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.

The 90-Day Plan – To Go or Not to Go

90daysI give 100% credit to my dear friend Drew for inspiring this post. Drew and I were catching up last week about our respective lives, careers, and the startup world. We are similar people in that we have a million ideas and suffer from wanting to do everything at once! When we reach our saturation point of options, we each make a 90-day plan and decide to commit to next steps within that 90 days. It could be anything – a home improvement project, planning a trip, taking a new job or founding a startup – just time box it and go for it.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I rarely do anything with any degree of seriousness without a plan. When I decide to take on a new project, I outline a few key questions I will ask myself and/or the team I work with:

  • What goals do we think we can reach within 90 days?
  • How much of ourselves can we commit to reach this goal?
  • What will be our successful “go” criteria beyond meeting those goals and timeline?
  • What will be our successful “no-go” criteria? (because deciding not to do something can be a successful outcome!)
  • At the end of our first 90 days, what do we imagine the next 90 days or beyond to look like?

In an established company setting, this approach could apply to a prototyping phase of a new product or feature, setting up a new human resource program or even raising new capital via a series “x” or IPO. Having a plan that considers the above may help secure budget and/or support of key stakeholders to let you take a risk early on before making a bigger investment such as hiring people, marketing, etc. This approach can also apply to building a company from the ground up.

I recently took this approach on a potential startup with a prospective co-founder. We had an idea and laid out a plan to flesh out that idea before building anything or raising any money. We created a timeline and committed ourselves to dig in. We answered the above questions like so:

  • We want a clear MVP defined within 90 days
  • We will taper back our other work commitments to give ~50% of our respective work time to this project
  • Our successful “go” criteria beyond the above two points was loosely defined as:
    1. Being more in love with the idea and its potential than when we started
    2. Proving the market opportunity was massive(*)
    3. Feeling like we were the right team and individuals to build it
  • Our successful “no-go” criteria was one or the combination of the following:
    1. The market opportunity was not as massive as we had defined
    2. We were not the right individuals/team to build it
    3. One or both of us became less enamored with the idea as we pursued it
  • At the end of the first 90 days, we would either raise a small amount of capital to hire engineers to build the MVP OR we would kill the project

(*) “Massive” opportunity for our project meant we’d disrupt a billion dollar market, but each project should have its own definition of massive

While we didn’t write out our plan as explicitly as I did above, we had many deep conversations throughout the 90-day period that solidified this approach. In the end, we had a successful, mutually agreed upon, “no-go” decision. It was a great learning experience not only in terms of the domain we explored, but also in terms of what each of us wanted out of our next venture.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say “trying is succeeding”, but wouldn’t you rather know you tried, with a plan, and understood why you decided not to do something than doing nothing or working without a plan and wondering “what if” or “why did we fail”? When you’re weighing options, take the 90-day approach. Go for it, execute on a plan, and be true to your self and whomever you may partner with to go, or not to go.

Have other good examples of 90-day plans that led to go or no-go?  Please reply and share!

Just Be Excellent

“Hi, my name is Julia, and I used to be a Grey’s Anatomy fan.”

I stopped watching the show sometime after season 4 or 5, but there was a scene in an early episode that has stuck with me ever since (and if someone can find the clip, I’ll buy them a fine dinner!). One of the female characters – Yang or Grey, I think – was feeling the classic pressure of needing to do more to succeed than just be a surgeon. She was stepping out of her comfort zone because she thought that’s what she needed to do to excel in her career. In this case, she was vying for an administrative type of role that required lots of paperwork, scheduling and managing staff – all non-surgical skills. While she was learning new things and stretching herself, she was not loving or doing well at this new type of work. In the memorable clip, one of this woman’s mentors lays it on the line with her and tells her to stop trying to be something she’s not or do something she doesn’t love and to just “be excellent”.

I often reflect on this scene when I coach leaders of early stage growth companies who are striving to grow professionally. keep-calm-and-be-excellent-8Sometimes it’s a salesperson who has become a CEO or a programmer who is now a VP of Engineering. Often, when one starts a new company, they are still doing their day job (sales, programming, market analysis…) not just because there’s no one else but them to do it, but because it’s their passion and the reason they started their business to begin with. The catch 22 of a successful startup can be that the job you loved and got you this far is a job you no longer have time to do. You are meeting with investors, managing people, closing deals, looking for space or just paying the bills. In many cases, there’s great satisfaction in learning how to run a company and domain experts become great leaders across and outside of their organizations. They are being excellent! Sometimes, however, they are being anything but excellent. They are poor people managers or suck at managing investors and they find themselves in a role that makes them miserable. This can have a negative impact on everything from the happiness of their customers, employees and the overall bottom line to their personal self-worth and esteem.

I have taken pleasure in seeing some great founding CEOs and CTOs step down from their roles early into their company’s success to go back to their true passion. Whether it was programming, a business development or sales role, they chose to be excellent so that they can make an impact on their company and found someone with the right skills and experience to do the job they did not want or were good at doing. So, when I am advising leaders in early stage growth companies about scaling their organization, I walk them through an exercise that forecasts what their company might look like in 12, 18 and/or 24 months. Then, I ask them a series of questions that include some of the following:

  • Do you feel prepared to manage an organization at that size?
  • What tools do you think you are missing in your toolbox to be good at that role?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you willing or eager to give up?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you loathe to give up?
  • What criteria will you use to know when you need to delegate something to a new or existing team member?
  • What criteria will you use to decide if you are still happy in your role?

Even with the best planning, most leaders have no idea what their companies will look or feel like at scale, never mind how they will feel about their own roles. However, being self aware and having some ideas in mind of what one will do at that juncture can be vital to their success. Lining up advisors and/or coaches who can help add those tools to your toolbox or to find the right people to delegate to, or perhaps hand the reins to, can be critical to the overall success of the company.

A good leader/founder is not a failure for admitting they suck at their job or that they can’t do it all. The best leaders are those who acknowledge what needs to be done and by whom and they make it happen. They know they need to just be excellent.

Have you stepped down from a leadership role so you can be excellent or know someone who has?  Please share your story in the comments!

Author’s note: After posting, I realized I should have called out that this mindset is applicable for ANY role. If you’re a great programmer, be an excellent programmer. If you’re a great designer, be an excellent designer, etc…

The Value of An Art Degree (and Computer Science)

Recently, one of of my friends sought my advice about her son’s college plans. artscienceShe and her husband had aspirations for him to apply to computer science programs and he had just announced that he wanted to apply to art schools. GASP!

“What’s he going to do with an art degree? How will he make any money?”

As the resident nerd among my gaggle of friends, I wasn’t surprised to be asked about how to sway her son towards computer science. However, my friend didn’t realize how close this was to my own experience when it came time for me to apply to college many years ago.

I was born an artist. I would have finger painted my way from preschool through Kindergarten if I hadn’t been forced to learn my ABCs and 123s. I doodled on every notebook and book cover I made (you know, the ones you made with paper bags?) and while my friends were playing soccer or going to cheerleading practice, I was taking painting and pottery classes.

Despite my artistry being a defining characteristic throughout my young life, when it came time for college, my engineer Dad put a halt to my dreams of a career in art. He wanted me to be self-sufficient with a practical degree that gave me plenty of career options. Being a starving artist was out of the question. While I wasn’t happy about this, I wasn’t paying the bills for college, so I enrolled in the liberal arts program at UMASS Amherst.

Three years and four different declared majors later, once I had satisfied every general education requirement and took a few business classes, I applied and was accepted into my university’s studio art program.

I went on to graduate school to earn an MS in Management Information Systems, but my undergraduate degree in studio art impacted my career like no other major or on the job training could have done. I developed skills that were invaluable for my eventual career in technology. Here are just a few:

Learning by doing: Instead of rote memorization for exams, I was given complex assignments that were left totally up to my interpretation with extremely tight deadlines. Each assignment involved deep thought for a tangible outcome and there was no right answer; it was the quality of my execution and ability to convince the professor and my peers that I achieved a good result. This experience prepared me for projects where rapid prototyping and user experience were vital to success and led to my ability to delivery high quality software products on short timelines.

Presentation Skills: Standing up in front of your peers to “defend” your approach to an art assignment is not easy. It’s not a power point outlining the impact of the Vietnam War. It’s a very personal explanation of why your piece makes sense and why you feel you achieved the goal of the assignment. At 20 years old, presenting in front of a group to speak was terrifying for me, but after two years of art school, I learned how to be a confident speaker who could translate the complex ideas in my head into easy to understand concepts for almost any audience.

Creative Problem Solving: Each art assignment challenged me to create something unique. More importantly, it was a piece that not only I thought was beautiful and met the requirements, but something others would understand. I learned to take a novel idea, distill it into a “development” plan, and make something that others could appreciate. I attribute my ability to work with teams on highly complex and innovative technology products to this experience.

There is much research and many articles written about how art and science come together – this is what the STEAM (Science, Technology Engineering, ART and Math) movement is about. I am certain that, as an artist, my entry into the world of technology was no accident. I have worked with countless engineers throughout my career who are also artists and the common theme among them is the way they creatively solve problems and present their innovative ideas. I think the Dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where my oldest daughter just enrolled as a film major, said it amazingly well this past weekend at Parents’ Day:

“Artists have the broadest set of skills. They have strengths in creative thinking, communication and leadership like no other student. They are willing to take risks and challenge convention and the world needs more artists for the next moonshot.”

So, what did I tell my friend? I told her to let her son apply to art school! If he’s got an interest in science and/or math, those will come later. For now, let him develop valuable skills that will pay off down the road no matter what path he chooses

Are you an artist in a technical role or have kids following similar paths?  Please share your stories in the comments!

People Who Code – A Call to Action

I am a huge advocate of the women in computer science movement. coding-bannerI am also a huge fan of the Computer Science (CS) field in general and, despite my number of years in this industry, I continue to be amazed at the volume and speed by which new technology is coming at us. Yet, with all that’s going on out there, it is still incredibly hard to find talented developers and designers. So, while I want to see more young girls learning to code and women in professional technical roles, quite frankly I just want to see more people who code.

Three things happened recently that made me realize that I need to focus my efforts on encouraging more young people to get into computer science:

First, there was the scuttlebutt around the “Male Allies” panel at the Grace Hopper Conference a couple of weeks ago. Everyone was so wound up about the gaffes of the three men on the panel that we lost sight of their key messages which were to support gender balance and eliminate wage gaps in tech across all levels of a company. How are we going to make progress for women and minorities in tech if we attack the majority when they aim to support the movement? When will meritocracy prevail over gender? My friend Jocelyn Goldfein has a lot of good thoughts on this topic here. We need to bring men into this conversation without them worrying about being attacked for speaking up and we need to focus on how to build great careers in CS for everyone – not just women.

Second, I have been thinking a lot lately about the preponderance of women and girls’ organizations that are encouraging and supporting women to code and choose technical careers. It’s wonderful that there are SO many of these organizations out schools-codingthere, yet it is so hard for girls and women to know which ones are the best to meet their particular needs and/or interests. I am concerned by how many of them position themselves competitively against each other vs. combining forces to form a stronger, united, movement. A founder of one of these organizations told me recently that when she approached a nearby, similar, group to collaborate she was met with “hostile resistance”. Also, that some of the members of her organization did not want to be part of meta-organizations because it drew too much “adverse attention” to their roles – akin to the extreme circumstances of #gamergate where women are fearful for their lives because of their chosen profession. Certainly there are varying views on how best to encourage girls and women to code, but imagine how powerful these groups would be if they combined efforts instead of competing with each other or fearing retribution (or worse) for participating. Perhaps the mere size of these groups would deter those who attack them today or maybe, even, convince their attackers to support vs. challenge their mission.

Finally, I was recently enlightened by my friends at the MassTLC Education Foundation on the rather pathetic state of our k-12 CS programs in Massachusetts. I view CS as basic literacy in the 21st century, yet in most publicmassCS_stats and private schools it is treated like an elective, not a core math or science requirement. In 2012, only 1000 students in Massachusetts took AP CS and 559 passed; of those who passed, only 24 were underrepresented minorities and 89 were female. There are also no standards or licensure for teachers who teach CS in k-12. According to this NPR story, only an estimated 10% of k-12 schools in our country teach computer science. This interactive data chart shows the steady decline of CS majors in the US. With all the money out there to invest in new technology and innovation, we are not making the same level of investment in the people we need to make these innovations a reality and sustainable into the future.

From the past we have learned that big issues such as the civil rights and feminist movements took large groups of likeminded people to go from controversy to significant policy and cultural changes. We take for granted that women can vote in the US and in many, but not all, other countries around the world and we tend to forget that not too many years ago, schools and busses were segregated. Today, we are fighting for equal pay and career opportunities for women and there is controversy about how few women there are studying CS, but there is a bigger issue to solve. If Venture Capitalists and technology industry leaders want to support these movements, we need to do more than just attend conferences and speak on panels. We need to change policy – like eliminating noncompetes in MA to allow talent to move where their passions take them instead of feeling trapped in their jobs or eager to depart from the field of technology altogether.  We need to band together instead of standing on hundreds of different platforms to solve a greater issue. We need to fund programs for young people – not just girls – that foster interest in creativity and technology. We need to enlighten high school kids about the opportunities in technology and be available to mentor these kids when they go to college. We need people who code.

Do you agree that we need to do more to encourage young people to code? Join me the week of December 8-14 for CS Ed Week where the MassTLC Education Foundation will be championing Hour of Code in cities and schools across all of Massachusetts. This national program is designed to inspire students to learn more, dream more and be more through Computer Science.