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When is time money?

Student work experience and placements - When is time money?

by Sam Raincock

Sam Raincock is an IT and telecommunications expert witness specialising in the evaluation of digital evidence. She also provides training and IT security consultancy.
Throughout the world, there has been a recent surge in students studying computer forensics. Some courses encourage placement years or work experience to allow students to expand on their academic knowledge and obtain some practical experience.

Times haven’t changed. I remember as an undergraduate I was delighted to work in IT placements for an investment bank. However, as I look back now, what do internships/placements really provide the company employing you? Are the projects you work on as a student worth any money?

Now that I reflect on my own placements – what did they really get for their money? I believe the main gain was a 6 month interview process with no commitment to hire me at the end. That’s a good deal for a company looking for the very best candidates and with the cash flow to find them.

What did I get from them? Well I received a salary and at the time that’s what I mainly valued. However, now when I consider what I really obtained, I realise I actually gained something far more valuable and costly to them – I received the time of some of their most talented staff.

In the world of forensics, for students looking to gain work experience or placements it’s quite a grim situation with few places available and high competition. Unlike computing placements where a company may provide a student with a coding project or assign them to IT support, the forensic world is all about looking at case evidence, most of which involves legal or confidential matters. This may induce issues surrounding appropriate justification of the skillset and experience of the person conducting the work. In some situations, a firm may not be able to rationalise a student working on a case. Hence, a lot of forensic firms do not hire placement students.

Are you in the business of time?

Forensic practices operate as a services business. This means they make money from their staff’s time. Hence, the costs involved in training a student and paying their wage and other outlays (professional indemnity insurance, office space, administration support, NI, holidays, sick pay etc….) need to be less than the benefits/profit they can bring to the business.

Although every company is different, in general this does provide most forensic companies with a real-life problem – for a number of companies, the first year of any graduate’s employment will predominantly be training. This means the business will make little (if any) profit from a new starter. With placements, this results in a company investing in a student’s training only for them to leave at the end of the year when they are actually starting to become useful and profitable (and possibly later take their new knowledge to a competitor).

Unlike big firms which may see this training year as a way of finding the best candidates, a small forensic firm is unlikely to have the available funds for such an investment.

Time really is money

Like all services industries – the key thing to remember for a digital forensic student is that time is money. Businesses work by making a profit (otherwise they are not in business long). The placement student needs the time of an experienced examiner to develop their own learning and work on real cases. However, the student needs to appreciate what this costs a company.

In legal aid matters up to a fee of £100 per hour is charged by forensics firms operating in the UK. Hence, an employee could earn a business approximately £750 per day. So if this employee is teaching a student instead, that’s effectively what their time could be worth to the business. Likewise, if you look at the cost of professional training – you could easily spend £2,000 in a week and you’re not going to get one-to-one training for that!

What can a student do?

It is my advice, in the current climate, that students need to realise what a business needs. They perhaps need to view their work experience/placement more as something to assist them in their learning and not as something that will make them money. The right placement could provide them with the correct practical experience to develop their career and skillset beyond what they have achieved in lectures (and students pay the universities for those).

I’d also say students need to be less fussy, consider the bigger picture and be realistic. In order to work well for a business they need to think business – it is essential they give the company something in return for their time and investment. Yes, this may mean the work experience/placement student will be required to perform some IT support, in fact it may be their primary role, however, they should perhaps view this in terms of what they will gain from the experience i.e. the technical and social skills this would provide them. Often computer forensic students haven’t entered the field from a technical background, hence they may lack some of the understanding of how a computer works, writing scripts and maintaining servers/networks that others may have. All of these skills will assist them in their forensic career and it’s always worthwhile remembering, the more useful and eager a student is to a business, the more likely that senior examiner and business are to provide them with their time opportunities to shadow forensic cases and supervise projects.

Business Skills and Students

Business awareness is one of the most important skills students are going to need when they start in employment. However, it’s rarely taught on degree courses and often students show a lack of real-world responsiveness.

So next time you discuss a summer work experience with a voluntary contract you may wish to look at it a little differently – they are not offering you cash, but they may be providing you with a second-hand car’s worth of their time (and it’s tax free!)

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Read Sam's previous columns

Sam Raincock Consultancy operates throughout the UK and Ireland providing IT and telecommunications expert witness services, training and IT security consultancy.

Sam specialises in the evaluation of digital evidence from the analysis of telephones to determining the functionality of software systems (and almost anything in-between). She also provides overview assessments of cases, considering different sources of evidence in the context of a whole incident to highlight inconsistencies particularly due to digital devices. Sam can be contact direct on +44 (0)1429 820131, [email protected] or http://www.raincock.co.uk.