A Startup’s Guide To Having A Great Summer Internship Program

So, you’ve decided to hire some interns this summer. Well done! Often, early stage companies shy away from hiring summer interns because they dread the idea of “babysitting” on top of everything else that needs to get done. If you’re bringing one or several interns on, you know it is well worth the effort because interns:

  • are potential future full-time hires;
  • can work on stuff no one has time to do, but would be great to have (often referred to as “gravy projects”); and
  • they are walking advertisements of your company and your product(s).

Whether your company is fully established or just getting started, having a well thought out program for your interns will ensure that you get the most out of them and that they get the most from their experience at your company. A great experience means they’ll be talking up your company and your product(s) when they head back to school. Thus, they will be walking advertisements for future hires and future customers.

A Guide to a Great Internship Program

Let’s assume you’ve already made great hiring decisions for the summer and students are coming to work for you for approximately 10 weeks. I’m not going to get into salaries, temporary housing, or other pre-hire logistics in this post, but I will walk you through an outline for a solid internship program. It’s geared towards engineering types of interns, but most applies to any intern role.

The Timeline

  • If you have more than one intern coming on board this summer, try to have them start around or on the same date. This eases the burden of on-boarding processes by orienting everyone as a group and gives them a sense of belonging to a cohort from the get-go.
  • After orienting them to the office and getting them all the necessary logins, etc., do a kick-off lunch with founders and mentors to welcome them to your company.
  • Outline a weekly schedule for the intern program. Many interns have not worked in a business setting before and will need structure with a clear beginning, middle and end to their program. As much as they’ll appreciate a clear understanding of their summer schedule, this should also help your team balance their time around intern commitments. A sample schedule is below (click on the image for a larger view).

Sample Internship  Program ScheduleMentors

  • Every intern should be assigned a mentor. This is not typically their hiring manager, but rather a peer or someone slightly senior to them who can guide them through project specifics (e.g., coding standards or pricing models) and help them assimilate to the company culture or maybe even to a new town if they’ve temporarily relocated for this job.
  • Mentors should be briefed on HOW to be mentors. Make sure they understand the difference between being a guide and being a boss. No one wants two people telling them what to do all the time. Also make sure you pick someone who wants to be a mentor – this is a great growth opportunity for your team, but if they’re not up for it, it could make for a suboptimal experience for your intern.
  • Mentors should be generally available over the summer for ad hoc questions as well as weekly 1:1s. If someone is taking more than 2 weeks off this summer, they should not be a mentor.
  • While it’s nice to do, a mentor does not have to be a domain expert for the intern’s summer project. As long as they know how to help the intern get access to the experts and can guide in other ways, they are qualified!
  • Mentors should be expected to give feedback to their intern’s manager on performance and possible offers to return to your company for another summer or full time role. Mentors should not make such offers themselves. This is the intern’s manager’s role!

The Project

  • It’s good practice for companies to keep a running list of possible intern projects throughout the year. Again, gravy projects are ideal – meaningful and useful projects, but if they are not completed, it does not put your company at risk.
  • Try to offer projects to your interns that will:
    1. Allow them to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
    2. Result in something tangible that others will use such as code that ships, content on a public website or even a tool that helps an internal team be more productive. Ideally, it has a result that can be listed as an accomplishment on their resume and added (or strengthened) a skill.
    3. Encourages them to get to know your company/products (remember, walking advertisements). For example, one that lets them dig into customer data or one that requires them to work with people from other parts of the company such as sales or support.
  • There are two different approaches I like to assigning intern projects. Either have a list of projects to offer when they start and let them ask questions and explore them a bit in the first week, then they pick one. Or, in advance of their start date, ask them questions about what skills they’d like to develop this summer and before they start, you and their mentor can pick the one best suited for their skills and goals.
  • Try to offer one or two meaty projects at most for the whole summer vs. several small projects that could limit their learning experience.
  • Pre-reads: Whether you have a project in mind before they start or a list of possible projects for when they start, it’s nice to send a suggested reading list and some company info to your hired interns a month or so before they start. Don’t overdo it since they are probably cramming to finish the semester. Just send things that will give them a leg up. Even with an NDA they still may be a bit clueless about what not to share, so don’t send them secret sauce information!

Learning and Having FUN

  • Interns chose to be interns instead of scooping ice cream this summer because they want to learn. Invest in them and expect that they want to understand as much as they can about how everything works at your company.Lunch-n-learn
  • Beyond what interns learn doing their project, consider offering weekly lunch-n-learn sessions where food is brought in (or they get their own if your company is being careful about burn!) and have someone do a talk. Change it up and do everything from a technical talk to a business talk to maybe inviting a guest speaker like one of your company advisors or a customer or partner. Also, talks should be relevant and understandable whether you’re a coder or a marketing intern.
  • Look for opportunities for interns to have a unique experience. For example, tagging along on a customer visit or helping out in the company booth at a sales conference. Not only is it nice to have an extra set of hands, but interns will be SO appreciative for these extra opportunity to get different perspectives of your business.
  • Include interns in routine company meetings and off-sites. They are employees of your company and these are also learning experiences.
  • Make time for fun. Take them bowling or a baseball game. If your interns are new to the area, show them the city via a Duck tour. Mentors should come along as well as part of the bonding process. The summer at your company should be memorable for interns beyond the work they did.
  • If your company is based in MA, enroll in TechGen, a program from the NEVCA, which has lots of professional development and social resources for your interns and is also a great place to source talent.

Wrapping Up

  • Throughout the summer, you should schedule time to give your intern feedback on their performance and for them to let you know how they think they’re doing. In addition to weekly 1:1s with their mentor, there should be a mid-summer review and end of summer exit interview. You don’t want to find out at the end of the summer that your intern had a horrible experience! They’re at a startup, so things will undoubtably change unexpectedly. Course correct throughout the summer as needed and help them understand that this is the nature of early stage companies.
  • In preparation for the mid-summer review, ask mentors to feedback to managers how interns are doing. Factor this into a potential decision to re-hire interns for the following summer or offer a full time job for when they graduate. Interns should be told that this is a possibility OR NOT. Do not set false expectations. If your company cannot commit, then make it clear that good interns will be the first people you’ll call when you are hiring.
  • The last week of the internship should be for closing things out. Checking final code in, writing documentation and/or tests, doing a code-walk for whomever will take over when they go, and maybe doing a demo day or poster session so interns can see each other’s work. Also, plan for one last fun outing so people can say goodbyes and feel all warm and fuzzy about their experience. Schedule this last event when most/all of your interns are still around. Even if a student is returning to a nearby campus, it’s not reasonable to expect them to come back to work even if it is for something fun.
  • If you are offering a sign-on bonus for a full time position when they graduate, give 50% of it in their last paycheck with no strings and hold the other 50% for them if they are to return. The second half will be in their first, full-time, paycheck. Start to finalize your plan to offer or not around two weeks before the intern leaves.
  • If your intern(s) are returning to local schools, consider offering them part-time work during school (with potential for full time during breaks). It’s a great way to maintain the relationship and further lock them into a future full time position.

Your company does not have to be big and profitable to be thoughtful about the internship experience. In fact, starting when you’re small and nimble will ensure that a strong internship program is part of the fabric of your company as you grow. Just envision smiling interns back at school raving to their friends about their best summer ever and the returning faces and quality resumes you’ll see next hiring season!

Have you worked (or currently work) for a company with a great internship program?  Share tips and tricks that made it great by replying with a comment.

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