Internships: Being on the Other Side

Random Observation/Comment #260: After being a mentee all of my life, I find it’s rather eye-opening being a mentor.  I never realized how much advice is made up on the spot, but still sounds really profound and cool like you have it all figured out. Sorry, interns. I’m just making it up as I go along like the rest of us.

As an alumnus of an internship program and a graduate analyst program, I remember that feeling – an uncontrollable snowball of excitement, nervousness, curiosity, and bewilderment all at the same time.   It made everyday a learning experience with the fresh eyes ready to change the world.  Oh the beauty of being naïve.

When I was asked to spearhead a new internship project as project lead, I think I felt very similar feelings. I was excited to see more of the strategic view of the project and practice the management skills I learned from my mentors. I was nervous because the project’s success directly reflected my skills, while never physically creating deliverables.  I was curious to see how interns would react to having a young manager.  And I was mostly stumped at what type of manager I would be.

There are many different methods of management, but I wanted to highlight the major concepts that worked for me:

  • Common big boss – It’s important to let your team know who your boss is so you’re not labeled as a young power-hungry micro-managing nuisance abstracted from life and absorbed by work (not that I think that way about anyone nor did anyone say that to me).  Having a common boss puts you on the same side as everyone else.  When you come from college where everything is a grade and competition between your peers, this common boss will give them some environmental comfort and promote team work. It also shows that you’ve taken ownership and you will work your hardest to make everything work.  Also note that the common higher power piece will become useful when being stern so you are still seen as reasonable and merciful.
  • Trust – Give everyone in your team the burden of trust.  With the new generation, there needs to be a level of freedom to let them show their creativity and hard work.  Listen to these ideas and trust they will deliver on their agreements.  If any delivery is not met where you had given them the flexibility to set their own deadlines, guilt will do wonders in learning lessons. Also remember to pad your deadline dates as a fail-safe just to C.Y.A.
  • Personal Investment – Observe all of your team members and make sure they know you care about how they can grow and improve.  Although the project is important, being a friend is more important.  I’m sure any experienced developer can pump out an intern-level project in a week, but this is really about teaching a process and showing them the real world.  Do mid-program reviews and end-of-year reviews on a one-on-one basis to give them personalized pointers.
  • Ownership – Make sure everyone in the team knows what the project is for. Emphasize the importance of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Point out what they will get out of it as a growing process.  When each team member takes ownership of their project, they will invest personal interest and work to see a successful product.
  • Ease – Keep a relatively low stress environment, by visiting regularly and just chatting.  Your team will instinctively bring up any level of progress, but then calm down. Show interest in results, but try not to micromanage their development.  This is especially true if there is an assigned project manager and dev lead.  Access to this power gives the responsibility of the work and ownership of deliverables directly to their peers.  Although they may be nervous trying to control the team, just relax help them guide.
  • Power – Where necessary, and used only as a last resort, impose the importance of the project’s success by warning them with consequences (e.g. not getting full-time offers).  Sometimes working off of fear can also reach results, but I would rather not burn them out and scare them away.

The management experience was extremely unique, and I was completely winging it most of the time, but I did learn a tremendous amount about people. Techniques need to be flexible, but most importantly, the personal time you invest with your team really reflects the amount of commitment you’ll see returned. Those one-on-one coffee chats do wonders in diffusing situations and earning respect.

At the end of the day, I think you just need to be in their shoes and give them advice you wish you heard that made you stride forward. No wonder teaching is so rewarding…

~See Lemons Learn from Interns