To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Every summer at Mozilla, I was always amazed at what interns are capable of.
I was never a fan of taking the best and brightest and having them do mundane tasks like organizing desk furniture or data entry. It’s such a waste of time for a group of geniuses at the peak of their learning abilities.
So I’ve always pushed to create intern projects worthy of their time — projects that made a difference over Q2/Q3 and were on the critical path in some way. And by doing this, I’ve seen interns teach the company more than the company taught them. Not only was I okay with it — it was awesome to see.
Listen to your interns
There are a lot of simple things you can learn from interns if you’re listening. Their ridiculous, code-monster output can be inspiring and critical, but their feedback is just as important. Consider what you might learn from an intern:
- Are your projects cool? If your company is doing interesting things, your intern projects should be interesting as well. They should be easy sells when speaking with interns who have a number of options. This helps you understand your cool factor — or the Nike or Apple factor — when it comes to recruiting talent. Are your products worth working on? Are they challenging enough to matter? Is your mission worthy? Interns can tell you this before you even hire them.
- Do you have awesome engineers? Your ability to lead and mentor interns tells you something about the quality of your engineers. Are they able to teach a younger engineer the skills necessary to succeed? Do they have the maturity and patience to deal with someone who does not have the same amount of experience as they do? Do your interns respect them for it? Does your team even have the time to mentor an intern (and is that a good/bad thing)? Do interns out-perform your full-time folks? Interns can tell you a lot about what kind of people you have on your team and whether or not they have too much on their plate.
- Do you have good engineering culture and processes? For an intern, the summer is all about getting stuff done. Interns absorb and accomplish things at a high rate — and they are a good litmus test for whether or not your culture and processes empowers people to get things done. If the way you do things is counter-intuitive or paralyzing, they will be the first to feel it. Their fresh perspective and intrinsic motivation make them great sounding boards for feedback on your process and culture.
- Do your interns have fun? Last but not least, is whether they can have fun. If they can learn, be productive and have fun — it tells you you’re doing something right and this same energy translates to full-time employees. If they don’t enjoy their internship, or feel drained at the end of the day, there’s something wrong with your environment and they won’t be the last people to speak up about it.
Overall, interns can teach you a lot about what type of organization, team or company you have. Make sure to spend time with them and get all the feedback you can get. They are a valuable source of information and don’t have the usual organizational biases. Remember: if you don’t listen, you’ll miss all of it.
Making your internships awesome
So how do you work with, mentor and recruit interns? Here are some tips on how to work with interns at different points of the summer. Everyone has opinions and every company is different — but these worked for me:
- Start recruiting early. It wasn’t unusual for my team to have our interns locked up before Thanksgiving. I credit awesome recruiters like Julie, Kimber and Jill (kudos!) for this, but ultimately we got to them early through career fairs and meetups, showed we were humans who knew our stuff about technology, and got people interested in the company’s mission. Quick aside: don’t give people exploding offers. You’ll lose people this way but at least you’re not being predatory and putting undue pressure on these kids. When you get a talented intern who wants to be there, you’re going to get the most out of the opportunity both ways.
- Get testimonials from past interns. There are a lot of books on attitudinal loyalty, but this is a case where it really makes or breaks you. Word of mouth matters, especially in some of the strongest CS programs. When you have a good intern who loved their summer, ask them to write about it — blog it, talk to folks at their school, maybe even help you recruit at their college’s next career fair. And when you’re recruiting, be prepared to talk about these projects and link to these blogs/writings — they are a great way to explain to prospective interns the kinds of projects they might be able to work on (even if you can’t be super specific about exactly what project it’ll be yet).
- Make a connection. I always found a way to relate to interns and talk about their favorite projects. Robotics, AI, video games, ping pong — whatever it was, I wanted to talk about it. Not only was I genuinely interested in them (I was!), I wanted to connect with them on their terms, in their comfort zone. Maybe they aren’t going to be able to talk for hours about web security — that’s what they are talking to you for — to gain that experience. But give them a chance to talk about their world. Not only is it fun, you will learn something while giving them a chance to talk about who they are and what they love.
- Show them you care. This comes easy with a little effort, and is usually about you giving them your time. Take them to lunch. Ask them how they are doing. Give them rides home if they need them. Help them find a bike to rent. Give them tips on what to do in the city. Congratulate them when they plow through a tough bug or feature. Buy them coffee! There are so many little things you can do to make their internship special and show your appreciation. Use your imagination.
- Trophies and stuff. Everybody loves trophies — why not get one for “surviving” their internship? The internet has sites with amazing trophies — so I got some and I went out of my way to take photos. It helps us remember how awesome those summers were. The best part of all of this is the interns get to take the trophies home with them, hopefully on the plane, so they have to explain what it is to strangers. If you don’t like trophies, get them a book, picture or card — something to take home with them and remember their summer. Be creative!
Whatever you do, treat interns with respect and make them feel valued by giving them your time and attention. If you can do this, they will surprise you and your summers will be memorable and productive.
Here are some photos from the last couple of years: