Sunday, July 14, 2024

Alcorn McBride: Pathways to growth

Alcorn McBride’s innovative internship program cultivates future theme park engineers

by Wendy M. Grant

In the rapidly evolving world of technology and engineering, companies are constantly seeking new talent and innovative minds. But what is the best way to attract and nurture such talent? We explored the immersive internship program of Alcorn McBride. This small-but-mighty company of 21 employees has evolved a successful model for welcoming and fostering the next generation of engineering professionals.

Since 1986, Orlando-based Alcorn McBride has been a leader in audio, video, and show control for the global themed entertainment industry. Its robust product lines – such as Binloop, RidePlayer, V16 and Winscript – help drive rides and attractions for pretty much every major theme park operator on the planet, as well as being installed in museums, cruise ships, casinos, and thousands of other venues.

“We look for smart, curious, talented people who want to learn about what we do,” says Loren Barrows, Chief Operating Officer at Alcorn McBride. And sometimes, those smart, curious, talented interns become employees. Today, the company counts two former interns as full-time staff: Justin Ruka and Bailey Hamrick. They, along with current intern Allison Lloyd, talked with InPark about how they became Alcorn McBride interns, what an intern at the company does, and what their roles are today.

Connecting with the company

Alcorn McBride only brings on one intern at a time for the paid, part-time summer position, so opportunities are coveted and limited. Although applications are always welcome, key members of the Alcorn McBride team prefer to chat with students informally to assess the potential fit before inviting them to apply for an internship. Promising candidates next complete a series of interviews, which may be followed by an offer..

Justin Ruka grew up with a love for theme parks and technology. After graduating with a computer science degree from Lakeland University in Wisconsin, he looked for a way to break into the themed entertainment field. He relocated to Orlando in 2013 after being accepted to Disney’s internship program – the Disney College Program – at Walt Disney World.

He also became an active member of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Eastern North America Division. At a TEA monthly mixer, he met Barrows and Scott Harkless, Alcorn McBride’s Chief Innovation Officer. “Alcorn seemed like the perfect fit for my interests – blending my love of tech and theme parks,” says Ruka. So when they invited him to interview to become an intern, it was an easy “yes” from Ruka.

The newest full-time Alcorn McBride employee, Bailey Hamrick, took a different path. As a student, he set his sights on Alcorn McBride after reading Steve Alcorn’s book, Theme Park Design: Behind the Scenes With an Engineer. After his first semester at Baylor University, Hamrick built a 1/12 working model of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and sent it to several companies, including Alcorn McBride. Barrows responded and encouraged him to get involved with TEA. Hamrick did so and then attended the annual TEA Summit conference (now TEA INSPIRE), and wound up sitting near Ruka. They struck up a conversation, then a friendship. They became coworkers when Hamrick was hired as an intern.

Allison Lloyd discovered Alcorn McBride at the 2022 International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Expo in Orlando. The Georgia Institute of Technology electrical engineering student shares, “I knew they did electrical work, but I didn’t know the full scope. I wanted to know more. And it didn’t hurt that their booth was a tiki bar!” There, she met Alexander Wasson, the company’s CFO. They talked for quite a while, and he reached out to her later via LinkedIn about the internship program. Lloyd thought the opportunity sounded amazing and applied right away.

One thing that Ruka, Hamrick and Lloyd have in common is a proactive approach. They made a point of seeking out resources for professional development – joining associations, researching companies, shaking hands, attending conferences, and being open to learning what it takes to be part of their chosen industry.

An immersive internship experience

Alcorn McBride’s internship program is unique in that it offers the opportunity for interns to work closely with all members of the team and explore multiple areas within the organization. Barrows explains, “Just like our entire team, our interns do a little bit of everything. Depending on their interests, our interns will take on engineering projects or help with special events – or, oftentimes, both!” The experience gives interns vital real-world experience.

In Lloyd’s first week as an intern, she visited all of the departments, took part in 30-minute, informal meetings with everyone in the office, and then began learning how to assemble Alcorn McBride products. Now she spends about half of her day doing quality assurance (QA) testing and product assembly and packaging, and the other half doing engineering work such as testing and taking care of bug fixes. She notes, “I appreciate the diversity of working on hardware and software, because it’s not common to do both. And it’s very fulfilling to work on products and program software for customers to use all over the world.”

Lloyd was also excited to work on the Attractions Technology Lab (ATL), a theme park attraction technology showcase that Alcorn McBride and various partners produce twice a year. ATL gives participants a chance to experience a complete installation, receive training, and ask technical questions. For interns, it’s an opportunity to learn about the versatile and collaborative nature of the industry. “Seeing our products in action in such a super-cool way was really fun,” says Lloyd.

Hamrick describes his internship as “playing in a great big sandbox of technology.” He was tasked with rewriting the software manual for WinScript, the show control interface that is at the heart and soul of many of the Alcorn McBride products found in the world’s most exciting theme park attractions. He says, “It was a good project because it forced me to understand how our software works at a very deep level, which helped me with other projects.”

Hamrick also got the chance to use the skills he’d displayed when he created that 1/12 model, by programming effects in the Alcorn McBride tiki room (known as The Tiki Teria), a unique space where the company demos products and entertains clients. Hamrick says, “Having all these toys at my disposal to learn about set a fire in me for this career.” Ultimately, he transferred to the University of Central Florida in Orlando to complete his computer engineering degree. Then he returned to Alcorn McBride for a second summer internship.

It’s no secret as to why Alcorn McBride interns bond with the company and want to keep coming back – and why employees remain with the company for decades. “The people and the company culture make this a great place to work,” Ruka says simply.

From intern to employee

Companies make an investment in their interns, and the goal of Alcorn McBride’s program is to find great candidates with long-term employee potential. “Once they are on board we quickly learn if they’d be a great long-term fit here – as do they!” says Barrows. By giving their interns real challenges and opportunities, the company can better gauge their true aptitude.

Hamrick was confident it was a great fit from the start. “After my first two days of the internship, I realized all other jobs were doomed,” he says. When he returned to Alcorn McBride for his second summer internship, he got more hands-on experience with the company’s product range, learning how each one works, how it’s used in the field, and how to fix any issues. “It was a wealth of knowledge that allowed me to hit the ground running when I became an employee,” says Hamrick.

He was hired as a software engineer and began work as soon as his internship ended. Hamrick notes that the only difference between being an intern and being an employee is that he now works five days a week instead of two. “Every single day I’m blown away by my co-workers – by how passionate and brilliant they are,” he says. “It’s amazing to collaborate and see what we all can do together. We’re a small team, but we accomplish so much.”

Ruka echoes the sentiment and says, “There’s always opportunity for growth, which is why I’m still here.” Now Lead Sales Engineer, he has been with the company nine years and started out on the software team. He recalls that as an intern, he developed Product Files, which are essentially device drivers that enable Alcorn McBride’s show controllers to communicate with other hardware in an attraction. At the end of his internship, he was offered a position. Like Hamrick, he found that transitioning from part-time to full-time was essentially seamless.

“Every moment I’ve spent here has been wonderful. I don’t want to leave!” says Lloyd, who is exploring what her next internship options might be before her expected spring 2025 graduation. One thing is certain: “I know I want to work in themed entertainment.”

Advice for future interns and employees

Alcorn McBride’s internship program is not only a worthy model for other companies to learn from, but something that enriches the entire industry, considering its success in turning interns into valuable, themed entertainment professionals able to adapt quickly to their new roles and build their dream careers.

“I think every student should do an internship,” says Barrows. It’s a great opportunity to learn firsthand what your chosen career path is like while you still have time to course correct – literally – if needed.” She encourages students to join TEA as student members and get involved with their school’s TEA chapter (or a similar program), and to become active and visible in the field, making as many connections as possible.

Loren Barrows

Barrows encourages anyone interested in an internship or position with Alcorn McBride to send in a resume and to chat with team members at the next industry gathering that presents an opportunity.

Ruka testifies, “It’s a great company that has helped me grow as an individual.”

Hamrick says, “If you want to learn about theme park engineering, work with your hands, and work on code, apply. You’ll do work that makes an actual difference.”

“We love what we do,” Barrows says, “and a lot of that is because we are always learning and trying new things. It’s fun to teach people new to the industry all the cool things we do here, and to learn from them, too!” •

Wendy Grant
Wendy Grant
Wendy M. Grant has worked in marketing for more than 25 years. She served as Director of Marketing and Communications for San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, home to the world’s first IMAX Dome Theater, where she directed marketing for all exhibitions, films, shows and events for 13 years. She served on the Marketing Committee for the Giant Screen Cinema Association and she was a board member for the Giant Dome Theater Consortium. Prior to working in the museum field, she was Director of Marketing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar where she helped to produce the annual Miramar Air Show. Since 2019, Grant has worked as a communications consultant, writer and editor, with clients in the education and entertainment fields.

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