Jun 10, 2020

Mentoring Engineering Interns

So the company decided to run a new internship program, and you are now a mentor for the next batch. That’s good news, but whether you are new to engineering management or have some experience already, mentoring and motivating interns is not an easy task.

Building a successful internship program is hard. On the one hand, you need to find the right talent, and on the other, you need help them succeed, gain experience and potentially hire them as full-time employees.

This post is the first of a series, where we will be going over tips and strategies to consider when leading and mentoring an Engineering team, starting with, you guessed, Interns. Let’s get to work.

Get involved in the hiring process

Hiring interns is relatively easy compared to experienced developers, and internship programs are great to find suitable candidates before they graduate.

By working closely with the recruitment team during hiring, you can look for candidates you want to work with and who can potentially join the company after the program ends.

Make sure you join the interviews and talk directly to the candidates. Try to understand their expectations and motivations, and check for alignment with your goals as a mentor.

It’s essential to consider that most candidates won’t have professional experience, so throwing technical riddles and whiteboard tests won’t do much. Excellent communication skills, curiosity, and a positive attitude are way more important than technical expertise.

Give them meaningful work

If figuring out the inner workings of a company is hard enough for the most experienced, imagine how difficult it is for a new intern. Your first job is to help your mentees settle on, get used to space and people, setup the tools (OS, IDE, licenses, etc….) and check out some code.

After setting up, have a project ready for them. Without one, boredom will take over, and you will lose the first opportunity to engage and have them do something useful.

Remember, you don’t want interns to do errands and serve coffee. You want them to be part of your team and work in something that will eventually reach production. Set them to work a small feature, ongoing issues, or anything that requires real-life coding.

In case you don’t have time to prepare something for the full length of the program, try to arrange work and training for the first couple of weeks and take it from there. Small assignments are good enough.

Set deadlines

Interns should be treated the same way as employees, and therefore you need them to follow the standard rules. Deadlines, even if defined for minimal tasks, are a great tool to keep them motivated and will help you maintain a predictable schedule for follow-ups and support points.

As an Engineer, being able to estimate and prioritize tasks is a critical skill, but it also takes time and lots of practice to master. It is a good idea to work on this with your mentees from day one. Let them define their deadlines, question their decisions, and help them identify pitfalls.

Listen first, then explain

As a mentor, the most crucial skill you need exercise is listening. It is not just about the words you hear but also about body language, tone, and all sorts of signals.

Consider that for a new intern, approaching and interrupting you is hard enough, so make sure your mentees have your full attention. When interrupted with questions, stop whatever you are doing, look them in the eye, and respond with as much detail as possible. Pay attention!.

There will be many occasions when interns avoid asking for your help, probably trying not to look stupid, even if they have no idea what they’re doing. Your job as a mentor is to ask the questions in advance and prevent things from going sideways. The idea is to correct the course of action before it is too late, get those questions out, and set up spaces to explain things in detail as often as necessary.

Communicate what needs to happen

This is the most critical skill for any manager. When working with senior engineers, you can point out the expected outcomes and let them figure out how to get there, but that’s not always the case for interns.

It’s ok to set goals and provide objectives with interns, but you will also need to guide them throughout the process. After giving a task to your mentees, make sure they understand why you are requesting this, and ask about their plan to get there.

Guide them on relevant documentation, additional information that might be required, and people that need to get involved. Your role is to facilitate the learning process, so also help them break the task into smaller chunks of work, and follow up carefully while making small corrections along the way.

Promote togetherness

In addition to choosing interns with the right cultural fit, you should promote togetherness. Encourage your mentees to participate in events, team building activities, company meetings, and getaways. Go out for lunch or a beer from time to time.

Hackathons, for example, are great to connect and promote technical excellence as you get to level the playing field while encouraging creativity. Invite interns to participate as part of your team to generate achievement-oriented relationships and increase their opportunities to showcase their skills and learn from your team members.

And finally, set up one on ones

By following the above recommendations, you will build an open, transparent communication path with your mentees. Still, it is also essential to create specific situations to connect while answering questions and giving advice.

Setting up one on one meeting at least once a week, and asking your mentees to come up with questions, comments, or ideas, creates a safe space to develop trust and build a transparent relationship.

One on one meetings are the best place to provide feedback. Be honest, direct when doing so, reflect on how things are progressing, and always make sure to recognize their work and effort when recognition is due.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. Feel free to follow me and reach out on Twitter if you have any questions or feedback.

Check out other posts in the series:

Photo by Sung Shin on Unsplash