Make Internships Count For The Student And The Company

Editor’s note: DJ Patil is a data scientist in residence at Greylock Partners. Follow him on Twitter @dpatil. Julie Deroche is the Director of University Talent at Greylock Partners in charge of running the firm’s university recruiting program. Follow her on Twitter @jgoulie

It’s that time of year again. The pressure is already on for building the class of 2013 summer internships. Each year, the recruitment cycle creeps up a bit earlier, the perks improve, and the competition gets more and more intense. It’s been going this way for at least the past five years and shows no signs of slowing down.

Since we’ve both been heavily involved in building the intern programs at LinkedIn and Mozilla, we’re often asked by organizations and students alike about what makes a successful summer internship. These are the things you should take into consideration both as a student and as a company when internship season comes around.

First off, why have an intern program at all? For hiring managers, interns can be a shot in the arm for most companies and organizations. They show up during a narrow window of time, create havoc, inject new enthusiasm and ideas, and they’re gone before you know it.

If you’re a potential intern, it will be one of the steepest learning curves that you’ll ever encounter. You’ll build your professional network, explore different company cultures, and learn about new career paths. It’s your chance to figure out what kind of company, role, and culture you want to be a part of when you search for that first full-time job. Are you planning on entering the workforce soon? We’re seeing an increasing number of students who receive job offers at the end of their internships.

So how do you make sure you have a great match as either a hiring manager or an intern? Here’s our advice.

Alignment With The Culture And Vision

The No. 1 thing that makes a successful summer is that, as an intern, you not only believe in the culture and vision, you’re excited by it. You can’t work on something that you’re not going to be passionate about; otherwise, it’s going to be a long summer for both the company and the interns. As an applicant, you need to seriously think about whether the company culture and vision aligns with how you are as a person. Don’t settle for the first offer, because the last thing you want is to endure two to three months with a company that you aren’t excited by. (As a side note, all that pressure they put on you to sign quickly is just a way to lock you up before others get a chance to talk to you.)

Another aspect for interns to consider is the team dynamic. Are you someone who wants to work on a small or big team? Do you like a loud or quiet environment? Are you looking for a manager who will mentor you or leave you to your own devices? The small details matter. After all, you should be asking yourself whether this is the kind of place you’d consider working for after graduation. Don’t know the answers? That’s okay, and that’s why you want to do several types of internships throughout the course of your academic career so that you can learn about different environments, management styles, and company structures. Think of your internships as a series of tests. In general we recommend a more structured environment for your first internship so you can learn with a well-tested framework, and then move to increasingly unstructured environments.

As a hiring manager, your focus should be on talent rather than just meeting an intern quota. Hiring is the first step of talent development – talk to them as if you’re a coach rather than a recruiter. They’ll sense that you’re aligned with their best interests, and as a result, you’ll be able to figure out whether they’re a good match. Similarly, put them through an interview process that’s competitive with your regular interview process. You want interns who are excited and energetic, not ones who are there just to put one more bullet point on their resumes. The ones you want love a challenge, and word gets out that you’re tough, but fair.

Summer internships are also a good time to give employees who want management experience the chance they need to build those skills. Pair your interns with people who you feel have management potential so that your interns not only have a mentor, but your employees gain valuable experience in being a manager. The best companies make coaching part of the culture, as well as a career development goal for their employees.

Finally, expect to spend a lot of time working on recruiting. It’s not only competitive for students to find an internship, it’s also incredibly competitive for companies to find the right talent. In one of our experiences at LinkedIn, we personally made offers to interns to show how invested we were in bringing on outstanding talent. A particular highlight was a conversation in which we asked a candidate whom they had just gotten off the phone with. His answer? “Zuck.” Yes, it’s that competitive.

Visibility And Responsibility Are Key

One of the biggest complaints that interns have is that they’re invisible. Similarly, most managers complain that interns lack context. It’s two sides of the same coin. Most managers interpret visibility as access to leaders in their domain-specific areas (e.g. engineering, marketing, etc.). What interns really want to learn about are all the functions that make the business run. When we started the program at LinkedIn, we hosted a regular weekly session where all the interns would gather to hear from one of the top leaders about how the organization operated. It’s an opportunity for the engineering intern and sales intern, who otherwise might rarely interact, to learn from one another and walk away with a newfound appreciation for the company.

Interns, ask what kind of visibility you’ll have. Will you get to meet with the senior executives and also how committed are they to the program? For example, it’s well-known that founders like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn spend considerable time with the interns. What about being able to sit in key meetings, such as product reviews, to observe? Is there an option to put your code in production or write up your research for publication? These are all conversations that you want to have before you walk in the door, because it’s about setting shared expectations. You won’t have time to figure it out four weeks in when half your internship is over.

Make An Impact

Time is of the essence. A concrete goal for interns should be to make a measurable impact during their short stays. After all, one outcome is to have something that is worthy of being on their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. Internships are a proxy for work experience, so you have to work on things that matter to you. Managers, you have to make sure that your interns are focused on something they can achieve during their time with the company so that both parties can get something concrete out of the experience.

The key to this is not only the previous points, but also frequent communication at minimum once a day. In fact, the best companies have interns sitting no more than four feet away from their managers or mentors. For example, seriously consider how long you expect an engineering intern to set up their environment. If it’s more than a week, that means they’ve wasted over 10 percent of their internship. As interns, you have to ask for help when you need it. And managers need to look for signs that their interns are stuck. We’ve seen too many great interns waste a summer on a trivial problem that’s just a minor detail in how the company operates.

Most importantly, managers need to make sure there’s a two-way feedback loop. Interns have a short window to learn everything they can about a company, and so they need as much timely feedback as possible. As a manager/mentor, there is nothing like the fresh, raw feedback of an intern to help identify flaws in the organization, processes, or even your style.

Finally, internships should be fun. Fun doesn’t mean a lack of hard work. Rather, it means celebrating hard work and the process of learning. It might seem that you have to take your interns out to big events like baseball games or retreats, but it’s of little value if you’re not getting to know each other. Sometimes the most fun and worthwhile experience is grabbing a pizza in the early-morning hours after shipping a new feature and watching people actually use it.

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