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Instructor Series What to know about the Business Information Systems Dual-Study Program and the IT Specialist in Application Development Apprenticeship

Alexander Toussaint, a trained industrial engineer, worked for five years as a secondary school teacher of math and computer science in Wuppertal before he decided to dedicate himself completely to his real passion: software development. Toussaint is ideally qualified to work with the team in the Digital Transformation Office on the on-going process of digitalization at the Coroplast Group and, at the same time, to train and teach the apprentices in the IT Specialist in Application Development apprenticeship and the students in the Business Information Systems dual-study program. In this interview he tells us what’s important in these programs – and what isn’t.

Mr. Toussaint, what exactly do the apprentices and dual-study students do in the Digital Transformation Office of the Coroplast Group?

The apprenticeship and the study program are all about system and application development. They focus on the development of digital applications for the various departments and needs of the Coroplast Group. In essence, that means taking processes from the 1980s, which are still carried out using paper and telephones, and bringing them into the digital age. It is our job to make these processes faster, more transparent, and paperless. I’ll give you an example: We are currently digitalizing a process that allows us to determine the feasibility of customer requests. More precisely, we want to be able to answer faster and more precisely when our customers ask the question: “Can you technically manufacture the product XYZ?” Many people are involved in answering this question – from the development, manufacturing, and sales departments – and they need to be included in the process. Thus, we are developing a special software application that automatically shows whether a specific product is feasible.

That means that the apprenticeship is very practical and project-based, correct?

That’s absolutely right. Most projects come from a concrete request of a department in our Digital Transformation Office, or DTO for short. We then analyze the time and effort involved in the request and think about whether we can develop something for the project ourselves, whether we need to purchase a product and configure it and whether we need the help of any service providers. Sometimes the apprentices will begin these types of software projects themselves. During the apprenticeship, they spend time in the other departments, which helps them to better understand the needs of their colleagues and to develop custom-made solutions. A project like this takes about two to four months on average. The apprenticeship has a duration of three years and the dual-study program is another half a year longer, so they have the chance to work on many projects.

Since August 2021 Alexander Toussaint has been training the first dual students in the area of business information systems at the Coroplast Group.

Let’s take a step back: What are the various phases of the apprenticeship /dual-study program?

That’s actually a bit difficult to answer at the moment, since the first dual student started here in 2021. But generally the students spend three days at Coroplast, two days at the vocational school and, in addition, 2–3 evenings a week at the university. The first few weeks are all about getting to know the program and creating a knowledge base. Then the students receive their first programming tasks. This allows me to better estimate the knowledge they already have. After that, they receive small, concrete projects that we work on together, such as the project I mentioned earlier with the customer requests. As the program progresses, the projects get bigger and the students work on them more and more independently. This gives them experience with the high degree of responsibility involved in this job.

Responsibility is one thing, stress is another ... the dual-study program doesn’t exactly sound easy. Is that correct?

Yes, it is. It’s a program that you really have to want to complete. But, when our students graduate, they are well-trained, versatile experts for digitalization. In the beginning they spend more of their time in the DTO department at a computer. As the program continues, they are given more tasks in the areas of project management, organization, advice, needs assessment, expectation management, and coordination with colleagues – in essence, project work. That’s why it’s important to get to know the work environment from different perspectives and to develop an understanding for the given needs throughout the company. Thus, our students spend time in other departments, such as IT Administration, Network Technology, Security and Applications with SAP, etc. They also visit departments such as the Sales department. Here, the students can take their interest in business topics and get a feel for this side of the company. After three years, the IT Specialist Apprenticeship is completed with an exam including a practical project – then they continue on to the bachelor’s thesis.

Working in the company, studying for the vocational school and completing a university degree: the dual-study program is a challenging undertaking.

We always aim to hire. And we train to meet our ever-increasing needs. At Coroplast, there is a lot work and many challenging tasks for experienced computer scientists.

Alexander Toussaint | Software Engineer in the Digital Transformation Office

The three most important tips for the apprenticeship: These are the qualities and skills you should have in order to make it onto the shortlist.

  • We are looking for intelligent young people who have either the general or subject-specific higher education entrance qualification (German Abitur). It’s important that our applicants have the ability to think mathematically and logically, but we don’t simply look at grades. We also evaluate these skills in our tests and our application process.

  • Applicants do not have to have a lot of programming experience when starting at Coroplast, but they should be interested in working with computers and technology. If they enjoy puzzles, riddles, and tricky tasks, then that is a good start. It’s important to be persistent, motivated, and be able to deal with stress, since this career path is demanding and requires a lot of stamina.

  • Applicants should have good linguistic and communication skills. This includes good English language skills, since English is the lingua franca in programming. Moreover, we are an international company and IT projects often involve our locations in other countries. It is also important that applicants are open and can learn from their daily interactions with colleagues. This could be, for example, needs assessment or expectation management or also to explain complex topics to colleagues that are outside their areas of expertise.

Relaxed atmosphere within the team: We like to keep things casual here and use the informal German “du” form.

Coroplast Group is a large, international company. This means that there are many interesting and challenging tasks, which we take on together as a team in our small, agile, and informal department.

Alexander Toussaint | Software Engineer in the Digital Transformation Office

Which programming languages do the apprentices and students learn at Coroplast?

Initially, they learn the programming language Python. This one is a bit easier for beginners to work with, is very important later in the area of data analysis, and also plays a role when it comes to artificial intelligence. Later, we get to web technologies, such as HTML and CSS for the design and the front end as well as the programming language JavaScript for the logic, or the back end. Since we work a lot with Microsoft applications in our system infrastructure, knowledge of Microsoft Power Apps is also important. It is, of course, not a true programming language, but it is important in our company.

And one last question: What makes the apprenticeship with you in the DTO at the Coroplast Group special?

I think what makes us special is that we do everything we can to give our students and apprentices the best possible training. We also have a lot to offer them: the company is well equipped with modern machines, we have comfortable offices with height-adjustable desks in addition to a lot of other benefits. The students are given enough time to grow into the tasks and projects assigned to them. At the same time, we also start off right away with concrete projects, without a lot of deadline pressure. This is very helpful for the students and apprentices to develop their skills and feel comfortable with their tasks. The projects we use to allow them to grow and learn also have a practice use and value for the company, which means they are not just doing “busy work.” Since the Coroplast Group is an international company it is also possible that they will have the opportunity to get to know our other locations and be of use there.

Wenn Alexander Toussaint gerade nicht programmiert, dann spielt er Klavier oder hält sich mit Salsa-Tanzen fit.

Thanks for talking with us, Mr. Toussaint!

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