Navigating Your First Technical Internship

During the final weeks of my internship with Invenia, while looking back on my time here, I had the idea to share some thoughts on my experience and what advice I wish I had been given leading up to my start date. There are countless recipes for a successful internship, and I hope what follows can help guide you towards making yours great.

First and foremost, congratulations on landing your first technical internship! After hours of fine-tuning your resume, countless cover letters written, and (if you are in the same boat I was in) having faced your fair share of rejections, you’ve made it. Before digging into the rest of this post, take a moment to be proud of the work you’ve put in and appreciate where it has led you. If perhaps you are reading this in the middle of your application process and are yet to receive an offer, don’t worry. The first summer I applied for technical internships, out of roughly 20 applications sent, I received a single interview and zero offers. It never feels like it is going to happen until it does. Here’s a useful guide if you’re looking for tips on the application process.

Hopefully the advice that follows in this post will give you some insight that helps you make a strong impression throughout the course of your internship. Some more technical subjects or toolkits will be mentioned for the sake of example, but we won’t get into the details of these in this post. There are plenty of online resources that provide great introductions to git, the cloud, and countless other new topics you might encounter.

Before you start

The most important thing you can do leading up to your internship is try to relax. It’s common to feel a nervous excitement as your first day approaches. Remember that you will have plenty of time (give or take 40 hours per week) to focus on this soon enough. Take the time to enjoy other hobbies or interests while you have the time.

If all distractions fail, a great way to spend any built up excitement is to do some research. You likely already have a good sense of what the company does, the general culture and what your role might entail from the application and interview processes. Feel free to dig deeper into these topics. See if there’s information on the company website about your coworkers, the impact your work might drive and the industry as a whole. This will help you feel more prepared when you start, as well as settle some jitters in the weeks leading up.

Hitting the ground running

The day has finally arrived, you’ve made it! Surely your first week will be filled with lots of meetings, introductions, and learning. My advice for this information overload is about as basic as it gets: take notes, and lots of them. Ironically, being a software engineer, I am a big fan of handwriting my notes. I also think it looks better from the perspective of the person speaking to see someone writing notes by hand versus typing away at a laptop, unable to see the screen.

In the same vein, any buzzwords you hear (any term, phrase, acronym or title that you don’t fully understand) should be added to a personal dictionary. This was really important for me, and I made reference to it weekly throughout my 8 month internship. You should keep this up throughout the entire internship, however the first two weeks is likely when it will grow the most. What is a Docker container and what makes them helpful? Who knows what [insert some arbitrary industry acronym here] stands for? These are questions that are super easy to answer by asking coworkers or even the internet. Maintaining your own shortlist of important definitions will help fast track your learning and be a great tool to pass along to new interns that join during your stay.

One of the best ways you can get to know the company and those you are working with is simply to reach out to your coworkers. This can be challenging depending on the size of the company you are with. It becomes even more intimidating if you are in the middle of a global pandemic and are onboarding from home. Try connecting via Slack, email or set up calls to get to know those both in and outside of your team. Learning about the different teams, individuals’ career paths and building your network is one of the best ways to make the most of your internship, both personally and professionally. Reaching out like this can be intimidating, especially early on, but it will show that you are interested in the company as a whole and highlight that you have strong initiative. People generally are more than happy to talk about their work and personal interests. There is no reason not to start this during your first couple weeks.

The Bulk

Throughout my internship, I discovered three main takeaways that should be considered by anyone working through an internship, especially if it is your first.

1. Who is this imposter?

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling of doubting your own skills, accomplishments and thinking of yourself as some kind of fraud. For me, this manifested itself as a stream of questions such as When will they realize they’ve made a huge mistake in hiring me? and thoughts similar to I am definitely not smart enough for this! Temper this by remembering they hired you for a reason. After interviewing many candidates and having spent hours speaking to you and testing your skills, they picked you. This reminder certainly won’t make all these anxieties disappear, but can hopefully help mitigate any unnecessary stress. Being a little nervous can help motivate you to work hard and push you to succeed. It is worth remembering that all your coworkers likely went through the same experience, or even still feel this way from time to time. Feel free to get their insights or experience with this if you feel comfortable doing so.

These thoughts and feelings might start well before your first day and last well into the internship itself, as they did in my case. It will improve with time and experience. Until that happens just remember to use your available sources of support and try to translate it into motivation.

2. Asking for help

A big fear I had during my internship was coming across as naive and inexperienced. I was very worried about asking a question and getting “How do you not know that? Don’t you know anything?” as a response. While this is certainly a normal thought process, it is misguided for a few reasons. First off, my coworkers are great people, as I am sure are yours. The odds of someone saying that are slim to none, and if they do, it tells you a lot more about them than it does about you. Secondly, and this is an important thing to keep in mind: no one expects you to know everything and be great at everything, especially early on as an intern. Asking questions is an important part of learning and internships are no exception. This one comes in two parts: when and how to ask for help.

Let me save you the time I wasted trying to figure out when is the perfect point to ask a question. While you definitely do not want to just ask before thinking or doing any digging yourself, no one wants you endlessly spinning your wheels. Take the time to think about the problem, see if there are any reliable resources or answers in some documentation, attempt a couple of solutions, but don’t fuss until the end of time out of fear of looking dumb.

How you ask for help is the easy one. You’ve done all the work already. Avoid questions like “Hey how do you do [insert problem]?”, or even worse “Hey I know this is probably SUPER stupid but I don’t get [insert problem here] haha!”. Do say something along the lines of “Hey [insert name]. I have been trying to figure out how to solve [insert problem] and seem to be stuck. I have tried [insert attempted solutions] with no success and was hoping you could point me in the right direction.” You can also frame it as a leading question, such as “So in order to do X, we have to do Y because of Z?” It doesn’t have to be a lengthy breakdown of every thought you had, it really shouldn’t be. People generally prefer concise messages, just show that you have put some thought and effort into it.

3. Make your voice heard

The scope of this point may vary depending on the size of your company, its culture and your role, however, the point remains the same. Share your thoughts on what you are working on. Share what interests you as subjects, both within and outside your role.

I had the incredible opportunity to contribute to my organization in ways beyond the scope of my job description. Yes, this is because of the supportive nature of the company and the flexibility that comes with working at a smaller organization, but it also would not have happened had I not shared what I am interested in. I gained fantastic experience in my role, but also developed an appreciation and better understanding for other work being done at the company.

Share your thoughts at the weekly team meeting, don’t be afraid to review code or improve documentation and bounce ideas off coworkers during coffee breaks (oh, try not to drink too much coffee). They hired you in large part for your brain, don’t be afraid to use it!

Final Impressions

You’ve made it to the final few weeks of your internship, congrats! Hopefully you have had a fantastic experience, learning a lot and making lasting relationships. Now is the time to think of who you would like to connect with for a chat or call before you finish. This can be for any number of reasons; giving a little extra thanks, asking for career advice or even just for the sake of saying farewell to the friends you’ve made along the way!

Regardless of whether or not you follow any of this advice, I wish you the best of luck in your internship. While the advice above worked well for me, it is by no means a one-size-fits-all magical recipe to the perfect internship. There will certainly be hurdles along the way, anxieties to overcome, and inevitable mistakes made, all of which will contribute to making your internship a great learning experience. Good luck and enjoy the ride.