Learning from a summer intern program

Twenty-five years ago today (boy that was a long time) I finished the internship that changed my life. My bosses at Spinnaker Software gave me a lot of room and I ran with it.

Last March, I posted about an intern program I was starting.

I was overwhelmed by the quality of what I got back. (The quantity was expected… interesting internships are hard to find). I heard from students on most continents, with a huge variety of backgrounds and life experiences. And these people were smart.

Unable to just pick a PDF or two, I invited the applicants to join a Facebook group I had set up. Then I let them meet each other and hang out online.

It was absolutely fascinating. Within a day, the group had divided into four camps:

  • The game-show contestants, quick on the trigger, who were searching for a quick yes or no. Most of them left.
  • The lurkers. They were there, but we couldn’t tell.
  • The followers. They waited for someone to tell them what to do.
  • The leaders. A few started conversations, directed initiatives and got to work.

Want to guess who I hired? (It was a paid gig and five ended up spending time with me in NY on a somewhat rolling basis). If you’re hiring for people to work online, I can’t imagine not screening people in this way. This is the work, and you can watch people do it for real before you hire them.

As I went to send a note to the 150 or so who didn’t make the cut, it felt like a waste. A waste for me, surely, because here were a large number of over-talented, under-employed students facing a boring summer. And for them, too, because I thought some might want a chance to continue the virtual experience.

So I started a group on Basecamp and invited the rest of the interns to try an unpaid virtual experience. The idea was that I’d provide a platform and some projects, and they could (if they thought it might be interesting) participate online. No grunt work, just interesting stuff to try. To my amazement, more than sixty took me up on it. The conversations ebbed and flowed, the work got done (or didn’t) but I think everyone learned a lot.

Part of the deal was that active participants would get a shout out here on the blog. So we’ve put together a PDF of handmade bios of some of the coolest interns in the program. A shortcut for anyone looking for smart folks from around the world.

If I did it again, I’d definitely do it again. I think that smaller, more closely managed projects would probably lead to more productivity, but I also know that when faced with opportunity and freedom, amazing people get stuff done.

If you gave this a try, I think it would be a brilliant move, for you and for the people you work with. It’s clear that formal education is failing the smart kids entering our field (not certain what ‘our field’ is, but you know what I mean). We need to create pathways for students to discover that there’s absolutely nothing holding them back.