Summer School: Fostering Curiosity & Creativity in Ad-tech

As summer fully unfolds and people are taking a break, we’re not slowing down at Outbrain in Slovenia. Rather, we’ve gone full speed ahead, hosting our first ever backend summer school, on the heels of  last year’s winning HR&M project – Data Science 2021 summer school. In fact, this is the fourth year in a row that we’ve been running summer school, so it’s not new to us. But it’s always a fantastic experience.

At Zemanta, an Outbrain company, summer school is geared towards young and talented individuals who want to gain additional knowledge and experience in data science and backend development. It aims to excite and motivate young people for future careers in the fields of machine learning, programming, and software development. But first and foremost, the summer school was primarily born out of a desire to pass on knowledge and give back to the community, as well as building closer relationships between team members. Over time, it has become a key part of the company’s identity and our strategy of attracting talent. 

Summer school runs once a year, with a limited number of participants. This enables an intimate, in-depth approach and guarantees a quality learning experience for students. Participants must have solid programming skills and basic knowledge in data science, machine learning, and backend coding. In one week, they significantly improve their skills and gain insights into the practical side of working in the field.

The program guides the participants through all phases of a development project. It starts with defining the problem, then gathering and analyzing data, followed by model building and coding as well as practical experiments. The students work with huge amounts of real data, and work on solving real problems in the ad tech industry. Through these challenges, participants get first-hand knowledge and practical experience of data science and backend programming. At the same time, they get a real glimpse of how the best experts in both fields approach problem solving.

It all takes place in our work environment – our offices. During the summer school project, our data scientists and backend engineers actively participate and share their knowledge as lecturers and mentors. They constantly guide participants about how to apply new-found knowledge in practice. In addition to the official part of the program, the summer school also includes informal get-togethers during which participants and employees get to know each other better, network, and connect.

By participating in the project, employees are able to contribute their share in giving back to the community, develop additional knowledge and skills, and connect with the next generation of developers and data scientists. In four years, approximately 150 individuals have applied to the summer school, of which 55 were accepted as students and completed the program, gaining new knowledge, experience, and skills. Two participants have since joined us as full-time employees, but we also noticed an increase in candidates who are interested in working at our company, enabling us to fill open positions relatively quickly and with amazing talent.

By collecting detailed feedback every year from both the participants and our colleagues who create and run the program, we work hard to improve next year’s summer school. This year, we even upgraded summer school to a summer internship for some participants. For the first time, four interns joined us in the Data Science team. 

Above all, summer school is a great team building opportunity and it is a week that our colleagues really enjoy. During this time, they have no other obligations apart from mentoring, but at the same time, they gain new experiences, the opportunity to pass on their knowledge, conduct workshops and lectures, as well as enjoying many fun moments during informal gatherings. By participating in the project, employees strengthen their competencies in different fields, such as communication, performance, cooperation, and organization, which helps them to take on more responsible roles in the future. And as a bonus, we sometimes get some interesting ideas from the participants, which we use in our daily work and software development.

An additional positive side effect is the faster acclimation of new recruits who attended the summer school. Because they are already familiar with the team, the company, our way of working, approach to solving problems, and use of technologies, the onboarding of these new recruits is much easier, and they also begin independent work more quickly.

With all that in mind, we will continue to run summer school and look for more opportunities to expand. We aim to upgrade the program with additional content, attract new external local and international lecturers, and perhaps even organize a winter round. Above all, we continue to advance our company’s unique culture and expand our toolbox. 

If you like what you’ve read, and are considering applying for a job at Outbrain, check out what my colleague Klara has to say about how to land a job

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