Ivan Shires is a senior who studies Computer and Information Systems and minors in Digital Data Storytelling at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. As a web analytics intern at the DME internship program, Ivan’s daily tasks include making the DME Interns website run better by improving the accessibility for users, checking the content quality of the website and lowering the bounce rate (leaving one page of a website and going to another) by keeping people engaged with the content and graphics of the website. His duties as head of the analytics department include making sure everyone is on track with their web analytics training, weekly reports and knows how to use programs like Tableau and Google Analytics for their projects.
What drew Ivan to the DME internship was his concern for his father, “He needs help with technology […] I want to help people like my dad.” Ivan noticed that his father was not accepting any benefits he had and had trouble using new technology. This is what drew Ivan to want to make good experiences for Veterans who are interested in learning more about their benefits or information about the VA through podcasts, the DME Interns website and the VAntagePoint website.
Use the audio player to listen to Ivan’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the intern podcast here with the Department of Digital Media Engagement. My name is Shannon Moran, and I am an intern and Executive Team Leader here with DME. I help run multiple podcasts within our platform, and host this one as well. We work really hard to make sure that you, the listener, get to learn more about what we do here within our DME program, tour fellow interns, and hopefully you can learn more about the other departments that we have within our program, and maybe compel you to apply if you are not an intern with us. That being said, I hope you enjoy!
Mercedes Hesselroth: If you could start by introducing yourself, where you go to school, and what you study?
Ivan Shires: I’m Ivan, I go to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. I study Computer Information Systems, and I minor in Visual Data Storytelling.
MH: So you’re in the Web Analytics Department. Can you talk a little bit about what the responsibilities of a Web Analytics intern are?
IS: So our job is to figure out how to make the website better in the aspect of performance, the aspect of usability, and the aspect of content quality. We use different KPIs, metrics, and similar attributes to try to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and what people like to use on the website.
MH: So what have you found that people are going to the website for? What is the traffic usually about?
IS: The podcast. The Battle Born [Borne the Battle] podcast is extremely popular. We are also working really hard to lower the bounce rate. Bounce rate in the respect of a website is: if you go to one page and leave, that’s considered a bounce. So we want to get people engaged, get people to navigate through the website. We are currently doing a pretty good job, but there is always room for improvement.
MH: So you’re actually the Department Head of the Web Analytics department, right?
MH: How do your responsibilities differ from a new intern? Someone who is just starting out, someone still at the entry level?
IS: My duties have definitely changed, but they’re not very difficult, per se. I just make sure everyone is on track, everyone understands what is going on. We go through weekly reports, we have to enter all of that into a back end system. We talk to the executive leadership team about how we are progressing. It’s not bad. And it really helps to have a good division officer below me as well.
MH: And how does your leadership style play into how you are leading the team?
IS: Well we are all students so I can’t just pester everyone all the time. We have to, like, “Hey if you guys are free, make sure you do your training! We have a project coming up”, or whatever. It’s really different from a normal job where the question is not a “Can you do this now?” it’s more “Can you do this when you’re free, when you’re available?” We are a ll students, and it’s a really unique change from what I’m used to. So, it’s really cool. Different, but really cool.
MH: So along that same thread. You are in your senior year. How are you balancing class, and your internship, and all the other responsibilities that you may have?
IS: It’s not very difficult. With us being on a hybrid system like we are, I’m going to class maybe once or twice a week in person. So, I’m either at my apartment, at work, or hanging out with friends. The balance isn’t very difficult, it’s like balancing between different classwork assignments. It’s not bad at all. It’s really low stress, comparatively.
MH: Is this the first completely remote internship that you’ve had?
IS: Yes, it is.
MH: How does that compare to your past work experiences, that were all in person?
IS: It’s entirely new. My normal job is driving buses around my college campus. As you can imagine, a remote internship in technology is far different from driving a bus. So it’s been a really cool, eye opening experience, but it is definitely different. This prepares me for the real world a whole lot more than driving buses does.
MH: It sounds like you’ve had a breadth of experiences. So what drew you to this internship in particular, and why did you want to work with the VA?
IS: My dad was a veteran. Not for the United States Armed Forces, but rather for the South African Armed Forces. And he hasn’t really tried to exercise any of the benefits he has. Also he is kind of technologically… well… he needs help with technology. If I was… I took this internship with the mindset of helping people like my dad. If they want to figure out their benefits, if they want to figure out things about the VA, they can. And I want to make their experiences as good as I can. So that’s why I chose the internship, that’s kind of what appealed to me about it. And on top of that, it’s good experience for my future
MH: And can you give a few examples of benefits you think veteran’s should be taking advantage of, that maybe they are not?
IS: Well we have the podcast, which is always kind of cool. It’s people that they can relate to, it’s people that they understand. It’s a real cool opportunity, it’s really well put together, it’s really cool to listen to. It’s one of the things I listen to at work. On top of that we have articles written every couple days or every day. Really good, insightful information that they can read, that they can look over, or they can research on their own terms.
MH: Can you talk a bit about what you study, and how that relates to the internship responsibilities?
IS: Yeah of course. I study Computer Information Systems and Visual Data Storytelling. Computer Information Systems focuses more on the hosting aspect of this internship. So what host do we use, what’s our uptime, things like that. From a web analyst role it’s important to think about, but it’s not essential. That’s more of a web development concept. But from a visual analytics standpoint, this is entirely up that alley. From creating dashboards in Tableau to even teaching people about Tableau. We still have students that haven’t really been exposed to Tableau yet, which I’m trying to fit. There’s some really cool opportunities with Tableau, and it’s really easy for people to learn. So I have half heartedly pushed that to the team, along with Google Analytics which minor didn’t cover, although it probably should. So we are all getting new experiences. We are all getting certificates of training to put on our resumes. So it’s really cool, really insightful, and a really good experience.
MH: Can you talk a little bit more about the kind of software and tools you’re using on the job, and what a potential intern might want to start learning if they want to apply for the internship.
IS: Of course. So for communication we use Slack. I’ve never used Slack before this internship, and it might be a great idea to at least play around with it. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s really cool once you can figure it out. On top of that we use Trello, again I hadn’t used it before the internship but it’s kind of cool. It’s a little confusing to get used to, but again we also just started the internship. From a back end standpoint we are using Google Suite to manage our files. We have all used that so I wouldn’t really stress about that. From a more functional standpoint we use Google Analytics. I’m trying to get people to at least try out Tableau, also excel. So you don’t have to be amazingly talented at any of those, it’s just proficient is all we ask for. We ask that you guys, meaning future interns, complete the Google Analytics training suite, starting with the beginners course and ending at the advanced course. Then we go on from there, to power users, and I believe there is one other. And all of those are free, it’s super easy. I’ve been literally doing them over my lunch. So, yeah! That’s about all we use in terms of software for now
MH: When you’re using this software to look at any of the website traffic, or organize the dashboard, or anything like that, what’s the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered so far?
IS: Just the variety of different content that people watch and read. We have people reading articles from years past because they found it, probably searching google. And they’re not just like bouncing around to find each article. They are actually genuinely reading these old articles. So we have a very dedicated view base that I didn’t expect. It’s really cool to see. On top of that, I knew the podcast was not, by any stretch, thrown together. But it is REALLY good quality and a lot of people really enjoy listening to it. That’s another thing that caught me by surprise. We’re tailoring our analytics to go around that. What can we do to try to improve the viewing experience in all types of the website? We can’t just improve from here on, we have to work on supporting everything on the site because everything is popular among our viewers.
MH: Are you able to tell if the website viewers are mostly domestic? Is there some global traffic?
IS: There is global traffic, it’s just comparatively a lot less. We see a number of countries where our global traffic is significantly higher. My friend who is in a military family, our second most country is Germany, and she told me that has a very big overseas military presence. Mainly domestic, mainly on the east coast. There are certainly exceptions and there isn’t really a global presence with the exception of Germany and likewise countries.
MH: So what would you say is the profile of a typical user of the website?
IS: So I believe the profile of a typical user is either a veteran or somebody interested, just looking to see what their benefits are or trying to get more information about the VA. They’re just trying to get as much information as they can to make informed decisions. That’s the reason why websites exist. We go to websites for information. Now, we also have more of the entertainment/entertainment category with respect to the podcast, but also our writing team creates some pretty cool content that helps them read stories from other VA members, other veterans. I feel like it’s a really good balance between entertainment, information, and just easy reading.
MH: So you’ve mentioned the podcast team and the writing team. This is our first year with a Cyber Security team as well. How are you interacting with other departments?
IS: Right now the cyber security team – I believe they are working on training. But one of my interns actually moved over to the cyber security team and he’s been talking to me about what they’re doing and it’s really cool actually. They are doing threat management training. So they’re examining which website addons create a harmful risk and they’re analyzing just like a normal IT department would be. Like “oh that system is a little bit compromised, we have to watch it and quarantine it.” It’s really cool seeing these big IT topics, which aren’t at all taught in school, being available to these interns and students that ordinarily wouldn’t get to see that unless they went into a Cyber Security degree program. So it’s really cool.
MH: In terms of the more entertainment aspect of the website that you mentioned, like the content, the written content, the podcast: how do you convince people to stay on the website like you were talking about earlier to increase the number of minutes, and the number of pages that they are viewing?
IS: So the writing team… we try to… One of our main focal points is our bounce rate. The bounce rate, as I said earlier, is you going to one website then off the website, that’s a bounce. We are trying to eliminate that as much as possible. We are doing really well, and we have a lot of improvement, but there is always room to grow. We counteract that with engaging content, or rather the writing team does, we don’t do that. Really good titles, really appealing titles convinces people “Hey this is pretty cool. I should click on it.” On top of that we make the website easy to use. We are working with the Web Development team to compare our website with other websites across the US Government and also in the private sector just to see how we compare. What are they doing? What does their website look like and is it easy to navigate? We’re all trying to figure out what works the best. It’s really cool, but it just comes down to: how easy is the website, does it provide content that people want to watch or read or listen to? It’s a really cool balance.
MH: Is there one or more aspects of the website that you would like to see changed?
IS: We are working right now with comparing other websites. We are working right now on the feature aspect. Like: do they provide a newsletter? Do they provide a dedicated intern website? Things like that just to see what features they offer. Then we can correspond with them and ask “Is this thing working for you?” Then we can change the DME and VAntage point websites from there. But the design, I believe, is changing soon but that’s more of a web development question, but we are focused on seeing that people who visit the VAntage Point and DMEInterns websites have the best experience in terms of usability.
MH: Along those lines — by the end of the internship is there a personal or professional goal you would have liked to have achieved by then?
IS: I would love to see some of our initial goals be met or exceeded, goals and expectations be exceeded. Bounce rate being a big one, Dom has actually mentioned that in nearly every meeting with him. “Hey guys, we want the bounce rate down. You guys are doing great and keep up the good work. Bounce rate.” Whenever you see something on your college test keep coming up and up and up you know that will probably be on your test. It’s the same thing with Dom mentioning the bounce rate. He is really concerned about it because he wants to do his part to improve the website. He wants to make sure that we know it’s important. There’s absolutely other aspects, but that’s what he wants. We have to tailor our goals and working habits to try to accomplish that goal. Right now we are doing pretty well.
MH: What is your level of engagement with the actual users of the website? If somebody wanted to provide user feedback would they be able to?
IS: I don’t believe right now they can but we are absolutely working on different modes of contact. Of course they can indirectly contact us, but we would rather have a direct mode of communication. We are working on it.
MH: So you mentioned earlier that your minor is focused on digital storytelling. Can you talk a bit about how that plays into your communication with the podcast department, the writing department, and the other features on the website?
IS: So visual data storytelling is, by loose definition, turning hard to read data into easy to read visualizations. So if we got the assignment to look at how the last 10 blog posts did on whatever topic, if I just give them an excel spreadsheet and say have fun, they won’t be at all lost. But they will be like “That doesn’t help me. That’s just numbers.” Visual data storytelling means instead of sending a spreadsheet I can send a nice PDF, an infographic of sorts, with charts, comparisons, anything I want to help them make informed decisions. The idea is to turn hard to read data into easy to understand dashboards.
MH: If a potential intern was looking at the website thinking about web analytics but wasn’t sure if they were qualified, what advice would you give to them?
IS: I would not at all be concerned. We have people from all fields, we have computer science fields. We even have an English related major in our department. There’s not really a technical requirement to our department. It’s more of: if you’re willing to learn, you’re willing to understand, you’re going to thrive here. And every single intern on my team has done a fantastic job thus far. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We have people that are on this team that have even bounced over to web development and helped create a discord bot. I… or not discord bot a slack bot. And that took me by surprise because I’ve never had that experience before. I have never had people around me that are that knowledgeable and that diversely talented. So it’s a really cool experience. Just be ready to bring your skills to the table and be willing to learn and we can bounce off everyone. That’s what I expect from an intern.
MH: So what is the amount of crossover and collaboration that you have with the web development team? And what’s the difference between your responsibilities?
IS: So the web development team is more focused on creating the experience. We are focused on improving the experience and analyzing the experience. They create it, so the design, the layout, how the website looks on your phone vs a computer. All of those aspects are a web development concept. We are more focused on, can I get from point A to point B correctly and efficiently? Good, then they’ve done their job. And the amount of crossover kind of depends. Like I said one of my interns did bounce over to their department for a moment to help them with a Slack bot. It’s just really cool to see. We are… there is certainly the potential to do it more. The web ELT, the web manager on the executive leadership team, has been fantastic working with us at least every week on different projects. The work together aspect is going to be amazing. I can’t wait to get more of the internship started and more of the projects assigned. It’s going to work really well.
MH: And so this internship is 10 hours a week. What would you say most of your time is dedicated to? What projects are you doing?
IS: So right now we are still in the “let’s get used to having an internship thing”. So we have interns going through training, we have interns getting on boarded still, I believe there’s another round of onboarding to be done later this month. So the majority of my time is still just asking “Hey have you done your training? No? Ok please get on to that, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble for that one.” And also, learning just how we work. My ELT has been fantastic, very active. So if I have questions like “Hey where do I put this or how do I report the timesheet.” A lot of my time the last couple weeks have been dedicated to learning how this works. But in terms of my interns: we have a slack group they participate across all different departments. They are completing training, they are doing their own self-study. We have one picking up Tableau training right now. We have one doing, I believe, it’s PowerBI. So most of my interns are completing the 10 hour a week requirement, and it’s really cool to see how they’re doing it without even having a project yet. We just got our first project last week.
MH: So you’ve mentioned working with the DO and the ELT. Can you talk a little bit more about the leadership structure of the internship and where you fall into that chain of command?
IS: Of course. The ELT is the liaison between the head of the DME interns, Dom, and each department. So the executive leadership team works with Dom to find out what they need to do, build projects, and forward it onto the interns. My job is to translate it from the high level to interns. So if they mention that we have to make sure it is all done by XYZ, I can copy and paste, but I make sure it’s easy for them to read. Again, we are all students, we all have our things so easy to read and understand. Essentially translate to make sure things are getting done. I talk to people, I see how training is going. I see how projects are going. I work really close with my DH, and she has done a fantastic job. Whenever I am busy she is on top of things, whenever she is busy I try to be on top of things. From a functional aspect my DH and I are on the same level. We talk all the time. From a managerial side she does the day to day duties and I do the more back end, making sure the wheels are still turning. It’s really cool to see how it all works together.
MH: As Department Head, what, if anything, have you learned about your leadership style so far during the internship?
IS: So, I have previously not really been in a leadership role. But it’s really cool to see what works, what do people like. I believe at least, I don’t think my interns will disagree but I hope this is right. I just try to be a really relaxed person. If you;re doing your job, if you’re completing the things I ask, if you’re bettering yourself and learning, you are doing a fantastic job. You being the interns. Really relaxed, really laid back. I try to be low stress. I’m not going to bombard people with messages. It’s just “Hey, if you get a chance today can you do XYZ.” It’s really cool. I think I’m a good manager, but that’s more of a question for my interns.
MH: Alright, I guess I’ll have to check in with them just to be sure then. So looking ahead to the end of the internship. How do you see your future engagement with veteran communities once your time with the VA is over?
IS: So my job at school, being a bus driver, we have many veterans on staff, one of which is joining my shift in a couple weeks. So working with the VA has certainly opened my eyes up to possibly going through green zone training. I’m not sure exactly how that works, or what benefits I can get from it. Not actual benefits of course, but what I can gain from it. But I would love to at least explore it because my dad has never been a talkative veteran. He doesn’t really talk about his experiences. So I can’t relate to a lot of these people and I would love to be able to relate. Because I am trying to help you guys, but I need to be able to understand. So I think green zone training was definitely opened up to me, on top of just talking to veterans. We have VA branches all over the country, I have VA members all over my job, in fact I think my boss is even a veteran. It’s just, there’s a lot of opportunities to talk to these people that have lived through these experiences that you or I have never experienced before. It’s a great learning experience for me.
MH: So bringing it back to the website: you mentioned that people who are “technologically challenged” might be trying to access the website. Maybe people who are older, not as familiar. How are you considering accessibility when you analyze the website traffic, or looking at new features to add, or things like that.
IS: So I always build it in the mindset that if my dad can do it reasonably quickly and reasonably comfortably, I think most people can do it. My dad was a professor at Virginia Tech University for a while. In his department he was the first person to use Powerpoint. So he’s not at all technologically challenged. But he is 75 years old, he gets frustrated when things don’t work his way. He gets tired, and also he loses focus. My dad now is a perfect example of: I want to build it for him. He’s getting to the point where he needs help with technology so there’s going to be more people like my dad. There’s going to be more people who are more confused, or less confused. Building something simply doesn’t hurt, it helps. I don’t want to build something overcomplicated that 4% of our users can understand, but 96% can’t. I want to build something that the biggest percentage of our users can understand.
MH: What would you say is your ideal professional pathway after graduation? How, if at all, has this internship been a part of that?
IS: So my dream job title is an IT coordinator for a K12 school district. More realistically, after graduating college work at an IT help desk or network technician or network engineer depending on which route I go. In terms of how this internship kind of jumpstarts me, I’ve learned how to work in a group really well. I’ve never had that experience before. I have a degree of management experience because of the department head role, which is absolutely going to help me. On top of that, I have familiarity with new techniques of how we examine that a website is doing well, what’s working, what doesn’t work, and how to communicate that. There’s just a lot of skills that you would never think would benefit you, but you just find out “Oh that’s new. That’s helpful.”
MH: Alright thank you so much for talking to me today Ivan. Is there anything that we haven’t covered so far that you would like to mention to potential interns?
IS: I would say just go for it. I’ve been reading some intern applications and they seem… worried when you really don’t need to be worried at all. If you don’t know something, just go for it. There’s no harm in just applying. We are all in the same boat here. We have people applying who are like “I’ve never worked in IT, I’m scared but I want to try it.” Go for it. There’s no harm in trying. We have great systems, we have great training, we have great people around us. It can’t hurt to apply and try it out. On top of that, it helps you! I think that’s it for me!
SM: Thank you for tuning in to the DME intern podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!