we have encountered many technologies that we have not been taught in classes, our rigorous computer science classes have taught us to develop skills of self-learning, researching and learning new things independently. Using these skills, we have been able to teach ourselves many new useful technologies.”

The project also helped him hone his skills in “developing and improving team collaboration, communication, organization, and presentation skills,” and he enjoyed “the opportunities to hear from many different professionals in the technological fields about their career paths, who shared their advice and experience with us so that we can make more informed decisions about our future as computer scientists.”

For Porcelain, offering the students these chances was his way of “paying it forward” for the break he got in 2012 when a YU alumnus helped him navigate his way to a job at Deloitte. “These guys are great,” he enthused. “They’ve more than exceeded my expectations in organizing a project, researching many new technologies and driving all development forward to completion. We were only working via Zoom and Slack, so it was quite a challenge. But I give them major credit for what they’ve achieved.”

Zechariah Rosenthal ’22YC and three other students worked on a similar project with Rainer Richter, vice president of operations at INB Homes, which, according to its website “offers a range of new homes in a variety of communities in beautiful Florida.”

Richter described INB as a “fast-growing startup company that was outgrowing ‘Management by Excel’,” so he wanted the crew from Yeshiva College to build a reporting and management suite for homebuilding operation. “We were tasked,” said Rosenthal, “with revamping the entire company’s data pipeline.” As a team, they designed and implemented a custom AWS relational database for the company’s specific needs as well as a dashboard of tools for reliable data recording and viewing. “Shalom Gottesman ’22YC and I focused on the front-end: that involved building an easy to use website to track and update their hundreds of current building projects. We also built a suite of automatically generated weekly analyses for each arm of the company, from sales to construction to management.”

Rosenthal appreciated learning about “the messiness of building things in the real world, both in software and more literally houses! Specifying ‘the problem to solve’ precisely  is such a critical component to beginning any project, which taught me the value of clear communication and good teamwork practices.”

He also learned that while he was able to apply the skills he’d acquired in his classes, more valuable were the non-computer science skills he’d picked up. “From Prof. Leff’s classes I gained an appreciation for meticulousness, close attention to detail, and professionalism that was incredibly helpful when working on such a large project,” he noted. “From Prof. Diament’s classes I gained the confidence to jump into almost any industry-standard level toolkit that I’d never used (or maybe even heard of) before, learn it rapidly, and find ways to apply it to the task at hand.”

Overall, Richter found the experience very useful for his company. While it required a lot of hands-on management, especially when the work was being done remotely, “the interns delivered excellent work.”

Brendon Collins, University Programs Specialist at Google, who has recruited for the company at Yeshiva University as well as moderating events like the Career Center’s TechUcation, stepped in with a squad of fellow Google employees to mentor four students on how to come up with a project, map out the development timeline and stake out distinct job ladders for the project’s duration.

“Their task was to design a web platform to allow customers to navigate businesses that have to cap in-store capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions,” he explained. Issac Hier, one of the Google mentors, added, “For example, how can customers learn about peak hours of in-store traffic? Can you make some kind of DMV-esque ‘take a number’ system? Can you notify customers that their timeslot is approaching? and so on.”

The four students faced the challenges of self-educating on a number of new web technologies as well as getting to know each other’s work habits and skills, “but they’ve done very well, all things considered,” said Collins. “Their passion and drive are evident, and we’ve been happy to mentor these students as they navigate the project’s ambiguities in a methodical and professional way.”

Department staff stepped as well to help students gain valuable experience over the summer. Dr. F. Patricia Medina, assistant professor, worked with Yudi Meltzer ’20YC and two other students on a project for which she is the Principal Investigator: working with faculty from the University of Washington and Worcester Polytechnique Institute on an Azure computing grant from Microsoft titled “Solutions for climate change science: using deep learning to improve vegetation classification.”

“I thought that this was a great opportunity to engage students in an active learning research-based project,” said Dr. Medina, “and at the same time push the project forward during the summer.”

Meltzer worked on building a machine learning classification model to investigate vegetation structure using LiDAR data features collected by researchers at the University of Washington. (LiDAR is an acronym that can mean either “light detection and ranging” or “laser imaging, detection, and ranging.”)

“The research was conducted remotely on Azure and our own machines,” explained Meltzer. “We deciphered research papers and applied our computer science knowledge to physical techniques to achieve greater results.” Along the way he learned that “there is a lot of room for new thinking and research in the crossover of computer science and physical science because the research techniques are not yet using the computation power that is available, which means that there is room to make processes more efficient and make new discoveries.”

Meltzer himself plans to pursue a PhD and do research that places him “at the edge of new discovery and answering big questions. This is possible in industry as well as academia, and this research experience has given me a stronger drive to pursue the new and cutting-edge.”

For Dr. Medina, a new professor in the department, “it was really helpful to learn how to advise undergraduate students on a specific research project. They performed incredibly well, reporting results every week and showing extreme enthusiasm for what they were learning, and showed that our CS students are well prepared to take on research problems.”

Every student who participated in these projects had nothing but praise for the what the department did for them to make the summer profitable rather than a loss. Berner sums it up nicely: “It is truly great to have professors that care very much about each of their students’ success. A perfect example of this is how due to difficulties and loss of opportunities for students this summer, our professors worked hard to organize and give as many students as possible a great growth-oriented internship, that allowed us to have a productive summer full of learning and building. I very much appreciate the opportunity I was given, and I am very thankful to all who made it happen.”

The instructors and mentors who gave of their time and resources also had nothing but positive reviews of the effort. Collins noted that “the way they worked provides a clear glimpse into how the YU environment produces hardworking, collaborative, and curious future colleagues for the tech industry.”

Porcelain agreed, stating that “YU students are smart and motivated—it doesn’t take too much time to achieve meaningful results.”

Videos are available from some of the students who participated in the internship program.