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Navigating an engineering internship: 4 tips to take your experience to the next level

Jonathan, who wrote this post, smiling for the camera while wearing a fuzzy panda hat
Jonathan Maltz

If you ask anyone what my favorite part of working at Yelp is, chances are they’ll say “working with interns.” After my internship with Yelp in 2013, I have continually tried to see if they’ll just rehire me as a permanent intern; they unfortunately said no, so I make it work as best I can by volunteering to mentor any intern who joins our team.

Over time, I’ve found that there are a few strategies that separate interns who get the most out of their experience from those who merely enjoy it. All of our interns come in and learn technical skills but, by employing a few other strategies, some interns are able to accelerate their growth and ensure that they have a good idea of what they want out of a position when they graduate. As summer internship season approaches, I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the habits I’ve seen from super successful interns.

Excited interns at the Sutro Baths
Excitement at the Sutro Baths

Successful Interns Aren’t Afraid to Ask For Help

One of the biggest mistakes that I see some new interns — and indeed, some new full-timers — make is that they allow themselves to get blocked for far too long before engaging their mentor for help. As an intern, you should strive to never be blocked on any particular challenge for more than 20 minutes. Once you’ve spent over 20 minutes bashing your head against a particular problem, you should reach out to your mentor for help.

Asking a question is not the end of the road, though. Once you’ve enlisted your mentor’s help, you have another collaborator to help solve your problem, but ultimately you are going to implement whatever solution you find. Stay engaged with problems by working with your mentor to debug and understand your issue rather than simply hoping it’s solved for you.

Successful interns pay attention to how they feel during their internship so they can find great full-time positions

Internships are great for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that they allow you to get a “trial-run” of working at a company before deciding where you want to work full-time. In order to take advantage of this, pay attention to the parts of your work and team culture that you like and dislike during your internship.

Once you’ve figured out what frustrates you and what excites you, think about specific questions to ask in interviews to avoid what you don’t like and find what you do like in your future job. If you’re unsure of which questions to ask during your interview, Aileen Lerner put together a great list of questions over on her website, interviewing.io.

Successful interns hone their communication skills

As a software engineering intern, you’ll spend a ton of time learning to write better code and level up your technical skills. However, great coding skills are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to becoming a great software engineer. Communication skills are equally important. As such, you should spend part of your time thinking about how to become a great communicator in addition to a great coder.

First and foremost, you can write design documentation both before and after your project. After you’ve written your document, send it out for review just like you would with any piece of code. This will help you both grow your communication skills and catch any mistakes before you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole. Additionally, you can do code reviews for other members of your team.

This will not only help grow your technical communication skills, it will help teach conflict resolution (what happens when two people disagree about the correct implementation?), and it will help you learn about the code base. After you’ve done a couple code reviews, make sure to sit down with your mentor and discuss how the process went and where there’s still room for improvement.

Interns posing during their final day of the Yelp engineering internship
Engineering interns on their last day

Successful interns get out and talk to people on other teams

Very frequently when I mentor interns, I’ll have the following conversation with them after our weekly product status:

Intern: Wow, that new foobarnicator widget is super cool. How does it work?

Me: I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the person who made it?

Intern: How do I do that?              

Me: Just schedule time on their calendar and ask them about it?

Intern: I can just do that?!

The thing that most interns miss is that engineers who have just shipped a big change which sounds really cool are SUPER EXCITED about the fact that they just shipped a cool, new, exciting feature and  they’d love to talk about it. The only thing you need to do is find some time on their calendar and ask them about it.

At the same time, though, just because people are excited to talk about their projects, it doesn’t mean you should expect them to know which parts are interesting to you. Make sure to show that you value your fellow engineers’ time by showing up on time prepared with questions that you’re curious about. Don’t worry, “How does XYZ work?” is a totally valid question.

There you have it, folks: four simple things that you can do to make sure that your internship goes beyond “fun and enjoyable” and gets accelerated into “extreme learning opportunity” territory. By honing your communication skills, asking for help when necessary, and reaching out to people from other teams, you will leave having grown more than you can imagine. Lastly, remember that this internship is just three months in a career that will probably span over 40 years, so be sure to use this time as an opportunity to see what you enjoy and to make those next 40 years enjoyable.