Updated: Jul 17, 2020
See what Jacob and Yasira from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) have to say about being a successful intern.
Q: How can I be a good intern?
Hey! Jacob and Yasira here. We are current Software Engineer Interns at Microsoft and IBM respectively. Being a good intern is a fairly subjective topic that varies on the field and the role description. However, through our combined intern experience and the opinions of other interns we know, we have narrowed down a few key points to consider before getting your feet wet in the professional world. For this blog, we will focus on the work itself, the mentality to drive success, how to network effectively, how to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and finally the logistics that tie these topics together.
An internship is extremely valuable in a lot of ways, but at the core of it an internship is a job. It is an important tool to help you learn about the actual work environment you will be in once you graduate. Internships have many resources and opportunities, fun events and speakers, and while these are all good ways to enjoy your internship, it is important to recognize that the core purpose of this experience is the work you do.
There are many ways to ensure that you have a good work experience and get the most out of your time there, no matter what the project you get assigned or the work you do. Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind are:
Pacing yourself: If you are assigned one big project (or a few medium sized ones), try your best to get a proper understanding of the scope of your work toward the beginning. Break down your work into smaller, workable pieces split over the duration of your internship. If you are not quite sure if your understanding or breakdown is correct, you can always write down what you think it is and then discuss it with your supervisor. This process makes sure everyone is on the same page, and you know if you are on track throughout your internship
Setting reasonable goals: Ensure that the daily, weekly, and monthly goals you set for yourself are accurate according to your timeline, and that the amount of work done daily is within proper measures. Of course, not every day is going to be as productive as the previous, and some weeks are busier than others, but it is important to make sure that you are achieving goals in a timely manner. You do not want to be in the position of not being able to finish your work before the deadline simply because you had improper goal setting. As mentioned earlier, you can always rely on your supervisor to ensure that you are on track as you progress through your internship.
Readjust as needed (within reason): Balance is crucial for a successful internship. It is okay to readjust your day or week as things come up. If you get blocked on an unexpected issue, let your supervisor know, and readjust any plans if necessary. The end goal is to learn, and you want to ensure that you do that without overworking and burning out. Do keep the end goal in mind though, and if your original plan is still reasonable, try your best to stick to it. Plan for the mishaps, because it is likely that they will come up, and give yourself cushion time as much as you can.
Ask questions: You are an intern because you still have learning to do! No one expects you to know everything, or anything really. Your mentors and supervisors are there to help you learn and grow, and asking questions is the best way to gain knowledge. Make sure that you listen to the answers effectively, and take any notes of important discussions. It is ok to ask the same question again if you do not remember an answer because you are bound to forget some stuff, but try to minimize that as much as possible by documenting answers and taking good notes.
Reasonable effort: Ask questions, but also put in effort to figure out things on your own. One of the biggest things that your internship can teach you is how to figure out solutions to problems and teach yourself the answer quickly. If you have spent a reasonable amount of time trying to figure out a solution and can’t, definitely ask for help. Don’t be blocked on a simple issue for days and waste time. However, struggling and finding your own way through a problem is a crucial skill, and although your supervisor could possibly walk you through the whole project, you want to gain the effective problem solving skill as well.
Know your skillset: When your supervisor asks you about what you know, be very honest. It will help tremendously, because the people around you will know what parts of the project to help you out on, and what parts to leave you to do more on your own. Know your skills, and convey them clearly. Your mentors ultimately really care about how they can help you gain more knowledge through your internship, so if you don’t know anything at the beginning of your work, that is ok! It might be intimidating, but you will definitely learn a lot, especially when you are aware of what you do and don’t know.
Leverage your mentors: The people you are working with usually know way more than you about the project you are working on, and the process to do it effectively. They have more industry and team-specific experience, so if you run into any unusual issues you can't figure out, they can help you. If you don’t know something, ask your mentors! Even if they don’t know the answer, it is their job to make sure they find someone who does and connect you to them. They are happy to do it, and even if they are busy, they will manage to find some time to make sure you have a good work experience. Communicate with them as much as possible, and a lot of challenges will be easier to face.
Often when faced with a new and challenging situation, it can be difficult to see the bright side of things or the big picture. That’s completely understandable! And often, no one will be a harder critic to you in the professional world than yourself. That being said, a mindset and mentality can drive not only the way your manager or mentor sees you, but how you see yourself when trying to reach your goals during the internship.
Here are the biggest tips we would recommend on this:
Proactivity: Unlike university or high school work, a lot of the time during an internship you won’t have a clear path or understanding of what responsibilities belong to you. Sometimes your mentor might not have had the time to lay out the entire groundwork of your project, or different team members might have varying understandings of what your role entails. Rather than taking it personally, try to do the best you can at being proactive and taking initiative. See the ambiguity as an opportunity to step up and show that you’re not waiting around to be told what to do.
Positive mindset: Being positive about your work is often a better way to enjoy your experiences more. Even if it’s not the best or most ideal internship, a job is a job and it’s something you’ve worked hard to get. Making the most of the situation sometimes means looking at the glass half full instead of empty. Sometimes optimism can cure anxious situations! While difficult situations do come up and it is normal to have an instinctually negative reaction, having a positive mindset can help reveal a path to new and creative solutions.
Growth mindset: Your teammates more than likely have a few years of experience under their belt, went to an array of universities, and are now working alongside you. They are people - just like you! Having a growth mindset means believing in your own abilities and realizing that most people around you won’t be judging you against the idea of a perfect employee. They know you still need to learn and grow, and rather than hiding perceived shortcomings you could consider being forthright about them. The first step to growing on those skills is to communicate about them, and an internship is a perfect opportunity to learn with relatively low risk.
Accepting failure: Failure can be perceived as an extremely detrimental thing, and oftentimes it can have numerous consequences. However, looking back on how you’ve developed and learned from past failures can help you apply that thinking to an internship. You’re still a student and you’re bound to mess up! Instead of feeling shameful for doing so, be open about what you learned from the experience and communicate how you’ll apply those lessons moving forward.
Knowing your value: Interns provide an incredible amount of value to both the student interning and the company that hired them. That being said, there should definitely be some level of respect shown to your higher ups that acknowledge their industry experience. This is by no means saying that they are perfect! Ask questions when things stick out to you or when you aren’t sure about something, but do so in a non-aggressive way to outwardly show that respect. Also, higher-ups love to hear an intern's perspective! Interns bring in fresh ideas and a new snapshot of how people in our generation think and solve problems. Leverage this to your advantage to help you with networking and speaking up.
Having fun: Ultimately, an internship should be a fun experience! However, even fun things have their challenges to them. Try not to focus on the shortcomings of the program but instead look at what brings you joy and what motivates you to continue work. This might not be immediately obvious, but connecting the internship to your long-term goals in life might help. Try to enjoy the work and the work will feel less like work :)
Networking is a major component of any internship and should be one of your primary focuses while there. Building your network is a skill, not a given. It will take time, practice, and patience - and absolutely no one is perfect at it (even if they say so on their LinkedIn). Depending on your goals with this, networking can look different to all sorts of people.
While there is no golden formula for success, here are some tips:
Build your network: Try to take time to schedule 1:1s with teammates surrounding you. If you feel anxious about working with someone in a meeting the following week, schedule a coffee chat for 20 or 30 minutes the week prior to break the ice. More times than not, they will be happy to give you that facetime. Also try to get to know other interns you meet on the job - if you end up coming back to that company it’s good to have some familiar faces. When you go to an event or have an informal meeting, be sure to express gratitude for their time and make a longstanding connection on LinkedIn or exchange emails if they’re a little more old fashioned.
The meetings themselves: After reading the previous section, you might be thinking, well yes, it would be nice to do all those meetings and build that network. But how do I actually do it? Knowing how to have a good conversation is definitely a skill that requires practice to hone in on, but there are some general guidelines that can help you along the way. Reach out and schedule your meeting by nicely asking if the person has around 20-30 minutes in their day any time in the week because you would love an opportunity to learn from them. People will generally be very happy to do this, and even if they refuse, they will probably ask you to reach out again when they are less busy. After you get a response and schedule your meeting, be sure to prepare for it. The meetings themselves don’t have to be long at all, and if you have 3-4 core questions that will most likely have long responses, then you don’t have to worry about running out of things to talk about. As you talk to them in the meeting, other questions might come up and drive the conversation forward naturally as well, but you have the comfort of falling back on your prepared questions as well. Some basic questions include asking about their career path, how they got to where they are and what they want to be doing in the future, what they think of the company culture and work life, and if they have any advice for you. You can also create more targeted questions based on the role they have in the company or how much you know about them. At the end, thank them for their time, add them on LinkedIn, try to follow any suggestions they may have given you and follow up by messaging them about how their advice turned out for you, and try to reach out for a follow-up meeting if you can. The most important thing: have fun! A good conversation can be very beneficial and enjoyable for both parties, and thinking of it as a fun discussion where you could learn something new can make the conversation feel less forced.
Think of your Goals: Thinking of your goals requires some foresight about your future. While you may not know what the future holds, you might have an idea of what touchpoints could come in handy. Knowing your end-goal at a company or industry can be really helpful to pinpoint who to talk to. Interested in Data Science? Try scheduling a meeting with someone outside of your team or organization that specializes in that. Want to work in a particular subdivision in the future? Ask your manager if they know anyone who currently works there and could connect you two.
Intern and networking events: This one can be really tricky depending on the company. Sometimes, intern events can be essential ways to get exposure to upper management and meet people all across the company. Other times, they can be akin to a distraction to work without fleshed-out planning. Try to find a healthy balance of events by attending the ones that align with your career and personal goals. Also try to ask around and do research on which events can boost your exposure best and which ones are truly worth your time (it could be extremely helpful to ask past interns about this).
It is natural to throw yourself into an internship, especially if it is your first experience in the industry and you want to make the best of your time. While the drive and passion are great to have, it is crucial to recognize your own limits. Balancing your time is extremely important, not only for your personal health but also for effective work.
A few things to keep in mind as you go through your internship:
Proper lunch breaks: There is a reason a lunch break is a part of almost every regular work day. It is crucial to take an actual break and give yourself time to step away from work completely. Try to enjoy your break and do things like spend time with friends or coworkers, go for a walk, or just about anything that is not specifically focused on your work. Step away from your desk if you can, and have a separate break environment so you don’t get sucked back into work in the middle of the break. If working remotely, try to get out of the room where you work for a change in your surroundings, which is good for mental separation and mindfulness. Take all the time available to you and give yourself the opportunity to relax.
Prioritize your health: If you are having issues outside of work, make sure to take care of yourself. Your health is crucial, and you won’t be as effective at work if your health is not in the best state it could be. If the stress of work is impacting your health negatively, make sure to take a step back and reevaluate goals if needed. If your health is getting in the way of your work in a significant manner, be sure to communicate that with your supervisor as well. You are at your internship to work, but at the same time everyone is very understanding if you need to take a short break to get any necessary help and get back on track efficiently. Be aware of the health services relevant to your circumstances and are available to you and ask for help if needed.
Balance is a dynamic thing: A big part of the natural workflow is the highs and lows that come with workload. Some weeks, especially near deadlines, you might be working overtime and putting in more focus and effort than usual. Other weeks might be much more relaxing. Balance means making sure you are aware of weeks where you will be busy and ensuring you give yourself the space to accommodate that lifestyle, and taking advantage of slower weeks to catch up on other parts of your life as well. Managing your time well prevents you from going to either extreme. It will steer you away from being exceptionally unproductive or burning out completely.
When remote: Realize that working remotely can be extremely different from the usual workflow. Know yourself, and figure out what kind of worker you are when you work remote. If working at home is the environment you thrive in, then great, this section probably doesn’t apply to you. But if you struggle with focusing when you have every single distraction in your home available at all times, then recognize that and find ways to work around it. Try to put your phone completely away from your workspace, and turn it off if you find yourself distracted by it too often. Set regular reminders to alert you about things to keep in mind, or just to make sure you are focusing. Schedule regular short breaks (5-7 minutes) where you step away from work, and designate your distraction tasks and impulses only to those breaks.
The logistics is the glue that allows you to really execute on the points noted above. Before taking any of this to heart, understand that it’s not easy to keep up with all of this constantly and you are bound to slip up and become disorganized as the demands of your internship increase. Don’t stress! Just realize that this is totally normal and use what remaining systems you do have in place to move forward. There’s always extra time on slow days to upkeep your preferred productivity tools as well.
While everyone prefers different methods of keeping up, here’s some points to consider:
Tracking information: You’re going to get a lot of information during your internship, especially in the first two weeks. And so, it makes sense you’re going to need a way to track that information. A OneNote notebook works wonders for me as it sections out major topics and syncs between devices on all platforms. However, a physical notebook can accomplish the same thing without anything fancy! I like to use a combination of a small notebook for quick notes, a OneNote for links, screen caps, and information I’ll access frequently on the job. Physical and virtual sticky notes can come in handy for all sorts of reasons when putting together your thoughts. If your organization uses a Microsoft suite, try to integrate with their Outlook / Teams calendar to schedule all your meetings, coffee chats, and anything else so you don’t forget. If they don’t use Outlook or if you would prefer other options, try out Google Calendar combined with a productivity app like Trello or PowerPlanner.
Team norms: Expressing yourself and being true to your opinions is always important. While I would never advise you to suppress your own voice and thoughts, there are work-appropriate times to speak up and some times that are not the best. For example, if your team has daily “stand-up” meetings where the whole team syncs up on their progress for a short period of time, it might not be the most ideal time to express to your manager that you have a personal conflict with the deadline assigned to you. That would be much more appropriate of a conversation during a 1:1 or a personal email thread. Team norms can be difficult to pick up on, but your manager should be very open to having a conversation about them. This is less about “fitting in,” and more about being realistic about the imperfections or cultural norms of any team you join and being aware of them so you can pick and choose when to challenge or go along with them in a tasteful manner.
Knowing hour expectations: Internships and companies treat hours for interns very differently. This expectation difference can even be team-specific within the same company. Some internships may be hour-based where you have to log your hours while some are salary-based and the expectations are more about honesty and output. Communicate with your manager about this topic and what they expect. Some questions to ask: How long are lunch breaks expected to be? Do we work 9-5 or something else? Does our work day include time spent at networking events and training sessions? (they normally count those events as “work” hours) Since my work is remote, how does the team handle different time zones? A rule of thumb is that most salary-type internships are most interested in your daily or weekly output, as well as availability to reply to emails and instant messaging quickly.
Communication: This is the key to everything discussed above and is arguably the “glue to the glue.” Though it might not be everyone’s favorite component, communicating effectively is essential to showcasing what you’re made of: your growth, your abilities, and your personality. Being transparent about goals from the internship, your concerns, and what you're proud of can give your manager a better sense of where you are as a whole, and this can make sure you get more accurate feedback moving forward. Know that you don’t have to be an extrovert to communicate effectively: efficient and clear communication can be leveraged by even the most reserved and quiet people while staying true to themselves. It’s not about being the loudest in the room (but if that’s you don’t worry either) or the most outspoken, it’s more about communicating in a way that resolves conflicts and questions in a fashion that saves everyone's time and generates minimal confusion. Communicating in a way that keeps true to yourself is the easiest way to become more comfortable with your manager and your mentor.
Dealing with different types of people: At your job you will encounter a lot of different types of people, and you will quickly recognize the differences (if you haven’t already). People can have widely varying styles of communication, and being flexible in your interactions is a crucial part of being a good intern. You have to acknowledge these differences in order to communicate well. Understand that people can have a wide variety of reactions to different types of situations, and just because you have a certain perspective on an issue, it does not mean that everyone else will as well. You might think that there are “correct” or “reasonable” responses that make the most sense to you, but other people might not share those opinions because of their vastly different life experience. There really is no specific set of rules here because people can be so different, and any specific advice could be incorrect in a lot of situations. The best you can do is recognize the differences in personalities and communication styles, and be open-minded and receptive to the responses you get from the people around you. Understand that generational difference will also play a huge role in this.
Sending digital messages and emails: Sending a good email or instant message definitely comes with practice; however, there are some concrete steps to take no matter your writing skill. Try to make the email relatively short while covering all concerns and key points at once. If you need the email to be expanded to a thread with multiple responses, always consider if it would be better to split it up. Do all these questions have to be asked at once or even today? Does the receiver need exposure to all the details you are providing? Would this question be better delivered on Slack / Teams / internal IM service? Do not use instant messaging (IM) as if you are talking casually with a friend (unless it’s a casual conversation). If you know what questions will follow up, try to give all information upfront with multiple questions and your assumptions laid out plainly. That way, the receiver won’t have to have as long as a back-and-forth and can digest more at once to give a single response. This reduces active engagement time where both parties are spending their time messaging back and forth instead of focusing on the issue at hand. Always remember that long response times probably don’t mean they are mad at you; rather, they are likely busy and the message got buried. Never hurts to ping them again if it’s been more than a day (even less if it’s urgent).
That’s all the major points we have for now! If you have any questions, please feel free to find us online and reach out (add us on LinkedIn below since you made it through our essay). While this information can be applied dynamically depending on your situation, we hope that you found some value in what was shared. If you have an internship lined up or ongoing, best of luck! If you’re still searching, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for help - you got this!
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This blog post was written by Jacob Stokes and Yasira Yonus from IEEE.
Jacob is a rising senior ECE student and is the IEEE Vice Chair. Jacob is a Microsoft Software Engineer Intern and you can find him on LinkedIn here.
Yasira is a rising senior ECE student and is an IEEE member. Yasira is a IBM Software Engineer Intern and you can find her on LinkedIn here.