On Internships | BitchWhoCodes | Stacey Mulcahy - a Microsoft Technical Evangelist

On Internships

Internships, as many companies offer in the interactive industry, need to change. Too many people are taking advantage of the eagerness of the less experienced, paying them next to nothing, giving them menial work and trying to pass it off as an internship where the student should be grateful for the opportunity. This is complete crap. Of course XKCD has nailed this:

Let’s be clear. I am talking about long term, full time internships. Something that lasts longer than a week or a few hours. I am talking about companies that regularly take on interns.

Internships need to provide meaningful learning experiences.

Yes, just being in a future work environment itself can provide a meaningful experience. Doing the daily Starbucks run, however, provides little insight how that industry works. For some reason, interns have become the office gopher. Some say it’s because you can’t trust them to carry out a task at the level of expertise needed. Fair. Some say they need to go through a certain rite of passage. Ok. Fine. I do believe that you learn so much more if you don’t feel you are too good to do any type of job. I can totally understand that for that special breed of intern who reeks of entitlement. I’m a huge fan of working the entitlement right out of someone, but again I don’t run a company.

If you can’t provide a meaningful learning experience, don’t offer it. If you don’t have time to mentor, time to share your knowledge, time to help another gain the very skills you probably take for granted, don’t make that commitment. It is that simple.

Professionally, I’ve always had a hard time taking on an intern. Typically,I have worked in positions where I am beyond swamped, where I’m working 60+ hour weeks and have no idea when I’ll be able to do my laundry and probably can’t even remember if what I am wearing is actually clean. I’ve never had the time to really help mentor someone closely.This is source of frustration for me, as I’d love the opportunity to teach and mentor, but never seemed to have the time.

Most interactive agencies don’t account for that when doing staffing allocations. When you are working mad like that, you start to actually become resentful of interns because you don’t see a future co-worker, you see a future liability and added workload. You start to resent your employer, who does give you an intern, because you realize both of you can’t be what you need from each other.And suddenly what should be a great experience, unnecessarily becomes a painful one because of poor planning.

Internships are not always about the hard skills. You can teach someone to code. Hell, the internet can teach the basics about pretty much most things, and some things you didn’t want to learn. Internships are about gaining experience. Experience that can be applied elsewhere, experience that bleeds into the soft skills every employer needs yet has zero idea how to instill. Communication. Understanding of process. Critical thinking and problem solving. Attention to detail. What you work on, in what language, for whatever client, is as important as how you worked on it and with who.

Pay your Interns

I must have missed the announcement that internship was now a synonym for free. Free can also mean “next to nothing” or very little. Paying your interns minimum wage yet expecting them to make ends meet in a city with a high cost of living has become some new inhumane standard.

Companies get away with it too for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the justification is their reputation and everything that comes along with that. You get the honor to work with company X on project Y for client Z. Companies ride their reputation to basically acquire slave labor in the form of internships, and then complain about the quality of work produced by someone lacking the mentorship to meet the standards held for those much more experienced. What most companies miss, is that internships are not one sided. It should be a shared experience, a humbling one for both the intern and the employer. Humble to be a part of it for the intern, and humbled to be able to provide it for the employer. Companies are in a unique position where they can help kickstart someone’s career – where they can guide the future of their industry, and then do so by getting some over-zealous student to run their coffee orders for them and don’t forget the non-fat no-whip caramel steaming hot mocchiato w/ an extra shot for their ego.

Not paying interns, or barely paying them, punishes those that are not financially capable of supplementing the experience. An internship will rarely pay enough for you to exist, never mind save up for your next year of education. In university, I was financially independent. I could not rely on family nor student loans to bankroll my education. This means, I often had multiple jobs. This means, even though I applied to and got accepted to some pretty great internships, opportunities that probably would have changed the trajectory of my career, I had to pass. I simply could not afford to not get paid, unless I did not plan on going back to finish school. I could not help but resent those who could afford it. When people said “if you want it bad enough, you can make it happen”, I wanted to punch them in the throat. I refused to graduate with some debilitating monster mountain of debt. According to society, I was a good and responsible citizen. According to education, I lacked motivation.

For many, as they exist now in their current state, internships are opportunities feasible for those that have, rather than those don’t. Crappy paying internships just further this divide.

Do the Math

Let me re-iterate. Established companies should not expect, advertise or propose what is effectively free labour. “But we are paying our intern!” , they say. They don’t say how much and it’s probably nominal. Now, take the number of hours you toss at an intern ( or even an full time employee), do the math against the pay and guess what, you MIGHT just be paying them below minimum wage which I am pretty sure breaks all sorts of labor laws.

Do the math. How much are you working. How much are you expected to work? How much are you allocated to work? How much do you get paid? Does it add up? Are you being taken advantage of?

Call me idealistic. Fine. An internship should provide a meaningful learning experience and pay well. If you can’t provide both, then ensure you can offer one. Sell it as is – making promises you can’t keep for the potential of cheap labor benefits no one. At some point, you surely must realize that it’s not about getting cheap labor. At some point a company needs to realize it’s about playing a very real and meaningful role in someone’s future. The ability to have that amount of impact is a responsibility.

Our industry isn’t a fraternity / sorority and interns aren’t pledges we have to frosh. They are the person who can’t get a job because they have no experience, and have no experience because they can’t get a job. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all needed a hand to lift up us, yet all we’re seeing is that same hand keeping us down.

Filed under: Ramblings — Stacey @ 7:16 pm

  • http://softwarerocks.tv/ Andrew Binstead

    Totally agree with all of that, but I think there is a time and place where working for free is actually beneficial. That only really happens when the other option is “Go to university”.

    I have come to see that most university courses are a total waste of time. I’m not talking about highly specialised places like MIT, but they are offering more than just a simple degree. Everywhere else though it isn’t so clear cut. You can go to uni, do a 3 year full time degree, end up with around £30k (I’m in the UK) of debt then find a job… with no actual experience.

    The alternative to that is, you find a local company who does the IT work you want to do, and you offer to work there for nothing. I believe you will get a better education working in an actual company than you ever will in most universities. Chances are if you are any good they are going to start paying you pretty soon when they see you are actually valuable.

    I totally agree with your assessment of how most interns are treated, that simply isn’t right. They are there because they want to learn something. Having them as your personal assistant isn’t going to teach them anything other than what an arse hat you are.

    But the idea of an unpaid apprenticeship makes a lot of sense when the other option is spent £30k and get no experience. Sure you will leave uni with some skills, but in my experience my first year working in software development taught me 10 times what I learned at uni.

    In Ed Catmull’s latest book about Pixar “Creativity, Inc” he talks about their intern process and how it really helps the company and changes the people involved. Not just the interns learning valuable skills but the people who mentor them.

    Perhaps the problem here is the name intern. If they are an apprentice that has a lot more meaning. Something we just don’t do in software… but we need to.

  • Jason Palmer

    I cook,clean,iron,do the washing for my wife as she sometimes works long hours.