ETH students at the heart of the action

Computer science students at ETH Zurich are organising VIScon for the second time. The Symposium and the Hackathon offer students the opportunity to get hands-on experience, enabling them to make the connection between theory and the working world.
VIScon Hackathon

“I'm almost too relaxed,” says Max Schrimpf. Unlike last year, the OC president isn’t suffering from sleepless nights in the run-up to the second VIScon. Back then, the convention didn’t have any clear structure, but this year, the organisers know that it will go according to plan and be “awesome”.

It’s up to Schrimpf and his fellow students from the Association of Computer Science Students at ETH Zurich (VIS) to make sure the event runs smoothly. At the Symposium, which will take place inside and in front of the CAB building on 12 October, practice and theory will come together: “VIScon offers ETH students the opportunity to experience everyday working life,” says Gregor Wegberg, who was formerly active in VIS and is a speaker at this year’s Symposium. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., students will have the opportunity to listen to talks given by industry representatives and researchers, participate in workshops or visit an exhibition in front of the CAB building. They can also network with representatives from the industry over lunch.

Symposium lowers inhibitions

What is the point in these networking lunches? “Last year, we realised that the students were afraid to chat with the speakers. That’s why we decided to organise these lunches,” Schrimpf explains. After they’ve signed up, the students just have to be in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity to chat to a speaker.

“The Symposium lowers your inhibitions,” says Nicole Wenzinger, who is responsible for communication and marketing on the VIScon OC. “It’s a safe environment where you can speak to somebody, but you don’t have to”. Back when she was a fresher, she had a different experience at the Kontaktparty, also organised by VIS, an event held every spring at which over 100 companies present themselves. It is Switzerland’s largest academic IT job fair. VIScon takes place six months after the Kontaktparty: “It’s like a cycle. The Kontaktparty is where you can connect with others for the first time, but you can also attend the Symposium first and then the Kontaktparty,” explains Abhimanyu Patel, last year’s Head of Symposium on the OC and a speaker at this year’s event.

VIS as a practical experience

Arranging VIScon gives the organisers practical experience. “You learn a lot about communication. We’re dealing with almost 40 companies and we have to interact with all of them,” Schrimpf says. Wegberg, who has been working in IT security for almost three years, adds: “The working world is very different from studying. You have less freedom and sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, or things that might not always make sense to you even though they’re in your area of expertise. VIS really helps you learn this.” Schrimpf emphasises that you learn how to deal with external requirements and stakeholders: “In theoretical studies, you learn to find the optimum solution, but there’s a lack of interaction with real problems. As a computer scientist, I have to understand what the customer wants, and I need to know how to find that out.” One of VIScon’s goals is to give students a taste of hands-on experience.

As well as the Symposium, there will also be a Hackathon from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon where students will develop small applications in groups, working on set tasks. The organisers hope to take the solutions and get as many applications produced as possible from them, which they will then share with the students.

Former students speak about everyday working life

Patel and Wegberg, two former ETH computer science students and active members of VIS who will speak about their work experience in their talks at the Symposium, stand as examples of how to combine theoretical study and professional life. Patel, who started working at the IT consulting company ipt this year, will hold a talk on how companies deal with millennials’ demands. He points out that as customers, millennials have entirely different ideas to older generations; for instance, they don’t want to wait days for an order to be processed or to open a bank account.

At the Symposium, Wegberg, Head of Security Service Automation at Oneconsult, will demonstrate how companies can survive a successful hacker attack and protect themselves against this scenario. In the real world, it is not about maximum protection, but about what is possible: “I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with the students. This will help them to start their career,” says the IT security consultant – in keeping with the VIScon motto: “Everything that is not taught in lectures”.

Wenzinger makes it clear, however, that the motto should not be seen as a criticism: “It’s difficult to get a lot of practical experience while studying, because computer science changes all the time.” And Patel adds drily: “Next year everything will be different.” The Symposium will also address different topics next year.

What are the organisers’ goals for the future? “We want the Symposium to become a household name, so that companies take it upon themselves to approach us,” Wenzinger says. Support can also be seen within ETH. “We’re grateful that our Rector Sarah Springman will deliver the keynote address.” Reason enough for her colleague Schrimpf to be relaxed even though the Symposium is just around the corner.