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December 11, 2015

Building an Award Winning Internship

4 mins read

Just a few weeks ago, Excella was honored to be ranked as one of’s “50 Best Internships” for 2016. We love working with our students and thought we’d share what we believe to be the most critical elements in a successful program.

Be Something More than Just Summer

Excella doesn’t think the usual summer internship is long enough! In 2008 we saw the opportunity to create a program (called the Extension Center or “XC”) where we can work with students over a period of time, some as much as 3 years. We see students grow and learn. For both employer and employee, this provides time to understand the firm, the work, individual strengths and weaknesses, and what each would be getting from a larger employment relationship – all while learning about the real world of software development.

Our program runs year-round and we operate the program on a low/no-cost basis with offices on/near campus at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg Campus) and The University of Maryland College Park. This gives students a local work environment with projects and technology education to support their university study goals. Our XC students step up to our Summer Associate program at the end of their junior year for 12-weeks in the DC area. They return to campus for senior year, often with a full-time job offer, able concentrate on refining their skills and working more independently within the XC during their final semesters.

Because our students are attending classes, we are very flexible on their work schedules and plan to see them less during exam times and breaks. Most of our students work 10-12 hours a week in 3-4 hour blocks. This allows them to go to and from work/classes with time to spare.

Staff it with the Right Mix of Tech and Teaching Skills

Not everybody has what it takes to be a good mentor for interns (and that’s ok). When we interview and select candidates to be full-time mentors at the XC, we go deeper than just programming skills. We look for proven skill and passion in both programming and teaching.

Some might argue that the job of an intern is to do the tasks they’re assigned during their internship. That’s true, but they also have a much more important job – to learn valuable skills that will serve them well upon graduation. To facilitate that job, our mentors need to have a passion for helping others learn and grow. That takes a delicate balance of technical skills, approachability, teaching skills, and patience.

Technical skills are obviously a key factor, and our mentors need to have a heavy dose of that in their arsenal. After all, we are a technology firm and we’re teaching our students how to program in the real world. Running a close second, though, is the ability to pass on that technical knowledge to others. Being able to assess a student’s learning style and help them out in the way that’s most beneficial is extremely important. Some are fine being given keywords to Google, while others need more handholding and guidance through a problem. In all cases, though, it’s important to be patient and help them arrive at solutions on their own, rather than just take over the keyboard and do it for them.

Create an Innovative Interview and Selection Process

Some companies are content to go the traditional route for selection. They attend a career fair, hold some interviews, make choices.

At Excella we work hard to find students who are a lot like us – compassionate, flexible, people-oriented, and fun! We also want to see great passion and capacity for learning. To get the right fit we designed a four-phase interview process that includes:

  • Meeting candidates at career fairs. We don’t just take resumes, we talk to potential candidates at length.
  • An online application.
  • A written questionnaire (evaluating interests, tech and communication skills).
  • An evening event where we can interact without the pressure of an “interview”. The evening consists one-on-one and team based activities and interaction – with a group of current Excella consultants.
  • One-on-one interviews with a technical component to gauge current skills and teach-ability.
Provide Real, Relevant, and Consistent Project Work

There’s no better way to learn something than by actually doing it. While students have opportunities for project work in their college classes, these are often contrived, somewhat simplistic, and controlled. A fixed set of requirements for consistent results is rarely the case in the real world.

We involve our students in real client work, where requirements change often and nothing is cookie-cutter. Our students work on real projects for real Excella clients. The work ideally expands and supports the students’ study goals while supporting the program’s goals to build exceptional talent.

We’ve developed our own “curriculum” of topics and skills that we expect our students to have by the time they graduate and move on. Everything we do is designed to build those skills, by being part of a team doing client work. Many times, relating concepts they learn in school to the real-world work they do with us causes the light bulb to come on and helps them succeed in their classes as well.

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