Managers: The Case for Giving Interns Real Work

I’m writing this because I’ve seen and heard of too many interns being given busy-work “projects”.

Examples of busy-work projects: internal analytics dashboards that are left sitting in a repository, “prototyped” features that were never A/B tested, demo projects for new frameworks which already have thousands of open source demos on Github. This is just in tech so the list goes on and on.

To managers: Since now is around the time you get together with others to brainstorm “project” ideas for incoming summer interns, I hope that the points I make below change how you think and convince you to start giving your interns real work with noticeable impact.

In what I’ve noticed, most interns are given meaningless work because of their manager’s thoughts on what an intern program’s purpose is: churn out “competent” full time employees while saving money on expensive new grad hiring. Because managers think this way, interns are perceived as students who need to wait for real work. Thus, interns are given meaningless busy-work that can be done alone, allowing other employees to focus on the “real work”. Managers should never do this.

If you give interns meaningless work, they will not enjoy working with you, which means their interest in the team and company is nonexistent. That’s the worst thing you can do.

Everything needs to change.

First of all, many managers’ way of thinking has to change. Managers need to make interns feel like they are a valued part of the team. This can only be done by giving interns real work. In software engineering teams, this means getting interns involved in pushing basic bug fixes, deploying builds, iterating features, and more. Doing this establishes trust in the intern and shows commitment from the rest of the team. If an intern is properly taken care of, then he or she will be more likely to stay full time and do great things for your company in the future. This, in turn, helps everyone on the team, especially the manager.

Second of all, assessment of interns needs to change. Nowadays, because many interns are given meaningless summer projects, a full time offer is given solely on a manager’s thoughts on an intern’s competence and answers to HR questions like ‘Was this intern confident in his or her abilities?’. Are you serious??!!!

An intern’s successful completion of a meaningless side project has no correlation to completion of real, critical tasks. Interns need to be assessed on how much they can contribute towards their team’s goals.

In tech, for a software engineering intern, contribution towards the team’s goals includes many things such as: the code an intern commits and the help and insight that this intern can provide to the rest of the team after a short learning period is over. These are the things that always matter. If you prioritize getting this from your interns, your team will be in a much better spot.

An intern’s work, whether it is pushing a feature, onboarding a new customer, or drafting an important speech, represents change and impact. A person who was once an intern will occasionally look back, feel good, and desire making more change. That’s exactly what we need from citizens of the world!