The Internship Manifesto

by irms

 

About </>Edit LLC and This Document

Edit LLC is a software company in Fresno, CA. It was begun in 2012 by two starry-eyed kids and a pistachio grower. None of us had any real idea what it was like to run a software company, but two of us knew how to build software and one of us sometimes knew how to use it. How could we fail?

After two years of building, we finally launched our first product in 2014 (Buildicus, a website builder for small businesses) while chipping away at our dream to help small businesses with their big data problems.  Over the years, the team grew in fits and starts. Along the way we lost an employee or two to bad management, bad software and/or bad decisions, and gained a couple of great ones. This document contains everything we’ve learned about running a successful internship program. It’s maybe the best thing we’ve done so far, and that includes making </> Edit LLC sweaters for our office pets.

 

Who Writes a Manifesto on Internships?

Irma does. She’s nuts.

 

Who Should Read a Manifesto on Internships?

Bosses. And people who have bosses.

 

What’s Edit LLC like?

We’re a completely homegrown company, and we try very hard to improve the world around us while doing what we love to do: solve problems with software.

The type of people that like to work at Edit are the type of people that like to argue about indentation styles, that send instant messages to the guy at the desk over, that are roughly the same shade of pale all year long, that hit Starbucks way too often, that modify hardware just to “see if we can,” that are for an open internet and that think that George Lucas should seriously take a backseat-advisory role for the next three movies and do no more. We tend to be self-taught and distrustful of Apple (and Google, and Facebook and Microsoft). We’re constantly spending too much time trying new tools — for efficiency reasons. We read HackerNews and judge everyone on it. We’re probably brilliant, but it’s hard to tell.

We’re nerds. Entrepreneurs. Problem solvers.

That’s our team.

 

About Internships In General

 

In order for an internship program to work there must be some understanding as to what can be accomplished. Let us understand what an internship is and, sometimes, isn’t. Allow me to present the

 

Five Tenets of a Working Internship Program

 

  1. Let’s start with the obvious: An internship should be a mutually beneficial undertaking. The intern should learn new things, and the business should benefit from the process of their learning. Any other equation produces a lopsided relationship. Nobody wants the fuzzy end of a lollipop.
  2. An internship is not meant to be unpaid or slave labor. Do you run a sweatshop? If you answered “yes,” you must stop reading now. There is no section in this manifesto about how to be a decent human being.
  3. By definition, interns are not as skilled as regular, full-time employees. Don’t lament that fact later when, in fact, it’s exactly what you signed up for.
  4. Interns must be given REAL work to do. The entire internship system will fall apart if said intern cannot take ownership, feel pride and learn usefulness from the work given. Resist the temptation to give an intern busy work unless busy work fulfills #1 and does not violate #2.
  5. Not all interns are good interns. Any person that can’t jive with the team should not be there. Feel free to cut the bad ones loose.

 

 

Why Internships Are A Damn Good Idea

Aside from the feel-good karma-points you’re scoring (we’ll talk about those next), internship programs have the added bonus of making your business better. I’m not joking (I’m not that funny anyway), here’s how:

Business Benefits

You have to — and I mean HAVE TO — break work down into pieces that can be managed by a person that isn’t you. You don’t know just how much of a bottleneck you’ve become for being the ONLY PERSON IN YOUR ORGANIZATION who knows how to make the sausage, until you have to get a person with fewer skills than you have to do a task as well as you can with just four days on the job as compared to your 4 years of doing that shit by yourself. So, you see? Internships are a literal exercise in breaking down work. And that makes you better at everything. Especially those higher level tasks you can’t seem to make time for these days.

But that’s not all. A real, honest-to-Buddha internship program is an excellent recruiting tool. When done right, eager, ambitious, green talent will come knocking on your door asking you how they can help. Hint: answer the frickin door. This is the least expensive headhunting tool you can buy.

 

Touchy-feely Benefits

Let’s talk about shit that’s real and real upsetting: the bridge from school to work does not exist. Of all the injustices in the world, one of the greatest let downs in these United States has to be that we still tell young people that they need to get a degree to really make something of themselves in the world (this is an entirely different soapbox to stand on, so I’ll be quick about it). In many industries, this is factually incorrect.

“Part of this belief came from seeing charts… presenting a correlation between higher degrees and higher income; showing on average that a person with a college degree earns far more money than the average person without a high school diploma…This perceived higher earnings for having a 4-year degree has fueled a “college for all” philosophy; causing educators and parents to encourage going to the university – any university – to major in anything – in pursuit of future job security, social mobility, and financial prosperity… In 2018, Harvard University predicts only 33% of all jobs will require a 4-year degree or more, while the overwhelming majority will be middle-skilled jobs requiring technical skills and training at the credential or Associates Degree level.” – Kevin Fleming

In our industry (technology), degrees are becoming increasingly incidental. A portfolio, a stellar work ethic and an aptitude for learning new things quickly are far more important qualities for entry level jobs.

So.

Let’s let the universities continue to produce scientists, and we’ll band together to create a culture of internships that produce technologists.

A culture of quality internship programs begets a culture of quality professionals. We can solve so many things at once!

Also, bragging rights.

I once heard a story of a manager at a well-known chain of banks who had the highest number of her employees leave to go work at other banks as compared to other managers at her level, nationwide. At first, her bosses were furious. “Why can’t you keep your talent?” they demanded, “Because my training program is so good, other banks want to steal them.” she said. “If you let me, I’ll make more.” The bosses were satisfied.

 

About Building An Internship Program

Building an internship program is a serious exercise in learning to break down work into smaller pieces (as I said before). People that know how to break work into smaller pieces, also know how to delegate effectively.

If you could create bundles of work with nice tidy bows around them, how much easier would it be to simply hand out those bundles to the right employee each day? Yeah. A lot easier is the correct answer.

But how?

 

Defining Work for Interns

Look at your regular, full-time employees. From here on, we’ll call your regular full-timers, “The Royalty”. Undoubtedly, there are things The Royalty are doing which are not royalty-level tasks. These tasks are a good place to start if you want to build an internship program. The Royalty should be asking themselves everyday: “What do I need to do today to never have to perform this task again?”

In concrete terms, you must do two things:

  1. Dollarize timeThink about the dollar your employee is earning. If your employee is making $25 an hour, is he or she performing tasks that are worth $25 an hour? Or are there some $8 and $9 tasks that can be removed?

    (A don’t-kid-yourself note: NOT EVERY HOUR is going to be a whizbang hour. But start somewhere. Remove one thing. Two things. Move to the next Royal employee. Are they doing related work that shouldn’t be on their $25 plate? Look again. That’s a bundle.)

  2. Create repeatable processesNow spend a little time on a page of instructions to make that bundle repeatable. Maybe a quick screencast to visually demonstrate the complicated part is needed. It is? Ok. Spend the extra hour and make one. You’ll be glad you did.

    Now find the necessary outcome of that work. Should it be a report? Is it a deliverable of some kind that you can measure? It isn’t enough to just create the instructions, you must also know how to judge the work. Your lead (when you choose one) will be in charge of the measuring, so make sure they know what you’re looking for.

 

Measuring Work For Interns

I can’t stress enough the importance of giving interns real work to do. Interns must learn to be RESPONSIBLE for the work they produce. This only happens if it’s real work. Guide them, by all means, but ownership must be held by the intern. You are paying these interns a wage (yes, you are) so their work product should be commensurate with their pay. Remember that the teaching, leadership and mentorship investment comes across in terms of time. Your investment in time for the intern should result in saved time in the future by the intern.

There is only one true measure for the success of an internship and everything else comes after that: you must have taught, and the the intern must have learned, to be useful…or you have done a bad job.

To sum up:

  1. The work produced by interns should save The Royalty time. If time is not saved, the intern is not officially useful.
  2. The work produced should have a level of quality that your company is proud of. If interns cannot produce that level, you’ve given them the wrong work or done a bad job teaching and leading, and you have, again, done a bad job.

 

The Other Things You Should Know

Some quick notes about other things I learned that made me feel smart:

  • An internship program will help refine your business. Learn from your interns. What rocks should be kicked out of the way such that your interns can perform at an even higher level? When you can answer that question and then ask and answer it again, you can take the first vacation you’ve had in years.
  • Interns are beginners. Like any other beginner, one of the best ways to learn is to be around people who know more. Let them be around your highly-trained, very skilled Royalty. Let them eavesdrop. They don’t need to be looking over the shoulder of your top dog all day long, being in the same room overhearing the chatter is often enough. Don’t keep the interns perpetually separated from the royalty, you’d be screwing them both.
  • Choose a leader. You, personally, do not need to be around the interns at all times.
  • Make the interns do fun things with the rest of the team. BBQs, Movies, Taco Tuesdays…people work harder for people they like. Give them a chance to like you.

 

About Edit’s Internship Program, Specifically

The previous seven or eight pages are a lot of talk and not a lot of action. So to prove that I’m not just writing for my health here, I thought I’d give you a peek behind the curtain to our internship program.

One of the first things we tell our interns is that our program is meant to be just one lily pad in a series of lily pads. We want our interns to learn things, be part of a team, and be useful to our business, but the view of the intern should always be on the next thing. The length of internship varies but our average hovers around 6-9 months. Interns are instructed to be advocates for themselves. They should be applying for jobs and making connections. We will write letters of recommendation, we will do employment verifications, we will make important introductions, but the intern is ultimately responsible for leaving the nest and we’re not afraid to give them a healthy shove if things go on too long. Once that’s firmly ingrained, we can move on to actually interning (<– see how I used a verb instead of a noun? I’m so clever!)

Sources of Interns

Edit LLC is located in a technology hub in which runs a training program for aspiring technologist is also run. There’s really never a shortage of people looking for ways to get a foot in the door. As convenient as that sounds, not everyone needs to be so situated. We’ve also had a great deal of luck partnering with college programs and high schools. Every single person on our team has gone out to participate in Career Day at local high schools, has spoken at a meetup, or has participated with in teaching a lesson to a group of learners. Being visible in the community promotes your business, sure, but it’s also an attractor for talent. Bottom line? All we had to do was show up to other people’s events. Could hardly be easier.

 

Interview Process

Our process is simple:

  1. Chat together via phone or in-person
  2. Give a basic challenge to be completed on a timeline.

These two things help us determine if the person is likeable, will jive with the team, can communicate, and can learn new things. We expect to need to teach a great deal and the way we do that is with small tasks that get increasingly more complex (we call it “moving the goal posts”). Until the intern is ultimately able to produce client-facing work by themselves, we expect them to learn and we are expected to teach. Therefore, we start with the simplest of these tasks. Nothing beats real work as a test, so we just dive right in.

The whole interviewing process takes between three and seven days for the prospect to complete the challenge (they’re given a week), but just two hours of Royalty time for each intern. One hour for chatting, one hour for reviewing work. Multiply by n interns.

The interns that are most likely to succeed with us will spend a lot of time “figuring things out” but they’ll put a lot of time in upfront and turn in work way before the deadline. I like to see this even if it requires a little suggestion and reworking to get the level of work you want. It’s ok to have to provide this feedback. Afterall, that’s how it’ll work if they come onboard, might as well get started working together right away.

 

Onboarding

We pay our interns (and, yes, you must too), but we DO ask them to volunteer two weeks of their time before their paid work begins. This helps us see their true colors. Things like work ethic, work habits and speed of work can’t really be determined until you see them, well, work. You’ve never seen an intern leave faster than when one said, “I don’t see why I need to redo this. I’m not even getting paid.” And they never will (not by us).

So, yeah, I ask for two weeks. The resulting skin in the game is worth the hardship for both of us. Not only do they get my (almost) undying loyalty, but I get to see them in action for two full weeks. We try each other on knowing that we may not like one another. Like renting a movie from Redbox. Why not? It’s only a dollar.

During this time, they’re engaged in the full Internship Program like everyone else.

 

The Program

So, by now we’ve asked them to do some things in good faith that we’ll treat them right when they land a position with us and we do. Laptops and software are provided as needed. They’re given as much attention from the person assigned to them from our team as The Royalty gets from me. They’re not just left to their own devices to get things right or to figure out what to do first.They’re not made to fetch coffee and take out the trash. They’re given real work and real instruction. They’re our responsibility now so we put a lot of work into that.

Regular weekly meetings are held to update me on the progress of the intern team as a whole. These are both status update meetings and an opportunity for one-on-one meetings as needed. (One-on-one meetings are a different topic requiring a separate Manifesto, for now all you need to know is that they’re so super important that if you’re not doing them, you’re probably a bad boss.)

Interns are required to learn how to submit a properly formatted and adequately detailed invoice. For most folks, this is their first freelancing gig and will receive their first 1099 in January, so we go over how to handle those things. If the intern would like to be paid, they must submit regular invoices at predetermined intervals. Those invoices are approved (or corrected) by the person assigned to them on our team before they’re escalated to me for payment.

For the first several weeks with us, interns learn our existing software products and conduct quality assurance testing on them. They learn the proper way to submit bug reports and feature requests via github. We give them a consistent format to use and our developers take the time to give feedback on what they’ve submitted. Their reports get better over time, as does their level of communication. Better communication is maybe single most valuable thing we teach our interns. We spend a LOT of time on it. We’ll even go so far as to ask interns to rewrite emails or bug reports if they don’t make unambiguous sense. Punctuation and grammar matter. Invoices depend on it.

They submit daily progress reports that are similar to late-day scrums. To do this, they either use form-based submissions that get emailed to the team lead, or they use github scrum format.

Daily reports must include answers to the following questions:

  • What did you get done today?
  • What will you do tomorrow?
  • What is standing in your way?

 

Most of this is covered in the due course of working with the team lead, but again, communication. Incomplete, thoughtless, or insufficient reports are rewritten.

Speaking of communication, Edit has some rules we follow to allow for, what we call, asynchronous communication. This allows for our workplace style where two people are not often in the same place at the same time even if they are working on the same thing (distributed teams). Interns must follow these rules too:

EVERYONE MUST

  1. Use Slack and Github on a regular, daily, basis. Not just when you remember.
  2. Respond when someone leaves you a chat or you are needed on an issue.
  3. Try not to interrupt another person’s workflow
  4. DO NOT rely on a person’s presence to get your work done

HERE’S HOW IT WORKS (Source)

Asynchronous communication

“Chat is inherently asynchronous; tapping someone on the shoulder is inherently being a jerk.”

In practice, this means that you essentially never “walk over” to a coworker’s desk, virtual or otherwise. Whenever possible, prefer issues and chat, to “just in time” communications. And there’s an added bonus: Asynchronous mediums necessitate a distributed workflow. There’s no “you had to be there”, when “there”, is online and anytime. (Do we need slack?)

When to use face-to-face or chat

Brainstorming – Help me flesh out this idea. What do you think about X? How can we come up with ways to solve X? You can’t “spitball” via a pull request.

Feedback – Hey, I think you could have worded that comment better. Is everything going okay with Y? Feedback is inherently human, and as such, it deserves a human face.

Small talk and gossip – In a distributed company, you need a distributed water cooler. How’s your son’s softball team doing this season? Did you get a haircut? Check in often to ensure your coworkers are human (and you know them as such).

Use github issues

Have a question? Open an issue. Have an idea? Open an issue. Notice something’s a bit wonky? You guessed it, open an issue. Issues are cheap.

Pull request/Code-review: the only way to change community content is with a pull request.

Overcompensate for tone

It’s often said that it’s hard to capture tone via electronic communications, but that’s a filthy lie. There’s a reason GitHub’s collaboration culture is built on a foundation of emoji and animated GIFs. It’s not simply because animated GIFs of puppies are adorable, but because a   is often the most efficient way to express sarcasm.

 

 

Finally, interns are responsible for actual deliverables. They do work that clients see. In our case, that means they build websites. So after learning the ins and outs of Github, and while learning everything that can be absorbed about communication, they build actual websites that clients pay to have done. (See this video for reference.)

The process of designing and building a mobile-friendly website for a client is a big job. The pieces are split up among different talent sets and the result is a high-quality, professional website for a business. The interns are allowed to use these sites in their portfolios while they go in search of their next gig. Everyone wins.

 

The Goodbye Lunch

When interns leave our program, it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. We asked them not to come back.
  2. They found their next thing.

 

If we ask them not to come back, it’s either because they’ve outstayed their welcome (see the thing above regarding how everyone needs to leave the nest in a timely manner), or because we simply didn’t like them as part of the team (see the thing above about cutting people that don’t jive).

If they leave our program because they’ve succeeded in finding their next thing, this is cause for celebration. We take the intern team to lunch (classic positive reinforcement and food!) and we make a big deal of it with The Royalty. Everyone knows and acknowledges the success of another teammate. It’s what good people do.

Finally, and I’ll let you be the judge of how important this is to your business, I personally write a heartfelt email letting them know how proud I am of them and I welcome them back if they find a fit here as one of The Royalty in the future.

As I don’t believe that anyone, as a small child, hoped to work for me someday, I make sure to remind them at everything is an evolution of the thing before it. The internship that turned into a job that turned into a skill that resulted in boomeranging back to the place of internship? It’s the best we can hope for. So, in all successful cases, I let them know that I have benefited by knowing them, by including them in my business, and by seeing them go on to their next important thing.

Maybe that next thing is with us, or maybe not. In either case, everyone wins.

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