How To Be a Successful Intern

We’ve had a number of technical interns here in FCS over the years. Some do really well: by the end of their internships they find themselves delivering major projects directly to clients. Others don’t do as well. Here are some things we’ve noticed are common to the more successful ones.

Before we dive into these common factors, though, let’s talk a little about internships in general. What should you be looking for in an internship?

Internship Goals

The key to understanding internships is that you’re there to learn two things:

  1. Technical skills. This is a no brainer: you’re a programmer, you take on a software engineering internship to learn real-world technical skills. The way code is written in the industry is different from school, and this is where you get to learn that difference.
  2. Work/life exposure. The actual experience of working in a company. This is what people refer to when they say they’re looking for ‘people with job experience’: what they actually mean is that working in a job involves setting the right expectations. People expect new employees to come in with the right attitude, calibrated to the job they’re hired to do.

Most interns we meet at FCS know that they should be focusing on learning all the technical skills they can. And this might be obvious to you too. But what is interesting is that you should also be maximising your work exposure.

This is not very obvious. Some new hires we’ve seen come in with vastly different expectations. Some expect to be spoon-fed skills. Others are unhappy if they are assigned work that they aren’t interested in. An internship is the best place for you to learn what your expectations should be.

As an intern, you’re in the unique position of being able to see the inner workings of a company, without being tied to it. An internship is just a temporary job, after all. You don’t have to stay after your n months are up. This is both an disadvantage and an advantage.

The disadvantage is that sometimes, you can’t see how the whole company works because you’re the most junior person in the room. The advantage, however, is that you can compare across multiple companies (this is true if you do multiple internships). Comparing across internships is how you figure out what kind of company you would like to work for in your career.

(I strongly urge you to consider doing at least 2 internships – one at a big company, and one at a small company during your university life. Find a way to make it happen.)

While you’re at the internship, take the time to learn everything you can about the company. How does it make its money? Who are the best engineers? What is the leadership like? What weaknesses do you notice about this company, and how might you make it better if you were in a position of power? How are conflicts resolved, and how are engineering decisions made?

Talk to your manager, and make friends with the seniors above you.

These seem like irrelevant questions, but they turn out to be very important in your career. Knowing how a company makes its money teaches you to see if you’re in a profit-centre or a cost-centre. It also tells you what the most valuable jobs look like in other, similar companies.

Company weaknesses are even more important to notice: they might not be a deal-breaker to you right now as an intern, but if the full-timers in your company are quitting because of something, then you know what to watch out for it in the future companies you apply to.

3 months is long enough to pick up on a broad set of experiences, if you’re willing to put in the time and listen. Ask the full-timers what career and life decisions they’ve made, and then decide for yourself if you want to make the same decisions in your life.

Now let’s look at some qualities the best interns seem to share:

1. Knowing when to ask questions

This is tricky. One of the most annoying traits a junior employee can have is the tendency to keep asking questions about the most basic things. This is annoying because you begin to waste the time of senior employees, whose time is more valuable than yours.

As a junior employee, you do want to be effective, and it is true that you know less than your seniors. So what’s the right balance between asking for help and struggling with your problems by yourself?

I have two ideas that may help:

The first idea is to ask questions according to the following template: “I have a problem with X. I have tried A, B and C, but it doesn’t work. Instead, when I tried A I got bad result P, when I tried B I got bad result Q, and when I tried C I got weird result R.”

Until you are able to give a list of approaches that you’ve tried and failed, don’t ask a senior.

The second idea is to time box stuff you don’t understand. Need to implement a feature and don’t have any idea how to do it? Give yourself X minutes, set a timer, and then at the end of those X minutes ask a senior.

The first idea forces you to make sufficient effort, and the second idea prevents you from wasting too much time when some guidance may be useful.

2. Ask for regular reviews

Internships are a great opportunity to get real industry experience. To maximise this opportunity, maximise the feedback you get.

If your company has some form of monthly managerial review, that’s great. But even if you do have these reviews, given the limited amount of time you have at a company, it’s probably a good idea to get informal reviews from seniors at a higher frequency than just monthly.

These reviews could be as simple as “hey, could we have a quick chat about that project I worked on this week?” with your primary manager. And if you’ve collaborated with seniors from other teams, it might make sense to approach them for some feedback at the end of the week, or the end of the collaboration as well.

3. Work harder than a full-timer

Now, before I begin on this, let me say up front that work/life balance is important to get right in your life. Work/life balance is so important to the rest of your career, in fact, that I urge you to figure out your limit as an intern, instead of figuring it out while you’re a full-timer.

What do I mean by this? Well, the stakes for burnout are much lower as an intern than as a full-timer. Internships are book-ended by academic semesters, because you get to go back to school after an internship is over. And internships are good places to level up, seeing as you have a clear amount of time, and clear goals to achieve. Pushing yourself to get to those goals within the set timeframe is an obvious thing to do.

This is probably going to be controversial, but I recommend using your internship as an opportunity to figure out where your limits are, so you know when to stop when you’re finally working as a full-timer. Work late into the night, try one or two all-nighters, and most importantly, notice when you become resentful about the work you’re doing.

Resentment is the best signal I know that burnout is on the horizon. If you feel it, you know that burnout isn’t far away. And you’ll have learnt something important about yourself, I think, something you won’t have to learn the hard way when you’re working full time at a job.

This post is part of the FCS Career Playbook for Software Engineers in Vietnam. Check the guide for more software engineering career advice.

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