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Interns: Because No One Starts Out An Expert

May 26, 2015

But, what would you DO with them, Rodney?

Trust me, I’ll keep them busy.

I love interns. I worked for a company one time, that had an intern policy, but my particular department never used them. Why would you want to? They know very little about the real world, and most of what they think they know came out of a textbook and is probably wrong. At least wrong for your particular industry. And to top it off, they are often young and headstrong and don’t always take direction well.

Who wants to sign up for that kind of grief?

I do. 

I like interns for three reasons. 

They Learn
Interns are like sponges. Our most successful interns game to us between their Junior and Senior year of college. It really didn’t matter what their major was, so long as it was close to IT. They could be Computer Science, Information Technology, or even Engineering majors. 

Interns typically approach business the same way they approach school. They require clear insturtions and they expect to have to learn how to do what you want them to do. And they expect to be graded when they get done. My manager assumed that all you could trust an intern with was making copies, or taking notes in a meeting. It’s part of the reason he didn’t like interns. 

I gave them projects. Granted, I had to scope the project very carefully. Jason was a Computer Science major. I had him writing custom reports out of our Exchange email system. He wrote a simple interface and created a dashboard to show us how the system was doing in near real time. He didn’t know anything about Exchange when he started, but he knew how to find out. 

And rather than hanging on their manager’s every word for instructions, interns know how to go find answers. In fact, they expect to have to go find answers on their own. 

They Don’t Know How It’s Supposed To Be Done

Experienced engineers are a critical piece of any successful project. But, the issue with experienced engineers, especially if you work for a consservative company is that engineers know how things are supposed to get done. And the more senior the engineer, the more likely they are to support the department methodolgy. There is nothing wrong with a well understood and documented methodology, of course. A playbook is as important to an engineering team as it is to a sports team. 

But, a playbook can be a limiting factor as well. It’s hard to go outside the playbook. Corporations do not reward you for thinking outside the box. I worked for a corporation one time where we backup customer data constantly. The percentage of custoemr data we backed up in real time was typically spelled out in the contract. Ten percent backed up in real time? Fifty percent? One hundred percent? There were costs associated with each percentage. We had one customer that didn’t require us to put the percentage in the contract, although we understood they wanted 100% recording; the most expensive. Our engineering teams didn’t have a process for recording customer data without a contract. 

From a business standpoint, what we didn’t commit to we couldn’t be penalized for. It took a letter from the vice president over their department to convince them to record the data without a contract. Engineers are like that.

Interns aren’t. Interns don’t have the experience of full engineers, but they also come without preconceived limitations. That can be refreshing at times. If you can contain it. 

They Have Passion

But, by far the most rewarding aspect of working with interns is that they have passion. We interviewed dozens of applicants for a single intern position. We sifted through hundreds of resumes. The person we got as our intern really, really wanted to work for us. We were often competing with other companies for the same select group of candidates. It renewed my enthusiasm for work just watching them attack their tasks. 

Microsoft was one of the most competive places I ever worked. In the 1990’s we knew we were some of the very best in the world at what we did. Interns were treated like gold. Their passion and drive was important for their current projects, but more importantly, they were viewed as the future of the company. At the end of each summer, the interns got to have dinner at Bill Gates’ house. They were viewed as the next generations and to be cultivated.

They were not a replacement for engineers or program managers or fulltime writers. But, they didn’t have to be. Given an entire team of interns, I would have failed terribly. Your team has to have the fulltime employees who get the lion’s share of the work done. 

But, one or two highly motivated, interns added a dimension that helped make some of my good teams great. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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