Lessons Learned from Training Interns
Back in 2007, I received a referral from a friend. He knew a student at UCSD who was eager to get some practical programming experience; and I rather enjoyed the idea of helping to launch a promising candidate’s career.
Well, frankly, I wasn’t any good at it at first. But through a bit of luck and a bit of perseverance, over the past few years I’ve trained and graduated a dozen interns, many of whom joined my software development team as positions opened up. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’ve been grateful to all of them for the opportunity to see them grow in talent and ability.
I have also heard from lots of people who have had bad internship experiences; and I’d like to pass on what I can tell you about making the experience a success for everyone.
What Benefits Can You Expect?
Having an internship program can really help your organization, as well as provide meaningful learning opportunities for the interns themselves. I believe the only good internship programs are ones that are mutually beneficial, providing guidance and technical skills for the intern and effective management experience for the company.
There’s a good reason that videogame companies attract interns: we do fun and challenging work; and we use skills that are complex and multidisciplinary. An intern in the videogame field has the potential to learn a lot in a very short time, especially if you involve them in the business and show them how their work contributes to a goal.
Interns know this too; and that’s why they’re willing to put up with low pay and low status in order to get started. But your company shouldn’t just take advantage of this desire – you should be prepared to provide value back to the intern.
Doing so helps to establish a company culture of caring rather than taking. A good internship program can provide a halo to your company: successful interns who enjoyed your program, even the ones who get fulltime positions elsewhere, will raise your company’s status as an employer. And designing this mentoring process helps to build your business’ ability to grow all employees, not just interns.
Before you start, make sure you’re prepared to go through the hard work to have an intern. It isn’t all fun and games!
- Your staff should be able to dedicate 1-3 hours per day to mentoring each intern separately. The goal is to make the intern independent, but to still give them opportunity to learn. I find that 1-3 hours per day is a good start; try dividing it up between two senior employees, one the lead and one the secondary mentor.
- You should have a clearly defined introductory task for the intern; ideally a side project that doesn’t require them to learn tons of processes before they can get started. Look around – there are probably a few one-off ideas lying dusty on the shelf. When the intern has succeeded at their first task, you should gradually increase the complexity and interconnectedness of their work.
- Your intern should have a computer and enough space to get quiet work done. You want an intern to balance time between asking questions and researching their project; not all interns can shut out the distractions. If the office is noisy in general, offer headphones. Interns don’t do well with telecommuting; they need in-person supervision and reinforcement.
- You should be prepared to pay your intern. Although the US government has some rules that permit some internships to be unpaid, the rules are tricky and you’re best off not going that route. If you read the six criteria, they’re pretty vague; and your company can be on the receiving end of a serious lawsuit. Pick a wage and offer something.
- You must be excited about your own work before you can bring on an intern. Don’t neglect this! Interns don’t work well unless they have an opportunity to see and share in your passion for your business.
When you’ve ensured that your company can support an intern, it’s time to begin searching.
Acquiring your First Intern
Internship ads are written differently than traditional job listings. Make it clear that the internship is for a fixed length of time; I prefer three months. This is necessary to be fair to the intern; you need them to know that, at the end of this time period, they will be successfully on their way to the fulltime career they want.
Focus on the rich skills you will teach, the excitement of your business, and explain how your uniquely professional work environment will best prepare the intern for a full career. Limit your “requirements” to general talents, basic knowledge, and motivation; and encourage the candidate to explain to you what sets them apart. For example:
Mobile Developer Internship - Foo Inc, the world’s leading developer of Bars, has a three month paid internship position available to help its mobile app development team writing web services and user interface code. During your internship, you’ll learn the most advanced techniques for mobile user interface design from industry heavyweights. Requirements: Familiarity with mobile phones and HTML, a sharp mind, attention to detail, and a commitment to getting the job done.
Next, let’s get this advertisement in the field. Try to identify five to ten targets for your job posting. Craigslist is one place to start; each advertisement costs $25 and, in my experience, generates a decent response. Don’t forget to post the internship on your website and advertise it on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also contact the dean of a local university or community college and offer your internship to their students, but be prepared to have your company vetted before you can share listings directly with students.
With the posting in hand, it’s time to begin! Schedule all the ads to start on the same day, and keep up the momentum. Interns only have a brief moment of time when they can consider an internship, so respond quickly, ideally within 24 hours after they send their resume to you. I find it works best to speak to two or three candidates each day by phone, and interview in person about a half dozen top tier candidates.
When you move on to in-person interviews, the goal is to identify three things within about an hour:
- Does the intern have enough basic knowledge to be useful in a three month window?
- Can the intern listen effectively and ask good questions?
- Does the intern have the motivation and drive to succeed?
When you’ve found a candidate that passes the test, make your pick fast; probably within the first week after interviews start. Let the intern know clearly that you will give them a great opportunity, and in return for their hard work you’ll give them a career.
Once the intern starts, you should monitor them every day and provide the following:
- A limited but useful amount of mentoring. You can’t have the intern asking questions every five minutes and sapping the team’s concentration; but neither can you have an intern firing aimlessly when a quick question would get them on target. Tell your intern to ask two really good questions about their project every day.
- Tasks that can be completed. Find simple tasks and get the intern to succeed at those before moving onto more complex and risky tasks. Many interns just need to see the fruits of their labor in use to level up. Gradually increase the task complexity, but only after a task is fully seen through to completion!
- Opportunities to shape their own unique career path. After each task completes, ask them what they liked about it and what they didn’t. Seize every chance to give the intern work they find interesting. I am reminded of Harry Truman’s phrase, “The best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”
In return, you need to start communicating expectations to the intern. Since many interns come straight out of college or out of a different career path, you may want to explain to them the standards required by your business, such as punctuality, professionalism, office culture, dress codes, HR rules, or adjusting to the workload. Be patient with them, and give them time to cope, but also be clear: meeting the business rules is a condition of the internship.
As work progresses, find opportunities to compliment your intern and gradually expose them to more and more advanced projects. I like to provide about nine compliments for each criticism I give. If you fall far south of that line, perhaps either the intern or your motivational style needs to change. Constructive criticism is your friend; honest and straightforward feedback is a critical necessity for career development. If an intern doesn’t improve after a warning, it’s best to let them move on to a place they can be more successful.
Ending an Internship
At the end of three months – or whatever time frame you picked - you should release your intern. During the last few weeks of the time frame, try to give them general career counseling. Set them up a few meetings where you can answer their questions about jobs in their chosen field.
If you are lucky enough to have a full-time position open that is suitable for the intern, encourage them to apply for the position and give them a proper hearing. Doing so professionally results in a clear transition from intern to employee.
If your business doesn’t have a position available, don’t fret. Hold your intern’s hand up high and celebrate their work. Give them a strong reference, and offer to hand-deliver their information to colleagues you may know at other companies. Take the intern out to lunch to celebrate the launch of a successful career – you’ve both earned it!