Dear Summer Interns: Your stock is up — like way up.
Ten years ago when I was hiring interns at the mothership, my incredibly flawed and shortsighted policy was to hire as many as they’d let me, dole ‘em out to the teams that screamed the loudest, and see what happened. There were successes, we found some good people, but my memory is shoddy because I just wasn’t paying that much attention. For shame.
Fast forward to the present day and the internship landscape has drastically changed in the Silicon Valley. Competition for interns is fierce for a couple of old reasons and an emerging new one.
- Internships remain a low-risk way for both candidate and company to evaluate each other in a short time frame and with a deadline.
- We, the hiring companies, have an ever-increasing crapload of work to do, which provides an excellent crucible for this evaluation. And, finally,
- In the last decade, interns have continued to arrive with an ever-increasing pre-existing skill set that allows them to hit the ground running.
That said, even with everyone cheering for you, you can still screw up your internship – easily.
The following guide walks you through what I’ve learned are essential moves for your summer internship.
A Swell Gig
Whether you’ve landed a summer internship, co-op position, or contracting gig, the defining characteristic is the tick-tick-tick of time. On the day you start you know the day you’re leaving. Given this clear deadline, there are two things I want you to do before you set foot in the gig.
First, pick one thing you want to learn. You’re likely starting this whole process with the idyllic perspective that, “Golly, it’s swell they gave me a gig”. This is factually true, but I prefer the perspective: I am choosing to work with these fine people because they have a thing to teach me. Every job I’ve loved shares the same characteristic: I’m learning from people I respect.
Before you show up and are overwhelmed with the inevitable flood of projects, people, and personalities, you need to make a choice about what you want to learn:
- I want to learn how to become a better developer.
- I want to know how to build a team.
- I want to learn how to ship products.
Don’t stress about this – pick two if you want. Just choose and understand the choice is not written in stone. In fact, careful adherence to the advice below pretty much guarantees that you’re going to change your learning goal a couple of times. The absence of this goal is a great way to start your summer with the aimless and listless perspective of: “What are they going to bring me?” Goal in hand, you start by asking, “How am I going to find what I need to learn?”
While you figure this out, you also need to figure out what the company is bringing to the table and you can start to deduce this investment in a couple of ways.
How much communication are you getting from the company leading up to the internship? How quickly are you getting answers to questions? Do you know whom you’ll be reporting to? Is it clear what you’re going to be doing before you show up? Are you getting schwag? Are you getting homework? Are they building excitement?
This assessment doesn’t stop on Day 1. You need to keep watching: Are you getting a script the moment you walk in the door? Is it obvious who is in charge? Are you sitting there staring at your screen without a machine wondering what to do on day 2? Uh-oh. Is it Friday and you have no idea where the week went? Good.
I’m not suggesting that a lack of engagement by your employer guarantees a crappy internship, but it does change your opening strategy. A well-constructed internship program is about creating opportunity for interns to both deliberately and randomly kick ass, and the sooner you detect the quality and depth of the program the sooner you’ll know how much opportunity you’ll need to create on your own.
Whether the early signs are positive or negative, you’d better get started because: You’re in a hurry. Again, an internship is defined by time. For a summer internship, you have 90 days. That’s it. It’s going to feel like forever when you arrive, but in my experience it’s usually barely enough time to really figure out whom you’re working with, what they’re working on, and what they care about. Your internship has an expiration date and you need to accelerate the assimilation process, and that means understanding that…
Products are Built by People
My second summer working in high tech was at Borland and they were deep into the first version of Paradox for Windows. I arrived in the middle of a push towards Alpha, which meant I got a cursory handshake, a computer, an office, and the well crafted, detailed instruction to “Find bugs”.
If you believe my program assessment advice, I should have rated myself a solid “screwed”. No initial support, no investment, no clear direction. Thing was, it was the best damned internship ever. These people were in a hurry — they didn’t have time to explain the intricacies of the product development process to me because they were living and breathing it. They had no problem grabbing me for a design meeting halfway through my second day and throwing me squarely in the deep end.
“You – new guy – we need to know if this new Create Table dialog is crap and we need to know by 3pm. Got it? Good?”
Create what table? In what part of the product? What does crap mean anyway?
Devlin, the lead QA guy, who wore the hair and attire of someone who hadn’t slept in weeks, grabbed me as we walked out: “I’ll help you install the latest build. You need to get the bug tracking system up and running while I’m doing that and figure it out. I’ll walk you through the three create workflows. If you find three bad bugs, it’s crap.”
Software built in the real world has nothing to do with what they teach you in college. There are no courses entitled:
- The Mountain Dew-Fueled Development Cycle
- The Myth and Madness of Zero Bugs
- Done is a State of Mind.
There is plenty of value in university, but until you build a complex product, beginning to end, with a team, you have little idea how product is built. An internship provides essential real-time lessons to understand both how a product is built and who is building it. Start with:
Finding a mentor. Most intern programs take the time to assign a person in the trenches who isn’t your boss and who is responsible for your daily care and feeding. A good mentor is someone you see regularly, and neither of you feel like these visits are a chore. If you’re getting the chore vibe, you need to find another mentor, which ties in with another assignment…
Finding a cohort. If a mentor’s job is to answer questions, a cohort’s job is to find more questions with you. Your cohort is your invaluable second set of eyeballs. They are likely on the same schedule as you and share an interest in what you want to learn. You can go it alone during an internship, but it’s inefficient. You’re going to screw up; you’re going to waste time chasing something useless, and a good cohort will call bullshit on these activities faster than your boss or your mentor because they share your interest. More importantly, your cohort identification and selection might be your first professional attempt to build a team. Wondering where they are? How about…
Talking to everyone. As an engineer, you may have anti-social nerd tendencies. You might be supported by a phenomenal intern program that accounts for your every need. But if you’re heads down simply fixing bugs, you’re not learning how to build product. You need to attend every single intern event where you are exposed to as many people as possible. You need to frequently stand up, walk around, and investigate what each group does, how they fit together, and how they each contribute to the product. And you do that by…
Incessantly asking questions. I understand that it looks like everyone is darting about with purpose, and I know that you think your question about security certificates is insipid, but we want you to ask. We want you to be unblocked so that you can get to the meat of building things. More importantly, we learn both about you and ourselves via your questions. We see our products and our processes in a fresh light through your eyes. The rule is: the sooner you ask, the faster you’ll know.
Understanding that you have little time for drama. You might not know what office politics look or sound like, so here’s a familiar scenario: remember those uncomfortable cliques that showed up in high school? Those folks walking around like they hit the popularity lottery? When someone walks by and you sense the familiar twinge of douchiness, find a reason to walk away. It’s not a guarantee, but there’s a good chance there are politicians, malcontents, and jaded curmudgeons somewhere in your company, and they are recruiting for their cause because they need cynicism to feed their agenda. All you will discover by hanging with these folks is the disenfranchised sub-culture of bitching and moaning, and while it is worth noting that this culture has been allowed to exist in your company, it is not worth your time.
Your Goal is Not an Offer
And it’s suddenly over. It’s late August and you’re two weeks from returning to school. Went faster than expected, right? So, what’d you do?
“Well, it was pretty cool. I worked on the search infrastructure for this analysis tool. I learned a bunch about Lucene, and…”
No, that’s not what I’m asking. What did you do?
Your reputation with your team and the company will be defined by something you cannot predict. If you diligently complete the work assigned to you and attend all the social events, you will have a fine internship, but the flavor of this internship is vanilla, and vanilla is reliably boring.
What is the thing you built that:
- You initiated and completed
- Supported your learning goals
- Included your mentor and cohort, and
- Unexpectedly kicked ass?
An offer at the end of a summer is a happy by-product of a successful internship, but your goal is experience. We’d be happy if you joined the crew and that might be a good move, but we know your stock is way up.
What has changed in the last decade is that everything you need to build your own company is actually just a keystroke away whether it’s tools, infrastructure, or cohorts. This ready availability of resources allows for the one of my favorite discoveries when reading a resume: “Last quarter, in my spare time, I founded a company”.
Never before has there been so much potential for bright people, college degree or not, to build something that might change the world, and your internship is one way to learn how we construct our teams and our products, not so you can replicate our success, but you can define your own.