Inside the Rain by Steffen Basho-Jungans. Sometimes I forget the power that one person and one instrument can create. Lends itself very well to writing!
It’s always good to start with some timeline context. I started working at Astranis just over a year ago (14 months). I was an intern for the first three months, then switched to full-time in August. Starting in January, I had my first intern - seemed like a pretty fast turnaround to me, but whatever, start up life. Currently Astranis has approximately 23 employees and 11 interns - a huge amount! I also now have my second ever intern (the first one decided to join full time, more on that later) working with me for the summer. I think I’ll make a couple posts about internships, what worked, what didn’t, the usual. This one will be focused on the my-current-side-of-things side, maybe another one on what I liked/hated about past internships? TBD. While maybe not true for everyone, it seems like that having an intern requires three distinct factors: you have to be a manager, a teacher, and an adviser. I want to tackle them one at a time and see what falls out of my mouth.
This one is pretty obvious off the bat. Someone is working under you and reports to you, so you manage them. What does that word really mean? It means you have to understand what they are doing, what they want to be doing, and what they need to be doing. Those are usually separate things! I have to try and make sure that they are contributing meaningful work, and also make sure they know it’s meaningful work. Usually interns get laser-focused on some very niche things, which means they tend to get lost at how important their work might be. On the other hand, maybe you want to actively avoid doing that (so you don’t have to explain why their work is just a one-off thing that probably won’t go anywhere. Hey, it happens).
It also requires being able to spin people up and down quickly. Most interns are operating on a very short time frame, so if you assume the a nominal:
- one month to really get productive
- two-three weeks at the end are just wrap up and sign off
That really leaves you with almost nothing to work with time wise. I’ve realized that being a good intern manager requires you to have a well-defined idea of what workload is going to be immediately. I know many internships like to give the interns a project they can “own”, something they can carry from start to finish and sign off on. That’s not really necessary in my mind - doing a few 3-4 week tasks is totally cool as well, as long as you can show they’re meaningful and important. Regardless of which style you go with, the ramp up/down thing is still a blocking item. Making sure that they don’t get overloaded with information or having something too undefined to work with is critical, and it’s all on you as a manager.
Likely also obvious to many of my engineering friends, but maybe not outside of that. Internships in general are supposed to be about “gaining real world experience” and learning the material that school doesn’t teach you. I’ve been pretty neutral on that in my history, but I’ll dive there some other time. There’s three “types” of knowledge I think interns can pick up:
- Pure technical knowledge - the same facts and rules you’d learn in class
- Real world engineering - the corners, rules of thumb, tools, approximations that you don’t learn in class but will be using everywhere
- Company specific knowledge - learning about the corporate environment and what jobs in general are like
Getting a good mix of all of these is pretty critical in my opinion. I think giving people challenging work is the best way to get the first part. Yes, you will have to hold their hand a little bit, but I’ve always been quite pleased with how things turned out so far! Additionally, this often ends up being something they would have to learn at another time in their education/career, so you’re not asking something totally unreasonable. Just shuffling the schedule up a little bit, no big deal!
The second half is generally inferred to be the default one. If I had to make a breakdown, this would easily be 70% or more. In school you might learn how to analyze or even design a circuit, but in the real world you learn how to make sure it actually works! You learn to test it in a lab bench, to try all the different failure modes. You learn how to “hack” on things and how to glue them together, if slightly precariously. Sometimes the best approach is to go back to the fundamentals and work your way back up. Other times, it’s far better to skip a few steps, round a few numbers, call it close enough. This is something that, as I and everyone else have painfully learned, can’t really be taught, only learned. In this aspect, my goal is just to make sure they go down that path correctly.
The one that often gets skipped over is item 3, but it’s the one that everyone probably gets the most of. Every company is different and they all have their weirds quirks. The biggest thing I want to teach my interns compnay culture, since that’s basically all that matters to you until you die. You work, and then you work, and then you retire I guess? Not sure, still got a few blog posts in between here and then. Anyways, you want to make sure you’re working at a company that you can vibe with. I mean that in an almost literal sense - the idea would be to teach that if you are in tune with the company’s workflow, you can get some form of resonance and be far, far more effective than you ever thought. This is not true of every company, and it’s not even true for every popular/cool company. It’s all about aligning your workflow an preference to theirs, and seeing if the resonance happens.
Ah yes, the last one. Ironically, that’s how I felt too before I realized how much time was spent on that. The most important thing about interns is they are ephemeral! They, unlike everyone else you work with, have lives after this period. It’s very likely they’ll be doing similar work somewhere else. Or maybe not, maybe they don’t like what they’re doing. But either way, you did something similar to them, and now you do what you do, so what happened in betweeen? Any mistakes? Any regrets? Any things you would never take back?
I’ve actually noticed those aren’t the questions that get asked. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you choose most of the time. The only ones people really care about are the hard choices, where there seems to be no right or wrong answer. The feedback everyone always wants there is “how did you make the choice?” to which I have… no answer! Good luck, sorry. I don’t think I’m quite qualified to give major life choice advice just yet, nor do I think my advice should be given any weight when it does slide in there. Sorry for the little cop out at the end, but it’s sincere! This is the biggest thing I was asked, and likely will continue to be asked, and have no good answer for. Oh well.