CO-OP STUDENTS HELP CLIENTS AND STAFF SEE THE BIG PICTURES

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The table in a small conference room in Your Part-Time Controller’s Philadelphia headquarters is crammed with laptops, workbooks, spreadsheets, and an occasional sandwich. The walls are papered with charts, diagrams and work plans. And four Co-op students from Drexel University are busily trading ideas about the most effective way to convert financial data into more meaningful visual formats.

The students are YPTC’s Data Visualization Research & Implementation Group (DVRIG) – an idea unique in the accounting world. Since September 2015, YPTC has been partnering with Drexel University’s pioneering program to put undergraduate students into real-life workplace environments where they gain valuable experiences, resume-building credentials, and opportunities to apply their skill sets to help make a difference.


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Co-op, short for cooperative education, is a program built into Drexel’s curriculum since 1919 to balance classroom theory with periods of practical, hands-on experience. It’s an extended internship program, explains Nick Jackson, a computer science student. “It puts you into the experience of a real job and increases the likelihood of your getting employment after graduation,” he says. “It makes you more prepared for the real world.”

GENIES OF DATA

The students are genies of data. YPTC staff members bring them their wishes to make clients’ financial reports more comprehensible and DVRIG members make it happen. They transform financials into cleaner, vibrant visual models that are easier for people to understand.

Lamont Williams“YPTC staff want to get a point across but they don’t know the best way to go about it,” says Lamont Williams, a senior from New York City. “We come together to figure out the best way to convey that information and present the story.”

By researching and implementing the newest tools and techniques in software, DVRIG helps our staff to do things with data that they didn’t realize were possible. They not only share their knowledge with staff but also enhance the value of our work with our clients. And along the way they help our staff resolve technical issues they encounter with IT systems.

Each member of the group brings a different skill set to the work table. Nick writes Visual Basic scripts, macros used with Excel, QuickBooks and other business intelligence software to transform data into something more user-friendly. Sijie Fu, a foreign exchange student from China majoring in accounting and finance, helps build dashboards with visuals that simplify complex reports and tell YPTC’s clients the story behind their numbers. Duc Nguyen, a senior from Vietnam majoring in business analytics and finance with a background in database programming and IT, concentrates on analytics. Williams specializes in accounting and business analytics.

MORE THAN JUST INTERNS
At first, the DVRIG members seem like college students everywhere: Nick knocked around in retail and went to a community college for a few years while he was figuring out that what he wants to do with his life is work with computers. Sijie and Duc want to travel the world before possibly returning to their native countries to work.


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But on a deeper level, these are sharp, young professionals with solid ideas and voices that YPTC staff and clients are eager to hear. They are universally enthralled at how they’ve been integrated into the YPTC family and how their ideas are valued.

“As the CEO, Eric Fraint listens to everyone and that’s something that surprised me,” says Sijie. “He never says no to new ideas and he often turns them into something he can use. I never thought I’d be able to work directly with the CEO of a company. 


“As college students, we want to be heard. Here, they treat us like real employees. They come to us with questions and we feel like we’re part of the team.”

Lamont echoes the sentiment. “I like the interactions with staff and being able to work with Eric and see his vision and get to know what it’s like to actually run a company. It’s not something you usually see in a work environment. Acquiring that knowledge right now will be extremely helpful for my career moving forward. If I ever start my own business I will have learned a lot.”

Ditto for Duc. “Eric was the only person who ever interviewed me who followed up with an e-mail. That impressed me a lot. Working along with Eric gives me a lot of opportunities to learn how a leader can lead a company. I can learn a lot of lessons from Eric’s way.”

The work is not only intellectually challenging but, as Nick says, “It brings the human component in. We get to see the human side of upper management and operations and work directly with the CEO and staff members. It’s a very flat hierarchy and a healthy and respectful way to run a business. It’s great to see it working in a real-life situation.”

LEARNING AND TEACHING
SijieFu.jpgThey also see their work as unique ways to both learn and teach. “A big part of what we do here is to be a teaching and education resource for staff,” says Nick. The DVRIG team helps out with staff block trainings and provides in-depth training for individual staff members.

“Staff are very busy with clients. They’d like to have more time to learn visualization techniques and to do cool things in Excel but they don’t have the time to learn,” he adds. “We can bridge that step so they can implement these things without their having to spend a lot of time fiddling around trying to learn them themselves.”
 
“We’re also learning more as we’re teaching YPTC’s staff,” adds Sijie. “This job helps us see what opportunities are available in the future, whether we’re working for companies or starting our own.” At YPTC, Nick is “getting to do intellectual projects on a daily basis. Each project is new and I get to use my skill set and programming skills to accomplish challenges.” Lamont notes that each assignment is different and he’s always learning something new: “No one day is like another,” he says. Duc considers the position an opportunity not only to work but also to learn and sharpen his data visualization techniques that will be crucial for his career. “We also have to talk with staff and YPTC’s clients and that enhances our communication skills,” he adds.

BUILDING A BETTER WORLD
And true to YPTC’s mission, they also appreciate the opportunity to give something back to the community. Sijie worked with an NGO in China and was impressed with how much work volunteers put in without getting paid. At YPTC she finds great fulfillment in our work with charitable organizations. “We’re helping the staff who are helping nonprofits who are helping people who have real needs,” she says.

This group is the second cohort of DVRIG students whose six-month term ends in September, 2016 when they go back to classes or another Co-op. They worked with the first cohort, invested by YPTC with the responsibility of inventing the program on the fly and figuring out how to implement their skill sets within the company. When their terms end, they’ll be part of the selection process to choose the next cohort and help mentor that team to move the program along even farther.

“Lots of college graduates aren’t getting hired because they don’t have any experience. But how do you get that experience without a job?” asks Lamont, describing an age-old Catch-22 dilemma. At YPTC, Co-op students are getting those work experiences – and along the way they’re teaching our staff and providing meaningful help to enable our clients to build a better world, one accounting department at a time.