Stop Being the Intern

Make your summer count

By this point, the first round of fresh-faced CS students have signed their internship offers. Others are still biting nails, waiting for that email from that one company. Each one is trying to figure out what to devote their precious three months to, and few have a real idea what project they’ll end up working on.

There’s not a lot to be said about interning that hasn’t been said already. From r/cscareerquestions, to the multitude of blogs devoted to the topic, the internet is pretty saturated with advice. But, having gone through 5 of these summers in a multitude of companies, this is what I have to say:

Stop being “the intern”.

Last year’s interview season, I gave myself a goal. On a post-it note, I wrote out what I wanted to do the following summer; experiences I wanted to have, people I wanted to meet, the type of work I wanted to get done. It boiled down to this:

  • Explore working as a full-stack programmer
  • Do work in an area I was completely unfamiliar with
  • Work with a team, on a pre-existing project

And with this in mind, I tackled the interview season. With each interview, I took a moment to ask how their company could help me craft this experience.

That summer at Square, I got the experience I asked for: Unexpected, extremely difficult, but the most rewarding internship I’ve had yet. Still a small(ish) company, Square hires just enough interns to fill out teams with one or two helping hands. Because of their size and growth, they don’t have the leeway to give interns a useless project: each intern works on something that will actually be used, even after they leave. (Lots of companies say they provide this. Square was one of the few places I felt that it was true.) And with that in mind, here’s what happened that summer.

I had a team.

No longer sequestered into a corner to only venture out when I had unanswerable questions, I had people that I worked with constantly. My mentor became my best friend, ramping me up to workspeed (while also showing me Atom’s power mode ). I didn’t have to tell people what my project was — this time, my teammates actually knew what I was doing, because it actively affected them.

This also means I did more than interact with other people on a 3-month loan. I made friends with people on and off my team — people I’d get coffee with, or grab lunch, or share interests outside of work. Full-time engineers are a hell of a lot less intimidating when you’re working with them, instead of feeling like you’re distracting them by asking questions.

My code was held to a higher standard.

I wasn’t just working to prove a concept, or to explore some moonshot project on the sidelines. What I made was used by my teammates, and my work had to mesh with theirs. Within the first week, I realized some of the things that were generally unimportant from an academic standpoint were very important in the workplace; White space and style all had to match with the person sitting next to me, to say the least. These rules were most often unveiled by the (probably) hundreds of “style” comments on my pull requests, and it took time to remember to double-check my code to match.

It also helped me learn the value of studying my environment. You’re not going to get a manual with all of the style and comment standards of the people you’re working with. Even if it exists, it can be hard to find, or not pertain to your team in particular. And diving into a new code base held other challenges — structure and naming conventions aren’t always obvious, and even if external conventions exist, there’s no guarantee that your team will be using them too.

I ran on a schedule.

Most of the time, the “intern project” has a vague and mildly menacing schedule that is never kept. If a deadline is missed, there aren’t reprecussions, other than the mild chastising of an expectant mentor (who might have been expecting this in the first place).

Working on a team means you run on the team’s schedule. When I missed a deadline, I felt it. Being late with a sprint goal didn’t mean harsh words or disapproving looks, but someone else had to pick up a ticket that I didn’t get to. Someone else needed to carry my slack. It was excusable, of course, to have some slack — I was an intern, after all, still trying to figure my way around the office and the code base. But I learned that my progress (and my time) was important.

And best of all …

I didn’t lose the “intern” fun.

Even though I was treated like a member of the team, I was still an intern. It was acknowledged that I’d go to intern bonding events, or that I’d take a day off to go to Alcatraz. I made friends across the board, from co-workers to co-interns, and got to know people that I’m glad to be working with again in the future.

I was in over my head pretty much ALL of the time. But that’s what made it challenging, interesting, and a huge learning experience. We grow by putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions. Out of the pressure grows hardened skill.

Make It Happen

  • Make sure your recruiters know what you want. They’re here to match you with the team that fits you best. Tell them you want a project that will get you working with a real team.
  • Ask your interviewers. If you’re interested in what the company has to provide, no one can tell you better than the people who actually work there. Ask about what interns have done in the past, and how many they’ve worked with personally.
  • Talk to your future manager. Chances are, they don’t have your project set in stone. Once you’re team matched, there’s no harm in reaching out and letting your manager know what your preferences are.

Sure, I don’t have a neatly packaged project to talk about when the summer’s over. I can’t whip out a github repo and say, “I did all of this!”, and quote numbers about how my internship affected such-and-such percentage of some marketing project or another.

But I got to work with a team, understand the way they develop and test and evolve. My code got released as part of a new product. Most importantly, I know what it’s like to work, to really work, at this company.

It’s a harder experience than just being “the intern”. But we don’t grow without pressure, and the pressure’s going to ramp up when you go full-time anyway. At your next internship, be more than an intern — be a part of the team.


This article was originally written and posted on Medium.