How To Be More Than An Intern
“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” — Steve Martin
Internships are a disagreeable but very real part of growing into a career. At least until we bring back the apprenticeship (we’re working on it), many young people may find themselves at some point in stereotypical coffee-fetching, copy-making positions in companies across the country.
Still, you want more. You want to do more, and you want the respect of having done real work really well. You probably want to get hired or get a great recommendation for future employers. Excellent. You can.
They say you should write about what you know about, so here are a few of the most important things I’ve learned through working in, sometimes failing in, and ultimately getting hired through my sojourns as a lowly intern.
Wait one second. Isn’t this supposed to be about being more than intern?
Yes, but being a spectacular intern means doing what you need to do first and foremost. In order to break this role and step outside of it, you have to fill it especially well. You have to cover the basics: answer emails promptly, finish projects on time, respect coworkers and clients, show up every day, get stuff done.
This is all about being reliable and valuable. At your age or experience level, the small things that you do for your boss or your teammates may be the best you can do. Appreciate that fact and find peace with it.
If you feel that you’re better than that, maybe you can channel that energy into creating a robot that delivers the coffee for you. If you do something that valuable, I guarantee that a job offer is not far behind.
Master the delicate art of asking.
Learn when to ask questions. The challenging part of being an intern is to know when you should unleash the flood gates and when you need to ask Google.
On one hand, your coworkers will appreciate you immensely if you display the willingness and independent resourcefulness it takes to get what you need to do your job. You have a wealth of help articles, manuals, YouTube videos, and tutorials waiting for you on the Internet — things many of the older executives in your company never had. Yet I imagine they managed to figure things out without bugging their managers every few minutes. You can, too.
On the other hand, you’re around people who are far more experienced and skilled than you. Take advantage of this! If you can take tasks off of someone else’s plate by exploring a new function or learning a new skill, don’t be afraid to ask questions or get pointers on how to best perform those tasks. For me, this skill was using HTML and Git to collaborate with web developers at my company. I’ve asked a LOT of questions along the way, but I’m ultimately saving time and providing unique value to my team by having the basics under my belt.
Create value, not work.
Performed poorly, internships cost businesses more than they’re worth.
You’re probably starting out without many relevant workplace skills, and you’ll probably have to be trained in some skills before you’re producing a net gain for your coworkers. Moreover, if you screw up, your hiring manager is going to take as much if not more heat than you.
It’s OK to not have experience. Still, this is not something you should feel comfortable about for long. If you ever want to be seen as more than a temporary cog in the machine, you need to own this experience and be valuable by creating value. You need to adopt practices and a mindset focused on value for your coworkers and your business’s customers.
Volunteer for the hard and thankless tasks. Take initiative to fill in the gaps for your team or your company. Own up to your manager and your teammates when you fail. Make amends by working harder and rebuilding trust. If you’re behind on projects, stay later. Spend some time on the weekends learning a new skill that your team needs. Write the testimonial you want when you leave or create the record of great work you need to be hired.
In short, if you want to be really excellent, you have to start out by expecting more of yourself than others expect of you. These are some of the best ways to show them where they’re wrong.
As an added plus, you can stop calling yourself an intern when you can start talk about what you’re actually making.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, especially if you’re a young person performing the more menial tasks of an internship. If you want to do work that lasts longer than a summer, though, you need to start thinking of the business first and foremost not just as an employee but as an owner.
Granted, your responsibilities remain the same if you do (and you’re not getting a corner office), but you’ll have a much more insightful and valuable perspective from which to do your job. You’ll be able to tell the bad ideas from the good ones. You’ll understand the decisions your executives and managers make. You’ll see that fetching coffee can add significant value by freeing up your coworkers to do what they do best, and you may even discover new ways to create value for your company that no one else has seen before.
Companies love that.
Think you’re up to these challenges? Good. You don’t have to suffer through this first part of your career. Make it something memorable for you and the people you work with.
Whatever you do, if you start with the principle of creating value in mind, you’ll have a good chance of becoming so much more than an intern (and even more than some employees), and you’ll be well on your way to leading an entrepreneurial life.
James Walpole is a writer, podcaster, and marketer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He currently works with bitcoin payment technology company BitPay and explores the ideas and people behind the decentralization movement with the DECENTRALIZE podcast. He also writes and works with Praxis, a ten-month program for entrepreneurial young learners.
Originally published as “How To Kill It In Your First Internship” at blog.discoverpraxis.com on July 8, 2015.