I was asked recently if engineering interns were actually useful. My unwavering stance is: Yes! I’ve had the pleasure of working with 11 great interns in a previous role -- 2 continued on to be full-time engineers with the company, while others went on to other companies like Google, Facebook, Disney, and Shell Oil. I, myself, had great experiences interning while attending Georgia Tech. Here are some takeaways which I think contributed to having a good experience both mentoring and receiving mentorship.
In-office work, full-time hours
As with any new employees, building a rapport and cadence in the initial stages is crucial to a good working relationship. Having 40 hours each week of in-office time with new interns helps develop that relationship. It’s very valuable to do code reviews and pair program in person. Physically sitting at a desk with another engineer allows you to go through your thought process, rapidly iterate, and exchange best practices. Asynchronously looking at a snapshot of code does not allow for much conversational feedback.
Breaking bread together over lunch is another invaluable activity that every team should strive to do. When you get to know each other on a personal level, you become better team-players and coworkers. This is a great way to figure out if an intern is a good culture fit and has long-term potential to be on your team.
Treat interns like real employees
While sometimes it would be nice, engineering interns (unless specified otherwise) are not your personal assistants. Getting coffee, dry-cleaning, and breakfast are not things they should be doing. Treat them like real employees! Make sure they are involved in the team meetings, and that they are held accountable to the same standards as everyone else.
Treat them like real employees!
When given real tasks to do (not matter how easy or hard), it feels more like you’re part of the team and you feel confident that what you’re doing has an impact. R&D projects (that they own) are great for interns -- they get the chance to exercise technical prowess, and in addition, people skills when they share what they’ve uncovered about a specific technology with the rest of the team. Ownership of a project has the potential to amplify effort and quality of result.
Lastly, make sure you pay them market rate that is competitive in your region. If they are doing real work and having an impact in your business’s success, compensate them for their hard work!
Follow up for on-going work after their internship is over
It takes a lot of time to train people and get them up to speed on your company and industry. Having interns that continue to work part-time hours while they are back in school can be really helpful to continue their momentum. Now that you’ve established a strong cadence, having them work remotely from their college campus is easier, and more productive. For an engineering intern, blocks of time between classes that are at least 2 hours long allow for some amount of productivity. I found that scheduling classes every other day allowed for a full day of work on the alternate days -- something like going to classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while working Tuesday and Thursday.
Engineering internships should be beneficial to both sides. The company gets real work done at with very low risk, and the intern gets real experience that will be applicable to their future career. It’s also a great investment to train a junior engineer as an intern, and be able to keep them on full-time after graduation.