The Care and Feeding of Interns

Mini Danbo Climbs the Hose
Credit: Flickr / Christopher Bowley

Internships are often billed as a “3 month job interview”, but from the other side they are a 3 month stint in being a people manager, and the first opportunity people have to have a real impact on someone else’s career. This can be in a good way – the internship that makes the intern feel confident in their decision to be an engineer! The one where they built the Awesome Thing that helped them get that full time job.

Or, a negative impact. The Internship that was so bad that the intern left wracked with doubt about their capabilities. The poorly defined project that wasn’t actually possible, conclusively proved too late to do anything else meaningful. The manager who said that thing, that they won’t talk about but can’t forget either.

The job of a good manager (of an Intern, but maybe this applies more widely) is to set them up to succeed, and to define a space within which they can be effective. An internship should not be a test to overcome a poor manager and a badly-defined project. It should be a test to execute on a well-defined project with a supportive manager.

The Project

A good intern project is self contained whilst exposing the intern to multiple people. It will have significant impact, but isn’t on the critical path.

It can be hard to balance these things. Finding something nicely self-contained may mean you need to work harder to get your intern exposed to other people. Sometimes that means the project is more experimental, which means there is a risk it won’t actually ship.

I like to split off an initial project, that I estimate will take ~2 weeks. This gives the intern a chance to get to grips with the code base, and achieve something early that is significant enough that they can look back on that if they later feel discouraged. It’s also a time for me to gauge their competence, and make sure the main project is going to be the right one for them.

It’s also an opportunity to set the ground rules of how I want us to operate. One enormous CL (changelist) for a 2 week project is going to be a pain to review, one enormous CL for a semester-long project is just not going to happen. At this point I’ll meddle more so that I can back off later – train them to break down things into small pieces (students are used to submitting entire assignments and waiting weeks for feedback, so this can be an adjustment), and to ask for guidance as we go.

The intern is not there to fix little bugs for you, they are there to build something that demonstrates their employability. If they are so amazing that they can pick up bugs for you as well, and you can tell the story “operating like a full time engineer”, great. But they shouldn’t be doing things like that to the detriment of their project.

Communication

As with anyone, really, the best relationship with your Intern will be one where they feel they can come to you, and where they value your opinion. Where you can trust them. Where you are convinced of their capabilities, and they know you are, and that you are on their side and there to make things easier for them.

Because of the poor quality of management in the tech industry, a lot of people don’t have a good model of what a good manager looks like, and management anti-patterns beget other anti-patterns. The hands off manager begets the micromanager, for example.

Personally, I hate having scheduled meetings with people I sit next to (the emptier my calendar is, the happier I am). But I’ve realised that a meeting blocked out in my calendar is a visible sign of a commitment to make 30 minutes for them, every week.

However the weekly meeting is, in my opinion, the least important part of your communication. Eat lunch together, listen to their updates in the standup, give thoughtful and fair code reviews, ask their opinion on things. And when they do something good, tell them. When they do something really good, tell other people as well. Always give them credit for what they do.

Find ways to proactively discover if they are having issues. I like things broken down so that I’ll expect to see a CL every day so if I day goes by and I don’t see something from them, I’ll make a point to ask them how it’s going. If their standup update sounds like they are going in a different direction that I would have expected, I’ll ask some questions to figure out if I should be worried and intervene.

I read back through this and it sounds like it could be invasive and micro-managey. But micromanagement is when you are forced to account for your activities in a way that makes you resentful. Conversation often features people talking about what they are working on and how it’s going. Aim for conversational.

Female Interns: Other Considerations

When I was an intern, I worried I was the diversity hire. Years have passed, and I’ve worked in other countries and it appears… I am not alone. Male interns can create or just exacerbate this problem by making comments to that effect. It’s helpful to be aware of this, and look for opportunities to quash that fear. If they are a diversity hire, for example part of a program that offers internships to underrepresented groups, all the more reason to affirm their potential and capability.

There are guys who think it’s great to hire more women because they think this will improve their chances of getting a girlfriend, who gleefully exclaim “intern season” in the manner in which they might exclaim “girls gone wild”. Be mindful of any men in the office who do anything that could conceivably make a female intern feel uncomfortable. I’ll ask female interns (that I know! Not just randomly) “Is everyone being nice to you? Is anyone being… too… nice… to you?” because you can’t expect them to complain. Firstly, because they are on a 3 month job interview. Secondly, because girls are trained to be grateful for male attention, and to internalise it if it makes them feel uncomfortable. And to female interns everywhere: the guy who works full time at a company you are interning at and wants to date you, is not the kind of guy you want to date.

I know, I know, Dave’s a jerk to everyone and he always tears apart everyone’s first code review. But, don’t be a bystander. Be it casual undermining, or the intellectual pissing contest, don’t put up with it. Insist that other people be kind to your intern. Yes, the comment might be fair, but it would be phrased better if the writer thought first “this is a smart person who has thought about this problem”, and not “yet another idiot I am forced to work near”.

If you can’t cope with the first two conversations, reach out to a woman in the office (or outside!) and ask them to mentor your intern. If you can’t cope with the third, have your manager do it.

If you can’t cope with those alternatives, do your potential intern’s career a favour – have someone else mentor them instead.

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