Making connections during a remote internship

How I conducted virtual coffee chats during my summer internship at VMware

Tracy Wei
Tracy Wei
Sep 9, 2020 · 8 min read
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Illustration “Coffee Break” by Alexandra

As one of the lucky designers that settled an internship with VMware Cloud on AWS team before summer began, I remembered how my excitement slightly dropped when I learned that it would be completely remote. I wondered how I could connect with my team members in a meaningful way. While I would be missing out on the fun intern activities, I was more concerned about missing out on the lunch-time or hallway conversations that help you build relationships with your colleagues. These are the conversations that help me learn more about a company, professional areas I can grow in and most importantly, make new friends.

Thus to make up for these conversations that I’d hate to miss, I came up with a virtual coffee chat plan as one of my internship goals. Over the first 6 weeks of my internship, I set up zoom chats with more than 10 colleagues at VMware within and outside of the design team and gained valuable insights on navigating professional life as a junior designer.

As Work From Home becomes the new norm in tech, I thought I could share a few tips on how I successfully connected with others through 30-minute virtual coffee chats. If you are eager for interactions but have not gathered the courage to get started, I hope this article can give you some courage and actionable items to help you start some remote conversations.

Step 1: Make a detailed plan and start emailing

Prior to this summer, I had been navigating my design career in startups as solo designer. Interning at VMware is my first experience working as part of a design team. From the beginning of my internship, I had a rough plan to learn how different design teams operate at VMware and find out what areas I can improve my design proficiency in. 1:1 casual coffee chats seemed like a good opportunity for me to talk with more diverse colleagues.

So I knew the what and the why, but how should I make it happen? I found myself stuck at the first step of the planning phase. Even after proofreading my emails over and over again, I hesitated to hit the “send” button because I was worried my abrupt request to chat might burden others. That’s when I reached out to my manager Neeharika for advice, which proved to be the right move to take. She shared two great pieces of advice that encouraged me to get started. If you’re like me and are hesitant to reach out first, I hope these tips can encourage you too.

What’s the rough number of people you would like to chat with per week? Is it a long-term plan or a short-term one? Writing down time estimations makes it more action-oriented and offers a clear idea of how much of a time commitment there is. Following this tip helped me focus on making progress towards my goals. Looking at my 12-week timeframe, I decided to aim for scheduling 2–3 sessions per week with about 10 people.

Everyone is busy. Often times, we want to express that we care about others’ time by asking for their availability before scheduling something. Yet I found in my experience that it actually saved both my and my coffee mate’s time by suggesting a time with a meeting link based on their current calendar availability. This way, you’ll either be all set or it’s just one more round of adjusting instead of going back and forth.

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Illustration “Scheduling Dashboard” by Sara Geci

Step 2: Leverage your available resources to reach more people

Meeting new people in the virtual world isn’t as dynamic as getting introduced to new coworkers in the break room or during lunch. Therefore you have to utilize different resources. Here are some of my approaches:

It’s always easier to start a conversation with someone that has something in common with you. Start chatting with your alumni, who might have similar experience transitioning from school to work; or start with your mentors, ask them about their experience joining the team, and ask them to connect you with other people on the team.

One of the benefits of remote meeting is you can see who’s talking. Pay attention in team meetings. When you hear something interesting, take notes and reach out to the speaker. This is how I connected with the senior technical writer, an expert in Information Experience(IX) in the design team, who also introduced me to her former intern. This former intern provided me with valuable insights related to my intern project and inspired me with his own experience exploring different positions within VMware. This chain of connections might not have happened in the real world since it would have been much harder to remember the names and roles of meeting attendees without a name tag floating above their heads as they speak.

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Illustration “Remote Calls” by Al Power™

Did anything interesting but unexpected emerge during your conversation? Ask if you can get connected to someone who knows more about that. Did you mention what you are currently working on? Ask if they know anyone that is familiar with the subject. It’s like ripples. Always asking for introductions helps you expand one more layer outside of your existing social boundaries. You also have chance meeting with someone you’ve never met before. What’s more, now you know exactly how to start the conversation with your next coffee mate. Simply start by “I heard you are an expert at…and I’d like to learn more about it.”

Step 3: Pick a “Happy-Hour” time

Ideally, 30 minutes after lunch or catch up in the mornings are wonderful times to start the casual conversations. Yet working remotely, you never know when everyone is planning on eating or taking a break. Adding on to that, virtual meetings won’t automatically mute all the ongoing other messages from Slack, emails, and group chats, which constantly distract your conversation. Thus finding a good timing to schedule is key to having a relaxing virtual coffee chat with no rush.

Inspired by our team’s once a week “No-agenda Casual Catch-up” half-an-hour before the workday ends, I decided to use similar strategy and aim for blocking the last 30 minutes of my workday to schedule virtual coffee chat. It works surprisingly well. Usually with no immediate meeting afterward, the conversation doesn’t get rushed. Sometimes we even got to talk a few extra minutes. Then it became a routine that every Thursday or Friday, I would pull up my calendar and start sending out invitations for next week to block the 4:30–5:00pm time. Take a while to observe, what’s your company’s “Happy Hour” time to have casual chats?

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Illustration by Kasia Bojanowska

Step 4: Preparation helps you lead the conversation

You’ve reached out, settled a time. Now it’s coffee time! Besides grabbing a real cup of coffee, how can you best utilize the precious time people agreed to spare?

Briefly mentioning the topic you are interested in discussing in the meeting invite will help both of you mentally prepare for what’s coming up, so that the conversation is more on track. It might also unconsciously bring up forgotten memories that contain juicy insights.

Treat the virtual coffee chat as an informational interview. As UX designers, we’ve all learned how to ask open-ended questions in interviews, or how to capture interesting points in conversation and deep dive into them. Use what you know about user research during these conversations.

When I initially reached out for a coffee chat with Rebecca McMillin, Head of Design Platform at VMware, I was curious about her vision of the future of Clarity design system and wanted to gain some general advice for junior designers. To keep the conversation more open-ended, I only prepared 3 broad questions to start with and decided to let the conversation flow. In the end, besides having my initial questions answered, our chat went deeper into directions beyond my expectation. I was able to get some insights on differences of designing for enterprise products vs. consumer products. I also learned how words can imply a person’s level of confidence during business conversations, which inspired me to do more research on word choice to improve my communication skills.

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Illustration by by Al Power™ for Clubhouse

What I learned…

Being able to communicate and learn from designers and colleagues outside of my team is a huge plus to my virtual internship experience at VMware. Through my chats with designers working on Clarity design system, I acknowledged the challenges and constraints faced by designing open-source design systems. Through chatting with the Head of accessibility, I learned the importance of designing inclusive interfaces and how as a bilingual, I can help promote inclusive design in my home country. Through conversations with colleagues who are past interns, I learned the importance of proactively exploring different positions during my earlier career and the resources offered by VMware in support of its employees… I can go on and on in listing the insights I learned from having a virtual sip of coffee with my coworkers, but that’s not why I decided to pen down this article.

There’s an old saying in China,

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” — Translate source

I hope that through sharing my experience and a few actionable tips, you can also kickstart your own virtual coffee chat plan. I also want to encourage those who are as timid as I was when I wrote my first cold email. It’s not as hard as it seems. It might be even easier in the remote world, which flattens the physical distance between everyone. You might also be surprised by how most senior designers and directors are very willing to share valuable insights with newbies in workplace. All you need to do is ask sincerely and be clear about what your bigger goals are.

VMware Design

The VMware Design team | Transforming enterprise user…

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