Their business cards describe the image they want to project: a 'Maverick,' the inscription proclaims, is one who exhibits great independence in thought and action.
Decked out in matching shirts emblazoned with their company logo, the computer techies behind
Maverick Software Consulting don't look the part of rebels.
Their business model, however, relies on persuading corporate clients to break with custom and trust some of their computer programming work to students. By providing low-cost labor to companies, Maverick Software aims to position itself as an alternative to moving the work to India and China.
It taps college students majoring in computer science to perform software testing, development and debugging work.
It has just a single client so far, but there's enough work to keep dozens of students busy at four universities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The firm is eyeing a deal to add a second customer and hopes eventually to go national.
Marty Hebig formed Maverick Software Consulting in 1999 and worked as an independent consultant until he sold a slice of the venture to former classmate Chuck Sherwood in 2006 and the pair formed a partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The two computer science graduates of the Mankato school were drawing on an idea rooted in a similar partnership between IBM and Mankato students in the 1990s.
IBM employed students to test its OS/400 operating system. While the students gained real-world experience that they could leverage to land a job as new graduates, it was a low-cost way for IBM to get work done.
The partnership folded after a faculty sponsor retired, but Hebig and Sherwood admired the idea behind it. As a student Hebig worked for a computer company testing software. Sherwood worked for the same company after he graduated in 1995. By that time, the two friends had gone their separate ways. Hebig worked as an independent computer consultant building automated software-testing programs for companies like Cargill and GMAC. Sherwood, meanwhile, continued to work for the software testing company in Mankato and then took similar gigs at other companies, including Target Corp.
At the time, the tech boom meant jobs were plentiful. Soon, however, more of the work became automated and easier to ship offshore, and jobs here disappeared.
"You take that pool of jobs and they're not available here," said Sherwood. "That's not to say there aren't jobs available. It's just become more difficult."
Watching as jobs were sent overseas, Hebig recalled the IBM project. If the work can be done remotely, why not ship it to college students here and pay them at nearly the outsourcing rate?
In 2006, he reconnected with Sherwood, who was working for Target.
At the same time, Minnesota State-Mankato's computer science department was trying to persuade Thomson Reuters to start a partnership similar to the one they had with IBM.
Thomson at that time wanted to raise its visibility on college campuses, places ripe for finding bright recruits. The company liked the idea of using students to complete some programming work but it didn't want to pay the overhead or manage an office of students in Mankato.
Hebig happened to be in the right place at the right time, or hit some "dumb luck" as he calls it, and through industry contacts pitched his idea to Thomson Reuters: He could form a company to manage the work.
Hebig was sent to Anna Grecco, vice president of online platforms for Thomson's U.S. legal division.
Grecco was battling for top prospects with well-known tech companies like Google and Microsoft Corp.
At career fairs, students walked up to the Thomson Reuters booth and asked: "Don't you guys do news?"
"We wanted to increase our visibility on campus as a technology leader in a very competitive marketplace," said Grecco.
When Hebig pitched his idea to set up and manage an office to tap students for certain Thomson Reuters projects, she bit. Maverick Software was born.
Jobs such as software testing and some software development that are not critical to its mission fit the model.
"Companies are looking for affordable labor," Hebig said. "One way to get that is to offshore to India or China. Doing this is just another option for them."
With one client, Maverick has grown from 10 students at an office near the Mankato campus to 79 students in offices close to campuses at Mankato, the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities, the University of Wisconsin Madison and Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.
Competing with overseas labor is a low-profit business. For four years, the $25 per hour they charge Thomson has remained flat.
Students are paid between $12 and $13.50 per hour. Last year, Maverick eked out a $40,000 profit on revenue of $4 million after paying wages, salaries and the costs to manage students and to lease four offices with the appropriate technology.
Through the deal, Thomson gets access to a pipeline of tech-savvy recruits. By the time they are hired for permanent positions, the graduates have at least one, and sometimes two years of experience.
Maverick locates its offices close to the campuses so students can come and go easily between classes, setting their own schedules.
The students work 20 hours per week during the school year and full-time in the summer.
Hebig works at Thomson Reuters' Eagan campus, coordinating the student work and acting as a liaison with technical staff there. Sherwood manages the Mankato office.
Jason Timmerman, another Minnesota State-Mankato grad whose background includes nine years in IT at General Mills, manages the University of Minnesota office in Stadium Village.
"We train them and get them up to speed," Sherwood said. "It's not like a normal internship where they're doing stuff and then they're gone. We have them working on projects and they become experts."
"In class you learn theory and once you come to work here, you take that theory and put it into practice," he said.
Students are writing programs to run automated software tests to make sure new features on websites are working properly, for instance.
They're also doing higher-level software development. In the Mankato office, students help with updates to software that allows blind people to have Westlaw pages read to them.
So far 100 students have worked for Maverick and graduated from school; 97 have full-time jobs now, 24 of them with Thomson Reuters.
Others have found jobs at companies such as IBM, General Mills, Cisco Systems, Target and Intel.
Maverick is looking to expand and has a deal in the works it hopes to close soon with an unnamed firm.
"What we've always said is we want to have controlled growth," Sherwood said. "We don't want to grow so fast that we end up having to give up control of part of the company."
The key, he said, is to find companies that would offer long-term work.
For Maverick, the biggest challenge is to get companies to realize that students are capable of handling the work.
At Thomson, for instance, the students are working on parts of massive systems with hundreds of servers and thousands and thousands of lines of code, as opposed to a program with 500 lines of code for a program they might write for a class assignment.
"People have the mindset that they're college students and they're nervous," Hebig said. "But a year from now, they'll graduate and you're going to paying them a lot more money and they're going to be working on the exact same team."
On a recent Monday morning at Maverick's offices in Stadium Village, Jill Freeman, 21, tested features of Thomson Reuter's flagship Westlaw research tool, a vast set of databases used by attorneys for legal research.
She went about her business dressed in a T-shirt and shorts that exposed a sprawling tattoo on her leg depicting scenes from Scandinavian folklore.
By working for Maverick, Freeman hopes to find her niche in computer science.
So far, in the year she's been there, Freeman has worked on a number of different projects, maintaining an internal website, for one, used by people who are testing Westlaw.
She's also learned programming in the computer language called C#, a language she didn't learn in class, so she could clean up features on an internal website used by the testers.
"I get to work with a lot of different technologies, which is a really great opportunity because the University of Minnesota, and I'm sure many universities, just focus on the classic things," she said. "This is more real world."
Nearby, Adam Larson, 22, a Maverick employee on the verge of graduating, was dressed in a suit and tie, juggling software development work with schoolwork.
Graduating in December, he has a job offer from Lockheed Martin and has been busy with interviews at other companies in the past few weeks.
He credits his experience working as part of Thomson's project teams with allowing him to talk with prospective employers about the "cutting edge" technologies he's worked with, not merely heard about in class.
"Maverick fills in all the cracks from what you learned in school," he said.
Now, working on software development, he feels like he has what he needs to set himself apart from other grads. "A lot of kids are really good at computer science."
Vincent Contessa, 22, slips into the office wearing a dark suit and plops down at one of the computer stations.
Larson jumps to a whiteboard explaining a coding problem from class he had stayed up until 2:30 in the morning figuring out.
"I'm so smoked right now," he exclaimed after he was finished at the whiteboard, and then sat back down to work.
Contessa turned to a notebook, writing out questions to ask interviewers from General Mills later in the day.
Later, Contessa said his experience at Maverick was a key discussion point at the interview. "Maverick came up quite a bit," he said.
"That's pretty much the bulk of my experience in the field."
In a competitive job market, he's grateful for the edge.
"Companies pretty much have their pick," he said. "With all the kids out there, I'm lucky to have this experience."
Across the room John Jensen, 42, was running automated programs he wrote to test functions on a FindLaw website used by salespeople to place client orders.
FindLaw is Thomson Reuters' business that builds and maintains websites for law firms.
He sat testing software functions, writing lines of program codes to build an automatic test for invoices and order forms used by sales reps.
An e-mail from his boss at Thomson told Jensen there was a new project waiting for him that day.