How to be the perfect intern

How to be the perfect intern

So you’ve landed your dream internship and are looking for ways to make the most out of it?

First off, congratulations!

Second, you’ve come to the right place. In this piece, I share 5 tips to make you the perfect intern. I aim to add value by talking about what’s truthful AND novel, so I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you simple/common tips (e.g., “be curious”, “manage your time”, “stay professional” etc.). I won’t tell you how to write an email. You’re smart. You can probably read that elsewhere.

No no. Below are the mistakes I made myself, coupled with tons of insights and feedback from managers of various levels. It’s as real as I can get. So buckle up and read on!

1/ Know your situation

If you are to forget everything I’ve written here except one thing, this is what I want you to remember.

You need to know your situation.

Now, what does that mean? To me, this means seeing the situation from other people’s perspectives, and fusing these perspectives together for a complete picture.

For example, let’s say you got hired as an intern. You feel great and happy and all, and a smart intern would use this opportunity to work hard, gain relevant skills, and build a network in the industry they care about (i.e., they have a clear view of their own goals and perspectives).

However, a smarter intern would ask: what is in it for my employer? Why do they hire me? What would make them want to hire me as a permanent staff, or write me a glowing recommendation? What are their interests and constraints?

Despite it being a good start, knowing what you want is not enough. You need to also know what others want, so you can have a situation where everyone walks out of the deal happy. The reason this is absolutely, critically, seriously vital to your professional development is because the most effective way to get what you want is to give others what they want. It’s true for multibillion-dollar deals, it’s true for an unpaid apprenticeship, it’s true of any transaction or relationship where there is more than one party involved.

The fact is that an intern is, generally, not productive. It’s not only that you cost money to hire for the work that you do: a more productive staff is required to give you work, instruct you, and give feedback. That person’s time is a lot more expensive than whatever meager salary the firm will pay you. Read: Why Netflix doesn't hire interns. (I’m not talking about unscrupulous firms where they hire interns as essentially modern-day slaves to do low-level work for free: Most (competitive) companies prefer to just hire you as a staff, pay you full salary, and expect a commensurate level of work output and feedback requirement from you.

An internship is, on a short-term basis, a net loss for the hiring company. This is why you don’t tend to see (good) internships in startups or less-resourced companies. It’s an investment: The idea is that companies might spot a good potential employee when they are an intern - an internship is essentially a much more extensive interview, much like probation period - and they will come back to work for the company, without needing as much training, once they graduated (and found the firm’s culture to their liking).

Yours truly on the far left. Photo taken before any internship, which explained the delightful smile.

That’s from the company’s perspective, which you might find to be pretty transactional (welcome to the real world!). But now, stop for a moment and think what this means for you, the intern.

Let’s talk about other employees. Some working staff genuinely enjoy mentoring less-senior team members (I think there’s something innate about human’s revolutionary instinct to pass down knowledge). It’s always satisfying to work with smart people who care about what they are working on, regardless of their level of experience. Plus, coaching interns hones the mentor’s leadership and communication’s ability, which always looks good comes time to evaluate for a promotion.

Again, stop for a moment and think what this means for you, the intern.

Do this trying to think from other people’s perspective, not just when you first got hired as an intern but continuously as you progress through your internship and later into your career, and your working life will thank you.

2/ Ask more questions

This is one of those mistakes I made myself. In my case, it wasn’t that I want to look good or that I am afraid of bothering my seniors, but I’ve heard people citing these reasons as to why they don’t ask questions. (I suppose there’s also the type who thinks they know everything and thus never need to ask questions, but I tried hard to not have to work with those types of people. Stay curious, my friends!)

As for me, I’m just really bent on figuring things out on my own. Which is generally a good thing.

However, when something takes more than a day or two to figure out, it’s probably more productive to ask a senior for some instructions. From a senior’s perspective, they want you to work hard, but they also want you to contribute meaningfully to a project. It’s not productive to waste too many hours on one step (and then probably get stuck anyway) because you lacked some readily available information had you just asked. You don’t have to do this all alone; seniors are there to lend you some help.

In fact, it’s a good idea, at least for the first few weeks of your internship, to ask questions before you get stuck. When you’re assigned a task, try to have a clear idea of what you are asked to do, and confirm with your senior that you correctly understood the business background (start point), the required deliverables (end point), and how you will get there.

From your perspective, it’s mostly a good thing that you are trying to figure things out on your own, because we generally learn better this way and nobody likes a person who requires too much hand holding, but when it takes too much time and the learning-per-hour goes down, it’s a better use of your time to get help to move on to the next problem. But when you want to get help, you must...

3/ Ask better questions

Let’s be clear: seniors don’t hate questions, they hate bad questions. There are two main types of bad questions: questions that show you haven’t done your homework, and questions that are impossible for others to answer.

Let’s talk about the easy type to fix first: questions that show you haven't done your homework. The solution is to do your homework. This is a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution, but the root of the problem lies deeper: if you expect people to hand you answers, you won’t get far in jobs where you get paid to think.

The second type involves a bit more work. Remember what I said in my first tips: understand your situation. You got a question you need help on, but what about the people who you will be asking it? What are their constraints and interests?

Now let’s play “Spot the bad questions”.

Question #1: “What is the tool to distinguish ‘traffic_type’ 1 from 2 in table 2316453_req_job?”

Question #2: “I’m trying to evaluate the impact of the previous marketing scheme on our business, and one of the metrics I want to look at is the source of visitor’s traffic. I’ve looked at some of our internal documents, and it usually categorizes the visitor’s traffic to ‘organic’ or ‘paid’, which I’ve understood to correspond to ‘traffic_type 1’ and ‘traffic_type 2’ from the table 2316453_req_job in our database. However, I can’t distinguish these types of traffic, and I’ve tried both our internal and vendor-supplied tools. Can you give me a pointer?”

As a general rule, seniors are busy people. The higher up the chain they are, the busier they become and the less capable they are of answering your questions in detail. Seniors are not all-knowing. What is obvious to you having spent a good amount of time mulling over can be lost context to others.

To save time and energy, they want to immediately understand what you are trying to solve, so give them the context of your problem. They expect you to have done your homework, so tell them what you’ve tried. After you get your answer, rephrase it to make sure you understand, and that they know you’ve not wasted their time by not listening.

3.5/ Make sure your work is understandable.

This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip.

As a junior-most member of your team, there will undoubtedly be times where you or your seniors will need to look back at your work, either to trace out errors or just to double check your result. And yet, Eagleson's Law states that "Any code of your own that you haven't looked at for six or more months might as well have been written by someone else."

Therefore, write in such a way that is meant to be read. Make sure you include context, your underlying reasoning, and the supporting data you used to come to the reasoning. If you write code, make sure it is readable and maintainable. The clearer your writing is, the easier you can get feedback and improve on your work.

4/ Do not surprise your manager

Stemming from failing to adhere to the first tip, this is The Cardinal Sin.

Let me clue you in on a secret.

Managers hate surprises.

If you poll managers from around the world on what they hate the most, “surprises” would probably beat “taxes”, “death”, or “my spouse”.

Again, think about this from their perspective. There’s about a gazillion competing interests and deadlines a manager must juggle at any given point in time, and the higher up they are the more they must juggle. All of this can work, but it must be well-coordinated like a well-oiled machine, or else it will all come crumbling down like a badly-built house of cards.

Therefore, the most loved thing you can do for your manager is to be reliable. If you say you’re going to do something by Friday, then have it done by Friday. If you got stuck and need more time to explore your solutions, let your managers know.

Don't surprise your manager. In fact, don't surprise anyone.

Now there will be lots of times when a more important task comes up and you can’t meet your promised deadline. In this case, let people who are involved in your project know that you can't meet your promised deadline because a more important task comes up.

In corporate jargon, this is called project management or stakeholder’s expectation management, and it’s very important, but I myself have previously been very reluctant to do this, because I irrationally felt that it reflects badly on me, when in reality being silent and hoping people will forget my deadlines is what actually reflects badly on me.

So don’t make my mistake. Let the people involved know your constraints and prioritization as soon as a change of plan is warranted. Do this, and people will love you.

5/ Document your journey

Adam Savage once said that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down. Another guy said that what gets measured gets improved. This is why you’ll see organizations with a well-established recruitment pipeline to ask both the managers and the interns’ feedback and opinions.

I’m not telling you to keep a daily diary. Documenting every little detail about your days seems excessive and unsustainable.

However, I think it’s immensely helpful that you WISD (Write Important Shit Down). Writing things down is crucial, at least to me, because it is part of my system of continuous improvement. You don’t have to write things down - it just helps - but if you don’t have a system of continuous improvement, you’re bound to not learn from your mistake.

I specifically write down the date where I got some unexpected feedback, the feedback, my thoughts on it, as well as the context. I do this right after the feedback is received, with the understanding that my emotions might cloud my writing (e.g., I might write “I felt very angry and unfair that my manager held me accountable for things I didn’t do”). Which is the point: I want to know what I felt at that moment so I can reflect on it later, when I’m calmer and more collected.

I also do this periodically with thoughts and philosophy that I developed over time. It also helps tremendously when I want to share my thoughts on a certain matter with other people, like you, who are reading this piece of writing.

That’s it for today. To be honest, one could write a book about internship experience. However, from these 5 tips, especially with the first and last tip, I hope I’ve empowered you with the tools to derive your own set of rules and understanding, rather than giving you the answers and expecting you to stop there. I do have one thing to ask from you in return: if you think what I wrote can be useful for someone, please share it with that person, or share it on your social media. Thank you!

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