How Startups Can Offer Great Internship Experiences

May 11, 2014 - 4 minute read -

One of my friends is about to hire a few interns for his company. He asked me what I’ve learned from my internship experiences - what companies did that I liked and didn’t like. This blog post outlines what I told him and is the result of having had 4 internships at very different companies. A lot of this advice can be carried on to new hires in general, not just interns.

The First Day

At one of the startups I worked at, on my first day the team went out for lunch. I got to choose the place. I didn’t know much about the local food joints so I had some help from teammates by describing what kind of lunch I was craving. This dicussion built rapport. Good. This is exactly what you want. During lunch, a lot of the discussions around the table were about me. My new teammates were all curious about my hobbies, past work experience, and interests. More rapport. Awesome.

On the first day, and well into the first few weeks, it can be intimidating to ask for help ramping up or just general advice. This is unproductive for the intern and the company. You want to break down this barrier as quickly as possible. You want new friendships to blossom from day one. People are more comfortable asking for help from their friends.

One way to speed up the “friendship” process is by asking each employee to send a “welcome” email to an intern. When interns opens up their inbox for the first time, they won’t be overwhelmed with work related emails - instead they get a feel for the kind of people they’ll be working with. Often, teammates will include random useful tidbits. In the email I sent to a new employee, I mentioned where the lever to raise/lower the chair was (it was an unconventional chair).

The First Project

Small features or bugs are usually given to interns. Bugs can be useful because often a bug involves many moving parts, so an intern can learn more about the overall system that powers your startup. However, bugs can also be less fulfilling to work on. That’s why there should be a careful balance between bugs and features to keep an intern happy.

You may feel like you have no features that are on the pipeline that an intern can handle on their first day. This may be true, but it’s relatively easy to create new features that act as little UX improvements. Furthermore, sometimes an intern will already have an idea for something they want to add - so you can always just ask them.

One of the “mini-features” I built during my first week was adding a warning message when a user picked two colors that were similar. There were two color pickers, one for foreground text and one for background. If the colors were too similar, a little warning about contrast would appear. This wasn’t in the pipeline - I came up with this feature myself after seeing visual elements with poor contrast being created by customers using our tool.

Other small feature ideas: adding smarter clientside validation on forms, adding their profile to the team page, building a “contact us” email form, etc. Most of these emphasize the front end, but you can always ask your engineers what small improvements can be made to the backend as well.

Treat interns as valuable team members

Sometimes a company will emphasize “we give our interns real work, not busy work.” Don’t do this. Giving an intern “real work” is not a perk, it’s a basic expectation.

If you think that interns are a core part of your team, then you have to believe in it - not just say it. Even when I’ve been treated like any other employee, I still occasionally overhear CXO’s speaking about interns in a condencending tone. “We’ll just grab a bunch of interns and stuff ‘em in the basement and have them hack out this feature!” Small jokes here and there. There is a closet or small space in the office. A manager makes a joke somewhere along the lines of “this will be your new office.” A situtation like that has actually happened to me at two different startups. Bottom line: Your condescending intern jokes probably aren’t original or funny, so avoid making them.

Never speak poorly of previous interns. I often find myself compared to previous interns. The proper way to show appreciation: “We haven’t had much luck in the past with interns, you’ve broken the cycle…” as opposed to “You’re byfar the best intern we’ve had, the previous interns we had were awful.” Compliments are more genuine when someone else isn’t thrown under the bus for contrasting effect.