Running a Software Development College Internship

Introducing an college internship program into a development organization can be a difficult challenge. There are precious little resources available on the topic. Here are some thoughts I’ve put together after working with interns over the last year and a half.

What Does Your Department Want?

Deciding what value you hope to gain will go a long way toward helping you decide what the features of a good internship program should be. From the intern’s perspective, they want an opportunity to learn, to network, and to gain experience. If you don’t have anything that you want out of offering an internship, it will be hard for you to run it effectively.

For our part, we want to expand our existing “learning organization” culture. We regard our interns as potential sources of hiring. We want to improve the overall quality of software in general by teaching new programmers some of our hard-won knowledge of principles, patterns, and practices. We want to aid our business by making interns available to work on small-scale projects that almost never get prioritized.

Establish a Primary and Secondary Mentor

Each intern should have a primary mentor who is responsible for directing their day-to-day activities. In addition, each intern should have at least one adjunct mentor who checks in with them each week to see how they are doing. Often a different ear will hear things that the primary mentor will not, such as if the primary mentor is moving too fast or too slow, or if a different teaching technique would be helpful. This feedback is important to gain early so that the learning process can be tailored to the individual intern.

Patience

As a mentor and trainer to interns you will be confronted with the sheer number of concepts, processes, tools, techniques that you simply take for granted. In our shop interns have routinely never seen source control, build servers, unit testing, code bases with more than a few hundred lines, third party tools such as ReSharper, third party libraries such as jQuery, and project management tools. We have to teach them all of those things before they can be productive in our business.

In its current incarnation, our interns spend 20+ hours per week in the office. Below are the materials that I really want them to learn over the course of their internship. Time is short and there is a lot to learn, but the mentor should resist the desire to go too fast. I’m covering concepts with my interns that it took me 10 years to learn. I’m trying to introduce them to these concepts so that they understand them well enough to begin using them in just over a month. This is an enormous challenge for both the intern and the mentor. The mentor needs to remain patient and allow the intern time to digest and practice what has been covered so far before diving into the next subject.

Most importantly, do not push the interns to learn topics that build on other topics they do not yet understand. For example, don’t teach mocking tools before they’ve learned the basics of Test Driven Development.

Practice

Interns need time to practice the material you are teaching them. Remember, you have been doing this for years. They’ve been doing this for days. The difference is important. Given them breakable toys to work on. Teach them the concept. Pair with them to practice the technique the first time. Follow up with a different practice exercise for them to do on their own to be sure they have it. If you can’t find a good practice exercise, create one. If the intern does not seem to be “getting it” from you, consider having the intern work with someone else for the material in question. Sometimes an alternate perspective is all it takes to make the material sink in. If that still doesn’t work, move on to something else and come back to the material later.

Pairing

It can often be hard for interns to “get started” with whatever task they’re supposed to be practicing. For example, after reading about Test Driven Development, they may feel confident that they understand the concepts. In practice however, they are often unable to write their first tests. As the primary mentor, you will need to work directly with them to help them “get over the hump.” By pairing with them, you will see concretely what they do and do not understand. You should give broader context for what they do understand, and direct their learning and practice toward what they do not understand.

Training

Learning is what the intern is here for, but where do you start? How do you work with someone with no prior work experience? How do you teach them all those things you take for granted? We want to welcome new people into the software development industry, but we don’t want to sacrifice code quality.

I accomplish this in a couple of ways.

The first thing I do with a new intern is setup an online Kanban board with them. I’m using Trello right now. This is important to keep track of each intern’s progress. Further, the intern’s learning is a project in it’s own right, so it’s natural to treat it the way we treat other projects.

During the first month they are given the time and space they need to read, watch training videos, and practice what they’ve learned on breakable toys. I spend 1 to 3 hours per day working side-by-side with the intern during this period to guide their learning. The order of the learning is not terribly important, though there are logical dependencies between some concepts that need to be observed.

I require that all of their work is placed into source control. I want the intern to get comfortable with github right away as all work should be done using source control. Many interns have never worked with source control at all, so learning git right away can be challenging. A good exercise for learning github is to have them import their school projects into github. If the intern likes the command-line that’s fine, but I usually tell them about great GUI tools such as SourceTree. I find that the GUI really helps people new to Git grok the concepts. (I still use the GUI myself Winking smile .)

The other thing I think it’s important to discuss early is the value of clean code. Our interns are given copies of Clean Code and Clean Coder on their first day. Of all the books listed, this is the one it’s most important to me that they read. A recent idea I had about how to practice cleaning code is have the intern use their own school projects (now conveniently located in github) as refactoring exercises.

An intern is not going to master any of the content (that takes continued practice over years), but they will be much further ahead starting their career armed with a basic grasp of the principles, patterns, and practices that it took the rest of us years to learn. The learning should be aggressive and focused on making them productive in your environment as quickly as possible.

Real Code

It’s natural that interns would want to work on something useful for the business. The biggest bottlenecks to making that happen for us are process compliance, automated testing, their ability to navigate large projects, and knowledge of software architectural patterns. Our shop places a high value on automated testing for production code. TDD is difficult for experienced developers to learn, so asking an intern to do it on the first day might be a bit much. This is why we don’t expect useful code out of our interns in the first month. That time is to be spent learning.

After the first month we begin introducing them to code bases we intend to use. These code bases are typically larger than the code that they have been working with in school, so it’s important to spend some time teaching them how to navigate the projects. This time should include a discussion of the logical division of responsibilities inside the project as well as mundane items such as useful keyboard shortcuts in whatever developer tools you are using.

Internship Curriculum

Below is the basic curriculum I put interns through in their time with us. I encourage them to get through as much of the reading and training materials as possible. I start putting them on real code after the first month. I pair with them to find out what they do and do not understand. I do not push them to study topics that build on concepts they do not already grasp. This curriculum is tailored for our environment. We are a Kanban, C#, Continuous Integration shop that highly values clean code. Your curriculum should be tailored to the tools that you use every day in your work.

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