Ask DN: Have you had success with Interns?

8 years ago from , Design at TrendyMinds and Official

We are looking to restructure our internship program. It seems as our interns have enjoyed being a part of our current program, but we definitely feel like its missing structure. I thought I'd post here to see if any of you have had success with your own program.

Are you proud of your intern system? What do you with them as far as onboarding, work loads, weekly check ins and mentoring. Share below!


  • Ethan BondEthan Bond, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

    I'll give you some input from an intern's perspective. I've done two internships (3 and 5 months) at Palantir, plus one (3 months) at Facebook. All in product design roles.

    If I could distill the ideal experience down to a single directive it would be: "You're a full time employee working on a project that will come to fruition by the end of your internship, and here are a few optional events to meet other interns."

    I think there's a tendency to give interns the projects that no full-timer wants to work on, which really just screws everyone. The company doesn't have any idea how the intern would work on an actual project, and the intern doesn't have any idea what it'd feel like to work on an actual project.

    Generally interns want a portfolio piece by the end of their internship. That's why I think it's important to try to put them on a project that will come to fruition (whatever that may mean to you/your intern) by the end of it. But if there is no such project, then IMO I'd rather be put on something I won't see the final result of than on a smaller project that's been neglected because no one else wanted to do it.

    The necessity of checkins and scheduled mentoring is a side-effect of larger problems (see footnote). If an intern is truly integrated into his or her team, s/he will fall under the same progress-checking and mentoring mechanisms that exist for everyone else. If your company doesn't prioritize mentoring externally from interns, I'd recommend rethinking that! As an intern at Palantir I was mentored by my engineering team on topics I wasn't familiar with, and I mentored them on topics that they weren't familiar with. Same with the design side (but I don't know if I ever taught them much :)) This wasn't a structured thing; it was encouraged organically through an environment of continuous learning.

    This points to the most important point of an internship, though: make your intern feel like a part of the team by actually making them a part of the team. At Palantir I was "a product designer on [team name]." I was actually on two teams: product design team, and my product team, but I was definitively on both teams. As such, I expected to participate in both teams' meetings/events/discussions. This is much better than being between two (or more) teams, where I sit in one meeting that halfway concerns me then skip another that halfway concerns me. This team-floating behavior will always follow from placing the intern on the neglected project, but can also follow from other things (like vague team delineations/purposes).

    In terms of onboarding... The most important thing to do early on in an internship is orientation. At some companies, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what this means.

    Orient: (v) to find one's position in relation to new and strange surroundings.

    There's this tendency to think that orientation means: "here's all this information about where to find what! Good luck!" Where does the definition of "orient" refer to finding anything else? It refers to finding where you are.

    This loops back to the "have a team" point. When I first get started, I want to know what team I'm on, where I'm sitting, which is "my building," etc. I want some wayfinders so that if I get lost in the organization I can find my way back here, not over there. I want to know which email lists are mine, which chat groups are mine, and how external inputs (like from other teams) will be finding me. I will naturally explore outwards and discover the various other teams around, but I need to find my place in the organization first.

    A good way to do this, and a good way to build the confidence to contribute in general, is to walk your intern through a "standard contribution." Show them how they might take on (or be assigned) a task, how they communicate their progress on it (and to whom), and then how they wrap it up and track the downstream health of their contribution. This will give them much more situational awareness – a much better orientation – than simply saying "this team does that, that team does this."

    On the topic of checkins: Checkins are awesome because they give a specific time to bring up concerns. I guarantee your interns are walking around with "wtf am I doing this right?" in their heads 24/7. Every once in a while, some question will gnaw its way to the surface, and you need to provide an environment for it to get out. Weekly 30 minute casual walks are great. If something is wrong then I'll tell you. If not then we can just chat about whatever. HOWEVER, checkins should not be "what's the progress on this?" If I'm a part of your team then you should know how the progress is as a natural consequence of being on the same team.

    Sorry for the essay, feel free to ask any other questions I might be able to answer from my perspective!

    P.S. I alluded to it above, but avoid mandated social events. I'm interning to do work, and I'll be pretty frustrated if you make me step away from it. Optional events are the bee's knees though.

    14 points
  • Jessica GrisctiJessica Griscti, 8 years ago

    Another intern's perspective here! My most successful internship was with a small design firm where they let me work as a junior member of an actual design team on actual projects. Yes, I completed a lot of the tasks that the seniors didn't want/have time to handle. Things like implementing something that my senior designed across a hundred iterations. He designed the initial one, picked typefaces and the color scheme, and I made the rest of them. Tasks like these, while occasionally frustrating, really cement skills that I hadn't yet perfected, typesetting--especially how to rag left aligned text blocks. I also taught myself how to set up small macros in Photoshop so that I could automate the most repetitive tasks--resizing images for the website, for example. And I never would have taken the time to learn that skill unless I'd been given hundreds of photos that needed to be resized, properly named, and archived. Similarly, my seniors are the people who taught me al of the intricacies of paragraph and character styling in InDesign. These kinds of efficiencies are really important to learn, and don't often come up in design school. And what made each of these repetitive and dull tasks worth it was being able to see the finished product in the end, and being allowed to showcase the work in my personal portfolio, listing myself as a junior designer with a credit to my team and studio, of course.

    At this small studio, I was part of the team, so I scheduled progress meetings with my senior as they were needed. When I was there over the summer, they were usually once every other day, sometimes daily as I completed tasks and needed to move onto new ones. When you have an intern there only a couple of days a week, I liked having two progress "meetings" once in the morning that informed me of my daily task, and then one in the afternoon to check progress as needed. These meetings were shorter than summer ones. I also really liked having a back-burner project I could come back to whenever I ran out of things to do. It helped me feel productive, and that way I didn't have to constantly bug my senior for more work to do.

    In a small studio, orientation can be less formal. Interns definitely need to understand project workflow, naming conventions for files, office hierarchy--who I answer to, and who I go to for various problems I might have (not always design related, sometimes I need to know if I'm filling out my timesheet correctly and its always nice to designate someone who I can go to for work if my assigned senior designer is busy/out sick, etc). It's also really nice to let us know what time people typically take lunch, if there's an office dress code--the little things.

    My most structured internship was a summer at Viacom. They have a formal orientation process that goes over everything from which building I'll be working in, cafeteria locations, expected responsibilities, sexual harassment policies, timesheets and payment, etc. This orientation is lead by the company-wide internship supervisors who were our go-to people when it came to internship-related questions like handing our timesheets to the right people and getting all of our paperwork signed. Basically, they operated as Intern HR. They also ran optional networking and social events to reach interns in other departments. like Ethan said, optional is key! Obviously, a lot of this is only really possible/necessary at a company as huge as Viacom.

    On the department level, it operated like a small studio, except more formalized. At Viacom, there are several interns per department and each intern is assigned a direct supervisor. We met with our direct supervisor daily to receive tasks, and as needed to update them on our progress. I assisted on any projects that needed my help and in addition to that, all of the interns were required to work together on a project that we'd see to fruition by the end of the summer. We brainstormed with our supervisors, selected a project, assigned each other tasks, and met formally twice a week with our department supervisors to update them on the progress of the project. This was a nice touch, because even if we wouldn't be able to see the result of the department projects we were working on, we'd have a completed project by the end of the summer that we could showcase in our portfolios. It was also the only internship where I've really made good friends with the other interns, because we ended up working so closely with one another, often getting lunch together so we could talk about the work and eventually more personal topics.

    Mentorship has been most valuable to me when I feel like I'm a member of the team. I appreciate when I'm included in the brainstorming processes--even if my ideas don't get picked, I'm learning a lot just listening to everyone pitch. I liked listening in on conference calls with clients. It's taught me a lot about how to speak with clients and problem solve, skills I've taken to my freelance work. When I make a mistake, personally, I'd rather you just told me straight so I can fix it. As an intern/junior, I'm not emotionally attached to the work I'm making and I just want to do it correctly. And if you're sitting next to me while I'm working totally feel free to share all of your keyboard shortcuts and cool tricks. I worked an internship once that would have been totally useless if my mentor didn't show me how to use the recolor artwork tool in Illustrator. On the other hand, when you like one of my ideas or designs, it goes a really long way if you point that out to our supervisor, or just tell me that you like it.

    Long story short, I wouldn't worry too much about a formalized internship. Just integrate your interns into the team as much as possible. Just the simple fact that you're looking for advice on how to fix the program shows you care more than a lot of internship supervisors. And if you have any other questions, feel free.

    1 point
    • Jordan Brewer, 8 years ago

      I care very much about people getting a solid experience and not wasting their time. Thank you for your feedback!

      0 points
  • Will C, 8 years ago

    Hey Jordan!

    We have had success with our intern. He's actually a full-time junior developer with our company now.

    1 point
    • Jordan Brewer, 8 years ago

      Thats great news! What does your intern program look like?

      3 points
      • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, 8 years ago (edited 8 years ago )

        Yes, I really want to know the answer to this question.

        Edit: mmm.. now that I think about it, this is basically the purpose of the comment upvote button. Feel like I wasted a few seconds of my life. I'm just going to leave this here for posterity/laziness.

        2 points
    • Brian Howe, 8 years ago

      Good for you. You must have the best one.

      2 points