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Upgrade Your Interns: Keys To Making An Internship Program Valuable

Posted by | September 25, 2017 | Employer, Internship, Type of Internship

Via Forbes : Upgrade Your Interns: Keys To Making An Internship Program Valuable

With summer in the rearview mirror, the noise level in the office has gone down a couple notches, and the kitchen shelves aren’t quite as bare. Without context, that might seem like a good thing, but we’re actually pretty torn up about it. Because it means our interns have left. Even though they were with us for mere months, they quickly became just as much a part of our culture as any full-time employee—and their energy and enthusiasm is something we’re having a tough time learning to live without.

Interns arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to tackle the world as they embark upon what is for many their first real job. Unfortunately, not all internships are created equal. While everyone jokes about how interns are for paper shredding and coffee runs, sometimes those jokes are far too close to the truth. Take a look at these intern horror stories:

Keyera interned with a startup in hopes of gaining experience in public relations. She ended up spending all her time calling and emailing organizations asking for donations and grant money. “It turned out the head of this startup was looking for free labor instead of the opportunity to mentor college students to gain experience.”

Adam accepted an internship at a local game development startup at the end of his undergraduate degree. “I was promoted to lead designer of the project at the end of the first week, and it was then that I realized that I knew more about game development than the person who was supposed to be mentoring me.”

Ron had an accounting internship that started out full of valuable experience. However, after the busy tax season, his manager ran out of work for him and assigned Ron to file scanning. Over the next four months, he scanned close to 20,000 pages. “Ever since that summer, every time I hear a machine scan a document, I run away.”

And finally Jesse, whose internship with a local hospital’s ophthalmology department sadly proved that sometimes stereotypes are 100% spot on. Jesse spent every single day shredding papers, never once interacting with the doctor or patients. “I would sit in the optometrist’s office and shred using a cheap shredder that could only take a couple of pages at a time. After about 15 minutes of use, it would heat up and stop shredding, so I would have to wait around for it to cool down.”

So obviously some internships are broken. Interns face unavailable managers, no formal training, busy work or a lack of work altogether, and no clear goals. They finish the summer with no useful skills, no relevant experience, no meaningful relationships, and deflated enthusiasm.

Six years ago, we hired our first intern at Lucid, and we knew we wanted our program to be different. Interns aren’t for coffee runs, and you can give them real-world learning experience while simultaneously creating value for your company. We want our interns to feel immersed in the culture, working on real projects that produce real impact. We want them to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Here’s how we try and do it.

Trust them with hard things.

When our VP of engineering Brian Pugh first meets with potential interns, he explains our internship philosophy. “An internship with most companies, even hot tech companies like Google and Microsoft, means working on a project that may never see the light of day. At Lucid, within 3-4 weeks, interns will have worked on code that is out in our production system being used by millions of users. There are bug fixes or new features in the product that interns can point to as something they personally worked on.”

We don’t dream up separate “intern projects” that are presented at the conclusion of the summer. Instead, we place our interns on a team and give them work that integrates directly with the overall team objectives. For example, engineering interns are placed on an existing scrum team and treated like any other team member, diving headfirst into the issues that team is responsible for and working on real features that become the next big things in our product. In fact, many employees find it difficult to distinguish between full-time hires and interns, only realizing when the interns disappear come September. Brian says, “I know it has been successful summer when a co-worker says to me at the end of the summer, ‘He/she is back in school? I didn’t realize he/she was an intern!'”

Last summer, our graphic design intern helped kick off Flowchart Fridays, a huge campaign that is still running today and that has received numerous local and national awards. During this intern’s first couple weeks at Lucid, she designed the very first flowcharts for the campaign. They have hundreds of thousands of page views to date and remain some of the most viewed in the campaign. This campaign has been crucial in allowing us to reach new audiences with our software.

Two of our marketing interns built hundreds of diagram templates that customers can actually use. Each template was published as an individual page, and they have helped us rank for dozens and dozens of valuable keywords.
The feedback we hear most often from our interns is how much they appreciate being given this real experience rather than fake projects that fade into oblivion once they leave. We truly value the work our interns do, and we make sure they are well aware of that. Frankly, we are baffled that so many companies waste interns’ time and talent on unimportant projects.

Give the interns a chance. See what they can do. It’s likely they will surprise you.

Treat them like the real thing.

How, you might ask, do I comfortably pass the reigns on a real project to an intern who barely looks 14? I realize that can be a bit disconcerting. But if you’ve hired the best of the best, they are ready to handle it.

Hiring the right interns might not seem as important as hiring for full-time positions. It’s just a summer, right? But you can’t treat internships like short-term relationships. In fact, we hold our interns to the same high bar as we do our regular hires. We are looking for the cream of the crop, and we put our intern candidates through the same rigorous interviewing process as we do our normal candidates. For example, engineering interns take the same programming test, are asked the same algorithm, language, modeling, and behavioral questions, and are held to the same high GPA standard as full-time hires.

So yes, the recruiting and the hiring can be a long process when you have such a high bar. But the process is a smart long-term investment. We’re building a pipeline of qualified candidates, and we hire our interns with the intention of offering full-time positions if the internship goes well. You can put them through the ringer now, or you can do it later.

In addition, internship programs are an easy way to build goodwill for your company and expand your footprint. Interns talk—they are going to tell others about their experience (and keep in mind that they’re going to do so whether it’s good or bad). Our interns have become Lucid ambassadors, representing the company at career fairs and generally raising awareness about our company among university students.

Pair them up.

Don’t send your interns on a wild goose chase. Set them up for success and make sure they have access to the people who will help them achieve that. In addition to the manager they report to, all interns are assigned a mentor from day one.

Mentorships offer a chance for more informal relationships that facilitate open communication. Mentors help interns feel comfortable and quickly get up to speed. In doing so, interns are able to start contributing to meaningful projects right away—the best way to learn is by getting their hands dirty. On our engineering team, mentors often pair program with interns, always review interns’ code changes, and help interns learn the intricacies of the system. We have a graphic design intern who started working with her mentor on a big summer campaign the day after she started.

Immerse them in the day-to-day.

Key to making an internship valuable is ensuring interns are immersed in the culture. And the best way to make sure that happens is to integrate them in existing teams from the get-go. That way, they are living the culture every day rather than listening to you talk about it.

We bring all of our interns on our company retreat at the beginning of the summer. That means our retreat count hit nearly 300 this year. But it’s worth it. The experience allows them to feel a part of the company and to meet people they don’t normally interact with. The informal setting fosters relationship building within and across teams and can put even the most nervous interns at ease.

Every summer, we also hold a Hackathon where employees are invited to come up with ideas for new product features, join a team and create something amazing in just a few days. Many hackathon projects become key features in the products. Interns are strongly encouraged to join (or form) a team and participate. Last year, an intern was on the winning team that came up with Feature Find, which was released to the production system and had a significant impact to our business. This year, an intern was part of a team that spent three days converting 600,000 lines of JavaScript to TypeScript, working off of very little sleep and averaging one file per minute for 48 hours straight. When asked why he joined such an ambitious project, the intern said, “We chose this project because we are absolutely crazy and we don’t know when to call it quits on a joke.”

We also want our interns to feel comfortable with one another and to have that network as another support system. In addition to the company-wide events, we have intern-only activities throughout the summer, such as baseball games, BBQs, and hikes.

So give your interns a shot. Find the golden ones and put them to work on things that really matter and produce value for themselves and your company. Let them think they can tackle the world—and please don’t squash their enthusiasm with coffee runs.

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