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IBM's undergraduate recruiting aims to draw in students who have technical expertise as well as core business skills

Technology giant IBM (IBM) doesn't just emphasize innovation in its programmers and products. If you want a job in finance, human resources, or another area related to an undergraduate business degree, having technical skills and a love of the industry is key, says Margaret Ashida, IBM's director of university talent programs. The ability to adapt easily should complement knowledge, since products and ideas are constantly changing. "To be a successful IBM-er, you've got to embrace learning and be able to continue to learn throughout your career," says Ashida.

At IBM, Ashida heads up various on-campus and conference-based outreach and internship programs and is a member of the Asian Executive Task Force and the Women in Technology Executive Advisory Committee. She has a wide range of expertise, exemplified in her past work in several of IBM's divisions, among them operational analysis, financial planning, and e-business. She earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and an MBA from Stanford.

Ashida recently spoke to BusinessWeek Online reporter Julie Gordon. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

How many IBM interns are hired after graduation?

It's thousands around the world, but from business programs it's hundreds. Well over half our college hires had prior work experience with IBM.

How does your internship program prepare students for a career at the company?

Our internships offer meaningful work. For example, the Extreme Blue program is an innovative internship approach where we bring in teams of three technical students and one business student. They come in to an 11-week summer internship working in teams on real projects. At the end of the summer, they do a report in front of executives here in New York.

What characteristics should an ideal candidate have?

We certainly expect core functional expertise, so if you're majoring in economics we expect you to be skilled in the most recent learning in economics. Beyond that, we are looking for students who already demonstrate their fit to the IBM values. IBM's values focus on our clients' success, innovation that makes a difference to the world and not just for IBM, and trust and accountability. We do some behavioral-based interviews in addition to testing the caliber of the résumé by asking technical questions.

How can a student make sure those skills shine through during an interview?

You can elicit through an interview whether candidates have a focus on clients in summer jobs they've had. This is where having work-related experience becomes such an important part of the preparation for a full-time job with IBM. Having had some work-related experience makes a tremendous difference (see BW Online, 1/8/06, "No Passport to Success").

How fierce is the competition for full-time jobs among undergraduate business majors?

It's very competitive. For undergraduate business majors to be able to demonstrate that they have a grasp of technology along with their core business skills can be challenging.

Where does networking fit into recruitment?

It's not just knowing somebody. It's important that your IBM contact has seen that glimmer of leadership, some outcomes of your studies, or you in action. Then he or she can recommend you. That is very helpful in consideration.

Once students start working, is there a formal mentoring program?

There are formal mentoring programs, but there is also widespread informal mentoring. In one sense, mentoring is kind of a core value at IBM. Informal mentoring can be as effective, if not more effective, than formal mentoring programs.

Why is diversity stressed at IBM?

It is so important for us to be able to reach new markets and to develop new uses of technology. For this we need diverse thinking. One way this diverse thinking can happen is by hiring people from both genders with different cultures and sexual orientations, [and] those with disabilities and so forth. Having many people who are all different who can collaborate to create new solutions, offerings, and business is critical. Stressing diversity is driven by our clients as well as by our own core values.

Gordon is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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