Andrew Tran, left, and Josh Fowler’s ingenuity as interns at Octo Consulting earned them permanent positions. (Sujey Edwards/Octo Consulting)

Andrew Tran and Josh Fowler weren’t certain at first whether the internship they signed up for last year at Octo Consulting in Reston, Va., would give them the real-world experience they needed.

But that changed when they got their first assignment: Invent a way for the company to quickly identify and count employees with skill sets ranging from coding JavaScript to organizing massive data sets — tallies needed when Octo bids on contracts with U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

“When we walked in, they gave us the business problem, but they didn’t necessarily tell us how to solve it. They left that up to us,” Fowler says.

A company might be expected to have at its fingertips information about who does what. But that becomes a bigger challenge when a company expands rapidly. Octo has grown to 300 U.S. employees from 120 four years ago.

When Octo was small, managers “would literally walk around with a sticky note and say, ‘Can you write down what [your skills are] on here?’ ” Fowler says.

Fowler and Tran came up with the idea to mine social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, GitHub and Stack Overflow for information about employees’ skill sets. The product, which they dubbed Engager, tallies how many employees have a given skill set and measures how they’re using those skills. Engager includes a “leaderboard” that managers can use to identify top performers in various skill areas.

Managers at Octo say they regularly use Engager to pick teams for certain contracts and identify people for internal opportunities.

The information is accessed with employees’ full consent, Tran says.

The two interns’ ingenuity has earned them permanent positions at Octo, and the company is thinking about how to build Engager into something bigger.

“We could always make this thing way more elaborate. We could throw more money into it,” says Cesar Tavares, Octo’s director of technology. “But the point is, [Tran and Fowler] came up with a better way to solve this problem."