Chatbot project gives interns an inside look at corporate life

December 27, 2019



A trio of interns brought a chatbot to life on the pages of the internal website for Minnesota Power employees and gained valuable real-world experience in the process.

Ryan Benson, Marcus McKeever and Heather Quinzon, interns for MP’s Cyber Technology Services, developed Scout, a chatbot that will help make it easier for employees to find information they need. Bots like Scout are available anytime, day or night, to answer questions and can provide videos, direct links and related information all in one place—consistently and promptly.

Here’s how Benson, McKeever and Quinzon, all students at the University of Minnesota Duluth, described the project that they’ve been collaborating on since last summer:

“We’ve worked on a few small projects, but we’ve mainly focused our time on Scout, a combination of three chatbots (ScoutBot-Home, ScoutBot-Cyber Technology Services, ScoutBot-Human Resources).

“The goal of the ScoutBots is to help ease calls Human Resources and Cyber Technology Services get about ALLETE’s internal website. We want the ScoutBots to be able to answer simple questions that give you quick and easy answers, as well as help users maneuver the site with ease, to give people quick information on questions and topics that they use daily.

“For example, if you need to fill out your timecard you can ask Scout for ‘timecards’ and he’ll give you the link to get you there. He’ll also give more detailed explanations depending on the question, or ask you more questions to get you an answer that is more specific to your needs.

“Overall, we want to emphasize that the ScoutBots are QnA bots (question and answer bots), and that it’s going to take him, and us, a while to learn new information on what topics or sites people use regularly. So while Scout may not be able to answer your question today, he may be able to answer it tomorrow because we are always improving him.”

The interns’ perspective

Benson, McKeever and Quinzon answered a few questions about their experience at Minnesota Power/ALLETE.

Majors and year in school?

Heather: We’re all studying at University of Minnesota Duluth. I’m currently a junior majoring in computer science with a minor in math.

Marcus: I’m a senior, graduating December 2019, majoring in MIS, which is management information systems, with a minor in marketing and history.

Ryan: I am a senior, graduating in 2020. I am majoring in computer science with a minor in English.

What has surprised you about working in a corporate environment?

Heather: Just how different it is from a school setting. Everyone is doing a lot of different things, and everyone is knowledgeable about a lot of different things and no one is afraid to share their knowledge. I have not once been met with someone treating me as if I’m supposed to know the answer to a question I asked. Everyone was just generally helpful and in the kindest way possible.

Marcus: I was surprised by how much autonomy we are given. Brad, our supervisor, gave us this project then let us run with it. He was always there for us whenever we needed help but other than that he let us make the project our own. Instead of at school where you only have a teacher grading you, this product is for everyone. So we love showing the chatbot off to get feedback so it can be useful for as many people as possible!

Ryan: I was surprised by the level of interconnectivity we had with other people and departments when doing our project. Originally I thought “We are making a chatbot, cool, so we will just have to run it by our boss and everything will be good.” Yet in reality we got to have meetings with the Networking, Cyber Technology Services, Human Resources and Corporate Communications in which we discussed our bot, and they gave us input on how we could improve it, and make it better suit their needs.

What have you learned while you have been working here?

Heather: Honestly, I feel like we’ve all learned a lot at our time interning here. In terms of technically, we’ve learned C#, .net framework, portal/azure, and plenty more. There were a lot of other aspects we learned, too. We’ve had to do a lot of meetings with a lot of different people, and they were all nerve-racking. But with time, I’ve learned a lot of interpersonal communication.

Also we got to tour the Minnesota Power hydroelectric station by Jay Cooke, and learned a lot about the history behind it, and that was awesome.

Marcus: To add onto Heather’s, after our tour at the hydroelectric station, I really felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself, and something that was important to the community around me.

Ryan: A lot. I have learned a lot more about C#, the .net framework, using azure, and Javascript. I also learned a lot about how AI (artificial intelligence) thinks, and the technical details of what makes them think. I also learned a lot about how to operate in an office space, such as sending emails, setting up and going to meetings, and seeking advice from others when I need help in their area of expertise.

Do you have any advice for future interns at Minnesota Power/ALLETE?

Heather: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and if you don’t know something be honest, because everyone here wants you to succeed. I was nervous at first asking for help, but no one minded it and everyone I’ve had the chance to work with were all really nice about it. And if they couldn’t help, they’d point you to the right people who can and you got to meet a lot of cool people that way.

Ryan: The same as Heather, but also, learn to think outside the box to find solutions to problems. And as our co-worker Josh said, say yes to everything, and even if it turns out you can’t do it, at least you learned something.