How to succeed in your first tech internship

Congratulations, you’ve just landed your first software engineer internship! You’ve passed a round or two of interviews, signed an offer letter, and you’re slated to start next month. What now? You might be a bit excited, a bit apprehensive, wondering what the startup life is like, are you even smart enough to do the work they give you…

I felt all these things when I started my first internship three years ago. Now, I’ve completed four internships and I’m halfway through my fifth one; I’m sort of a veteran intern by now. In these five internships, I’ve learned a good deal about what it takes to succeed in an internship, things that are not obvious to those just starting out. Hopefully by sharing this, others can avoid some of the mistakes I made.

Your first week at [startup]

Chances are that you’ve coded in assignments for schoolwork, and maybe you’ve coded a few side projects for fun. Work is a bit different: you’re working with a massive codebase that you didn’t write, and probably no single engineer in the company understands it all. Facing a codebase of this complexity, you might feel overwhelmed, struggling to find the right file to start. You feel uneasy that a small change is taking you hours, afraid that your boss thinks you’re underperforming.

Relax, you’re doing fine. If you got the job, it means they have faith in your abilities to learn and to succeed. I’ve talked to hundreds of Waterloo interns, and I’ve never heard of anyone getting dismissed for underperforming. The first few weeks will be rough as you come to terms with the codebase and technology stack, but trust me, it gets much, much easier afterwards.

Asking for help

As an intern, you’re not expected to know everything, and often you will be asking for help from more experienced, full-time engineers.

Before asking for help, you should spend a minute or so searching Google, or Stack Overflow, or the company wiki. Most general questions (not relating to company specific code) can be answered with Google, and you save everyone’s time this way.

When you do ask for help, be aware that they might be working on a completely different project, so they don’t have the same mental context as you. Rather than jump straight into the intricate technical details of your problem, you should describe at a high level what you’re trying to accomplish, and what you tried, and only then delve into the exact technical details.

An example of a poorly phrased question would be: “hey, how do I invalidate a FooBarWindow object if its parent is not visible?” You’re likely to get some confused stares — this might make perfect sense to you, but they’re wondering what is FooBarWindow and why are you trying to invalidate it at all.

A better way to phrase it would be something like: “hey, I’m working on X feature, and I’m encountering a problem where the buttons stop working after you press the back button. After looking a bit, I discovered my component should have been invalidated when its parent is no longer visible, but that’s not happening…” This time, you’ve done a much better job of describing your problem.

It’s always helpful to take notes, so you never ask the same question again. How do you commit your code to Git? How do you deploy the app to stage? If you don’t write it down, you’re going to forget.

At the start, you’re going to be asking 5 questions an hour, which is okay. Soon you will find yourself needing to ask less and less, and eventually you’ll only ask a handful per day.

Taking charge of your own learning

Like it or not, software engineering is a rapidly shifting field, where a new Javascript framework comes out every six months. You have to be continuously learning things, or your skills will become obsolete. Learning is even more important when you’re an intern, still learning the ropes. Fortunately, a tech internship is a great opportunity to learn quickly.

Not all software engineers are equal — at some point, you get to choose what you want to do: frontend, backend, or full stack? Web, iOS, or Android? Become an expert in Django or Ruby on Rails? Depending on the company, you often get considerable say on what team you’re on, and what project you work on within your team. Use this as an opportunity to get paid to learn new, interesting stuff!

Good technologies to learn should satisfy two criteria: it should be something you’re interested in, and it should also be widely used in the industry. That is to say, it’s more useful to know a popular web framework than an internal company-specific framework that does the same thing.

When you get to pick what project to take next, it might be tempting to pick something familiar, where you already know how to do everything. But you learn a lot more by working on something new; in my experience, employers have always been accommodating to my desire to work on a variety of different things.

You will overhear people talk passionately, with phrases like, “oh, it’s running Nginx inside Docker and fetches the data from a Cassandra cluster…” If you’ve never heard of these technologies, this sentence would be nonsensical to you. It’s well worth the time to spend 10 minutes reading about each technology that you hear mentioned, not to become an expert, but just to have a passing understanding of what each of these things do. With a few minutes of research, you’d be able to answer: “when should you use Cassandra over MySQL?

Learning is valuable even when it’s not immediately relevant to you. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in meetings where you don’t have a clue what’s going on, say with business managers or projects you’re not involved in. Rather than zone out and browse Reddit for the duration of the meeting, listen in and learn as much as you can, and take notes if you begin to fall asleep! The human brain has near infinite capacity for learning new things, and at no point will it reach “capacity” like a hard drive.

Take responsibility and deliver results

A common misconception is programmers are paid to write code. Wrong: as a programmer, your job is to deliver results and provide value to your company; part of this job involves writing code, but a lot of the work is communicating with managers, designers, and other engineers to figure out what code to write.

When you’re assigned a project, you own it and you’re in charge of any tasks required to push it through to completion. What if something is broken in an API owned by another team? You might be tempted to hand in your code and proclaim, “my code works fine, so my job here is done, I can show you that their API is broken, so it’s their fault.” No, if your feature is broken then you need to fix it one way or another. So go and ping the engineer responsible, schedule a meeting with him, anything to get your project completed.

Sometimes you run into problems that seem insurmountable, so complex that you feel compelled to put down your sword and give up, and tell yourself, “this is too hard for an intern“. This is a bad idea, you should never expect a full-time engineer to come in, take over, and bail you out of the situation. Your mentors are not superhuman — it’s not like they can instantly conjure a solution, no, they have to work through the problem one piece at a time, just like you. There’s no reason you can’t do the same.

The product you deliver is what ultimately matters, so don’t worry about secondary measures of productivity, like how many lines of code you commit, or how many story points you rack up on Jira. There’s an apocryphal tale of a programmer who disagreed with management measuring productivity by lines of code, and writing “-2000” because he made the code simpler. Likewise, you aren’t being judged if you come in 30 minutes after your manager does, or if you leave 30 minutes before he does, or if you just feel like taking a mid-day stroll in the park, as long as you’re consistently delivering quality features.

Many interns suffer from “intern mentality” and consider themselves fundamentally different from full-times in some way. This is an irrational belief — your skills are probably on par with those of a junior engineer (or will be in a few weeks). This means you should behave like any other full-time engineer (albeit minus interview and on-call duties); the only difference is you’re leaving in a few months. Don’t be afraid to contribute your insights and ideas and consider them less valuable because you’re “just an intern”.

Other tips

What should you learn to prepare for an internship if you have spare time? Learn Git! Git is a version control system used in most companies, and is both non-trivial to pick up, and used more or less the same way everywhere. Other stuff is less useful to pre-learn because they’re either easy to pick up, or can be used in lots of different ways so it’s more efficient to learn on the job.

Internships are a great way to travel places, if that interests you. I picked 5 internships in 4 different cities for this reason. Unlike school, you don’t have to think about work during weekends, which leaves you lots of time to travel to nearby destinations.

I’ve only talked about what happens during work. If your internship is in the USA, the Unofficial Waterloo USA Intern Guide was super helpful in answering all my logistical questions. Also, some of my friends have written about crafting a resume, and how to ace the coding interview.

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