A new type of learning in Amsterdam

“Tech courses at university are like history lessons,” says BIT students co-founder Marco van der Werf. “There’s a first-year test in the software engineering course which has the question, “What controls your computer, a fatherboard, a motherboard or a familyboard?” If you’ve been programming since you were ten, that’s extremely demotivating!” In response to this, Van der Werf and fellow co-founder Dennis Berkhof set up BIT Students, a non-profit foundation in which high-flying tech students put their talents to the test in computer science, AI and design projects for leading companies.

Innovation in the Netherlands and beyond

From their office at Amsterdam Science Park’s Startup Village, BIT students build ‘jump starts’ for companies: prototypes also known as ‘minimum viable products’, or MVPs. The principle is simple, says Van der Werf: “Before you build a house, first put up a tent, do it fast, and get some feedback.” So far, BIT students has put up its tents for an impressive list of companies. They include multinational names like Philips, Unilever, ING, Heineken and eBay, but also local innovators like the accelerator Startup Bootcamp or the pioneering news organisation The Correspondent.

“At some point we found out that young people are best at working on short, innovative projects,” explains Berkhof. “They don’t want to be bored with the work that needs to be done after the set-up is finished, in the maintenance phase of a project.” The foundation also works voluntarily for charities such as War Child.

The students specialise in developing projects using artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), and the internet of things (IoT). “AI has been the biggest change in our industry,” says Berkhof. “When we started the company we didn’t do any AI assignments, but then a year or so ago companies started talking about it a lot. Then we started looking for students that studied AI, and now around 30 to 40 percent of projects we work on are focused on data science, machine learning and AI.”

BIT Students Intensive learning programme

BIT student goes beyond a conventional internship, as the 50 students are working as fully-fledged developers. At the same time, it’s a far more advanced and intensive learning environment than the average tech company. “Yes, I’m a student,” says team member Luc Meijer, “but this is actually where I learn everything I need to know. It offers a lot more than other companies would do.” The team can also draw on mentorship and training from BIT students’ partner, the IT Company Info Support.

As soon as one of the BIT students finishes studying, they start to reach the end of their employment at the company. “You can’t be here more than six months after you’ve finished studying,” explains Berkhof. “We want to stay young and we want to stay fresh, and we want don’t want people to stay with us forever. They need to see more of the world and gain experience working on other projects. Of course, that means we need to pass on knowledge and train each other a lot. Training is very important at BIT students are one of the biggest challenges for us.”

Tough selection

BIT students is an abbreviation of ‘Bright IT Students’, and it’s very careful to live up to its name: only the very best make it onto the team. The selection procedure is notoriously tough, and the organisation aims to take only the top five percent of Amsterdam students in the field. Of course, because they’re students, parties are also important, and apart from being a professional collective, they’re also a close-knit group of friends.

The foundation even has its own beer, and for high-flying tech students who are interested to know if they might make the grade to join, the best approach is to go along and sample it. Six times a year BIT Students also holds a beer and pizza night, where prospective members – usually around 50 in total - can meet the team and find out more about what it takes to be a BIT student.

In terms of next steps BIT Students is looking at moving to Delft, starting its own traineeship for people that are leaving the company, and even launching their a venture fund to start building businesses out of the ideas that its students have.

As we come to the end of our chat, Berkhof reflects on the last few years launching and growing the company. “If you look at our list of clients it’s insane, and the biggest achievement is the fact that the biggest companies around the world want to build cool tech innovations with us,” Berkhof explains. And the way that people develop themselves with us,” he adds. “I wish I had a job like this when I was 21 or 22 years old.” Barring them developing their own time-travel tech, it’s unlikely that Berkhof can make that happen. But for now, BIT Students legacy in helping to create a whole new generation of innovators and experts cannot be underestimated.

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