Lessons I’ve Learned Being a Tech Intern
I’ve been doing tech internships since 2012 — here’s the good, bad, and the ugly (mostly good)
Writing about my adventures in new grad software engineering interviews was relatively easy because it has been fresh in my mind. Thinking about my internship experiences as a whole, on the other hand, requires a lot more introspection.
So let’s begin!
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have done six internships at five tech companies in the last three years. My first internship was at the Canadian job search site Workopolis as a UI developer building job campaigns and conducting accessibility research. The second one was at Communitech, a not-for-profit tech innovation hub in Waterloo, building prototype web and mobile apps for non-technical entrepreneurs. In Toronto, I interned at ThoughtWorks, the highly influential software design and delivery company, building web and mobile apps for non-profits and open source projects. My first taste of working in San Francisco was at Minted, a marketplace for independent artists and designers, building e-commerce tools. Most recently, I wrapped up an eight month internship at Expedia on the Android and Mobile API teams.
Finding the right internship
Although I’ve mostly used my school’s resources to apply for positions, I’ve also applied to internships externally — through company websites and internal referrals. Internal referrals are huge, as they go on to be useful for full-time positions. Not only do they speed up the initial screening process, you can also get a better and honest insight into what it’s like to work at the company.
Most junior engineers think of giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook when they think of their ideal tech company. Though those companies have solid internship programs, they aren’t the only companies that have them. In addition, working at those companies doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Tech is everywhere and being in Silicon Valley isn’t the only option! There are strong and emerging communities all over the world looking for talent.
Dig everywhere for opportunities. I got my last internship after talking to an engineering manager at a tech meetup. If you don’t see a posting for an internship on the company website, email them and inquire! Don’t take no as an answer until you know it’s actually a no.
Speaking of nos, don’t let them get to you. I still have this problem myself. Interviews fucking suck, period. It’s not you, it’s the system. You are smart, capable, and hard-working. Repeat after me. Take care of yourself and know when to retreat. Always treat interviews as learning opportunities.
Growing as an intern
Tech jobs have been getting a lot of hype — mostly because of the lucrative salaries, stock options, and superfluous perks. So it’s easy to let that hype control your decision-making. Let’s be real here, there’s more to a job than free food and foosball tables. Inquire about the stuff that matters, i.e. housing and health benefits.
What you should really be caring about is mentorship and leadership. Make sure you inquire about both while interviewing! Companies that don’t value either aren’t worth it. Your job as an intern is to learn as much as you can in a short period, so choose wisely.
On the job, always be proactive about your development. It’s your responsibility and you might not always have someone to hold your hand. Setting up weekly one-on-ones is a fantastic way to set short and long term goals. Being open to constructive feedback from co-workers is also valuable.
Always ask questions. You can’t figure out everything on your own, but you can try to a certain point! Be vocal about things that make you uncomfortable. Find mentors (other than your assigned one), friends, and allies who you can have real talk with, and who can champion you. This is especially important for underrepresented folks! For example, it’s important for me to find allies who can relate to being female, having mental illness, and/or being Asian.
Working hard doesn’t always mean working more hours. If you’re planning on working overtime, make sure you are being compensated for it. Know your limits and take breaks during the day. No employer should punish you for that. Self-care comes first, no questions asked. For instance, I deal with daily panic attacks, so I have used the wellness rooms at the offices I have worked at to calm down and relax.
From a technical standpoint, ask about conferences, books, meetups, and other resources to learn more about the tech stack you’re working with. If your company has a technical blog, ask to contribute to it! You may think you’re not an expert, but you have a lot of insights to offer as a new hire.
If you want to focus on leveling up multiple tech skills, I definitely recommend interning as a software consultant. You will get to be part of the software development process from beginning to end. You will also get to learn how to deal with real world clients.
A lot of interns will be assigned to intern projects and not get many opportunities to contribute to daily team work. If you prefer collaborating with your team more, speak up and tell your manager!
Being fearless as an intern
Speak up on the good, bad, and the ugly. Seriously. Your co-worker’s, team’s, or employer’s response to what you have to say is a good indication of whether you want to be a full-time employee. Take that risk now while you’re junior!
If you’re interested in diversity work, go for it! I’ve gotten involved by consulting with the office manager, other female engineers, and company diversity groups. Be sure to collaborate with local diversity organizations like Write/Speak/Code, Girl Develop It, and Women Who Code! Diversity work is extra work on top of your daily duties, so make sure you are being appreciated for it.
Now to the ugly. Being an intern doesn’t make you immune to abuse and harassment. I’ve had sexist and misogynistic comments said to me throughout an internship. I only reported the issue to HR after consulting with a female ally. Dealing with HR in these circumstances is a very sensitive topic, so it can be helpful to consult with an ally first. Hold people accountable for their actions whether that means reporting them and/or removing yourself from the toxic environment.
Giving back as an intern
Part of being an intern is being open to feedback, and the other part of it is being able to give feedback. At the end of your internship, be sure to offer your insights. It will help to make the internship worth while for future interns!
Celebrate and share your experiences with others. Be grateful at the same time. Mentor and refer people to your internship, especially underrepresented folks. Acquiring an internship can feel like a competition, but it shouldn’t be. Building your network and supporting the people in it is the way it should be.
Best of luck with your journey as an intern! Don’t feel like you’re insignificant. Everyone starts off as a junior before they become senior. You got this!