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July 20, 2016

Lessons Learned: Working with Interns

3 mins read

A few months ago, we shared our thoughts on the most critical elements for a successful internship program. Now, let’s take a deeper look at some of the lessons we’ve learned from working with students, particularly on a part-time basis.

Plan, Plan, Plan

For eight months out of the year, our students work on a very part-time basis (10-15 hours per week). They’re in the office for approximately 3-4 hours, usually every other day. On top of that, they have various breaks and school commitments that can affect their regular schedule.

As a full-time developer, it’s hard enough to be working on something, pause your progress at the end of the work day, then remember what you were doing and pick it back up in the morning. Imagine only working a few hours a day and then trying to come back to your work two or three days later. We solve this issue by breaking down each task as much as possible, to something that can be explained, developed, code-reviewed, and committed in a few hours.

Patience is Key

It’s no secret that junior developers typically work more slowly and need more guidance than senior developers. Student interns will likely work slower, particularly at first. There are, however, a few things you can do to make use of the extra time and attention they need to both enhance their education and help speed up their work in the future:

  • Take the necessary time to explain their tasks fully and make sure they understand it. More importantly, help them understand the business reason behind their tasks.
  • Give guidance along the way, but allow them the opportunity to find solutions on their own. Answer questions, but try to do it without just providing a direct answer.
  • Review their work and provide constructive feedback, teaching new lessons or concepts as necessary.
Learning is More than Just Skills

Our program is designed to prepare students for life in the real world. Part of that is their technical skills, but the rest is everything else that goes into surviving in a corporate world. We clearly communicate to them (at the start of employment and frequently thereafter) our expectations regarding their work schedule, communicating planned absences, and what they wear.

Once a year, we put our students through the same appraisal cycle as our full-time employees. That gives them the opportunity to practice evaluating themselves, which is necessary for every job, as well as hear from us, in a more formal way, how we feel they’re progressing through our program. We work together to set goals for their upcoming semesters and plan out ways for them to reach those goals.

Give Them Your Time

The single most important thing we’ve realized is that mentoring and managing interns takes time. They get far more out of the experience if someone is there to guide them through it. It’s not reasonable to expect a mentor to complete all of their normal full-time work and also make time for the interns they’re managing. Be prepared to sacrifice some of the productivity of a mentor. The interns will be better for it and that experience can pay dividends for you as an employer when/if you hire that student upon graduation.

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