Getting the most out of your internship

Intern interview season is upon us, and last Friday I had the opportunity to sit on a panel discussing how to maximize the value of an internship. There were a couple of points I thought were interesting, and so I share them here for your reading pleasure.

Why we intern

In my mind, there are four key things you should be looking for in an internship:

  • Have fun

Just as a great professor can help you fall in love with a subject, and a terrible professor destroy it for you, an internship can change your life direction, for better or worse. When I was a sophomore in college, I got an internship in the IT department of a biotech company, writing software to track backups of their tape drives, hard drives, and CD ROMs. The people were nice, but the work was so boring it almost caused me to quit my CS major. Likewise, an internship at the US Embassy in Tokyo convinced me that I just wasn’t interested in the Foreign Service.

Discovering that you hate something is a valuable lesson, but the real lesson might be that you hate this job, not the field in general. Finding a job you can love – because of the technology, the product, the people, the mission, whatever – should be a key goal of your internship search.

  • Learn

Likewise, a major part of the reason you’re there is to learn what life is really like in the job or industry. School’s great, but nothing beats a real-world problem with real-world consequences for failure or missed schedules.

  • Meet people

Just as friends from college are going to form the core of your social network, the people at your internships are going to form the core of your professional network. You’ll know what they’re like in the crucible of real work, and you’ll know which of them you’d want to work with again. And, of course, they’ll know that about you, too. Every industry is small in it’s own way – everyone you meet, whether an intern or not, is someone you may run into again. The more experienced members of the team may become friends or mentors – whether or not they’re in the same job function (engineering, marketing, sales, whatever).

Along these lines, I strongly recommend setting up a LinkedIn account and connecting with everyone you work with, intern or full-timer. Ask your boss and more senior co-workers for LinkedIn recommendations. And keep up the relationships. If you’re going to be in town, ask if it would be ok to stop by the office for lunch. Drop your boss and/or mentor an email letting her know what you’re up to every so often (my personal recommendation is every 3-6 months, but YMMV), and ask how things are going with the team.

  • Get an offer

One of the reasons the company hired you was that it wanted to vet you for a full-time position. Think of it as a 10 week interview process. So whether you want to work at the company long-term or not, getting an offer is an important part of the process. If you don’t get one, then it’s perfectly appropriate (if a little uncomfortable) to ask your boss why not, and what you can do to improve.

Another thing – if you intern for company A after your sophomore year, get an offer to come back for the following summer, but choose to go to company B instead, you should definitely get back in touch with company A during your senior year recruiting period. They’re almost certainly still interested, and you shouldn’t feel any sense of embarrassment or shyness about getting back in touch. They’ll be delighted to talk to you again.

There’s also one thing you probably shouldn’t care too much about.

  • Money

Listen, I don’t know anything about your personal life situation, and I recognize that in some cases the income you get from your internship will be materially important to you. However, from a career perspective, this is the least of your concerns. Your internship salary isn’t going to affect anything long-term, whereas the experiences can have a profound impact on your life and career.

Please note that this isn’t true of the salary for your first full-time job. Your first full-time salary will matter because it will be the basis for your salary going forward. Every year, raises will be based on the previous year’s salary. Even when you switch to a new job, they’ll ask what you’re currently making, and calculate that into the offer. But no one will ever ask or care about your internship salary.

Applying

Stop for a second, and think about the companies you respect the most. The companies whose products you use, the cool companies, the ones using (or creating) interesting technologies… Wouldn’t you want to work there? If you’re into 3D graphics, how about Pixar? If you’re into video games, what about Oculus Rift? Think about the most ridiculous, prestigious, awesome place you could work for the summer – a place your friends would all gasp at in wonder – and apply there. They didn’t have a booth at the campus career fair? Who cares? Send in your resume, and follow up with a phone call to their HR person (“Oh, you didn’t receive it? I’d be happy to resend – what would be the best way to get it to you?”). Of course, you shouldn’t just send resumes to “reaches” – you should apply to a wide variety of companies, just like when you applied to college. But don’t let yourself be limited by the companies that choose to show up at the career fair.

Preparation

If you know you’re going to be working with a particular programming language, framework, database, platform, OS, etc., it’s absolutely going to be in your best interest to brush up on it before the internship starts. First impressions matter a lot, and being able to hit the ground running is going to impress people. “X was able to finish her first task in half the time we thought it would!” is a better starting place than “It took X a week and a half to set up her development machine.”

What your employer cares about

As an intern, no one’s expecting you to help redefine the business. As long as you don’t break things too badly, they won’t be that upset (though if that’s your major accomplishment, you probably won’t get an invitation back). I’ve come up with the following pyramid describing what your employer’s priorities are:

Internship

As I’ve mentioned previously, when you’re trying to exceed expectations, the most important thing you need to do is to meet expectations. You can have all sorts of awesome ideas, but if your code isn’t good, if you aren’t reliable, if you just can’t seem to finish your projects… No one will trust, respect, or listen to you. So the first thing you need to focus on is excelling at the tasks you’ve been assigned.

How to lead when you’re a pleb

A couple of years back, I was called up for jury duty. I ended up on a jury in a drunk driving case, and after we’d heard the evidence, we were ushered into a deliberation room, given some instructions, and told to choose a jury foreman. Do you know how to get chosen as the foreman? Easy – just be the first one to ask, “how should we choose a foreman?” By the simple act of showing the most infinitesimal amount of initiative, you will prove yourself to be way ahead of the rest of the pack.

Likewise, when everyone around you is content to follow, it doesn’t take much to become a leader. Organize a lunch among the interns. Set up a weekly book group to read a book related to the company’s business or technology, and invite a senior engineer (or business leader) to lead the discussion. This doesn’t take a lot of effort – a couple of emails, a hallway conversation, a calendar invite, and you’re off and running. Most companies will be delighted to support this kind of activity, and will pay for the lunches, the books, etc. And then, when someone wants to organize something related to the interns, it will be natural for them to turn to you. Remember, though, if you aren’t excelling at your assigned tasks, then none of this will matter, and may even be viewed negatively.

If things don’t work out

Best laid plans, and all that, sometimes you aren’t going to get the internship you want, and you’ll be looking at a summer of camp counseling or stacking shelves. If you need the money, then do what you need to do. But remember that this isn’t going to help in the long-term. Here are some recommendations for things you can do to keep the ball moving forward on your own:

  • There’s an app for that

Learning how to write a mobile app is pretty straightforward – work through a primer one chapter at a time, follow the instructions, and by the last chapter you should have enough of an understanding to get started on your own idea. Use the summer to come up with an app, and finish it. Having an interesting, well-designed app in the Apple or Android App Stores is a great calling card. I recommend the following books: Beginning iOS 6 Development, and Android Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide – but you should use whatever works for you.

  • Start a company

Get some of your friends together and start something interesting. Doing something entrepreneurial demonstrates initiative, and will teach you a lot about what it takes to run a company. Do it for real – incorporate, decide how to divide the equity, get a corporate bank account, get the hostname and trademark it. Print business cards. Go to local entrepreneur meetups and ask for advice. Apply to YCombinator, TechStars, or BetaSpring. Work out an MVP (minimum viable product), and finish it. It might not go anywhere, but taking it seriously will give you a much more valuable experience than just screwing around for a summer.

  • Practice your core skills

Serious pianists spend a lot of time doing finger exercises, from Hanon to Czerny to Chopin. If you didn’t do well on your technical interviews, then now’s your chance to really focus on your core skills. 90% of interview questions relate to data structures and algorithms you learn in your first year of CS – taking the time to master these will pay tremendous dividends.

  • Work on an open source project

If you can do some real work on an existing open source project, you can develop some serious street cred. Don’t underestimate this – spending your summer submitting fixes to bugs in an Apache or Mozilla project won’t pay the bills, but you’ll learn a tremendous amount, and become known by a community of strong programmers.

Go forth and intern

That’s it for the advice. Good luck with your interviews, and have a great summer!

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