How tech internships and mentoring should work in lockdown

Dominic Wellington Profile picture for user Dominic Wellington May 15, 2020
MongoDB’s Dominic Wellington explains the importance of internships and mentoring - even in lockdown - and gives guidance on how to make them work as COVID-19 persists.

Video call with eight colleagues screen view © MongoDB
(© MongoDB)

It was the year 2001 and I was hurtling down the autobahn in the passenger seat of a Porsche 944 Turbo.

I was excited. I was scared. I was learning the value of great mentorship.

My mentor taught me many useful things besides how fast a car can go.

I was lucky. I spent months elbow to elbow with him, interning, learning and copying.

As we head into this internship season, we face difficult questions. What are the best ways to approach this important relationship in a unique situation? And how can internships and mentoring still succeed?

Once an intern, always an intern

Internships will always be important.

We know interns don't just learn the bare how-to aspects of the work. They also learn the intangible organisational and cultural aspects of how the work gets done.

Back in 2001, my experience relied on discussions and direction. I always remember the informal instruction too. I got this by watching how my mentor went about his job. I saw how he interacted with colleagues and what he focused on and when. It's much easier to do that when you are elbow to elbow.

The most valuable lesson I learned, however (apart from the correct way to release the Porsche's handbrake) was to always be learning. The eagerness with which he approached a new project which gave him an opportunity to learn something new left a lasting impression on me.

Learning and adapting became a key element of my career path. Today, that learning-by-osmosis is perhaps even more important — but is it still possible for mentoring to succeed when it's not possible to work elbow to elbow?

1. Let the work do the work

The capacity to learn fast was an important lesson during my internships. Every placement and project is an opportunity to learn. It's where you can apply existing skills in a new domain. This doesn’t change while you're at home.

There will be a temptation as a mentor, sat at your make-shift desk, to email over a daily-dump of scut work and move on to the “real” work. Don't do that.

Instead, help your interns learn by involving them in remote projects. Work through a problem together and explain why you did what you did. Run way more post-mortem analyses than you normally would. Help them understand what happened. Encourage them to ask questions, and take the time to give them real guidance.

Introduce one to one sessions focused just on growth, as separate from the standard meetings about fixing bugs or how to use the expense app. Help the intern uncover what they're most excited to learn – the experience will do the rest. Make it a safe place to ask questions and encourage those questions as much as possible. Research has shown the best devop teams have high levels of psychological safety.

Interns may also have something to teach their mentors. After all, as students they have been using many of the same tools we have at work for their remote education, and they don't have any bad habits or assumptions to unlearn in the switch to remote work. The experience of a remote internship will also set them up well for a world in which remote working is set to play a much bigger part than it has in the past.

2. Help build the right (remote) networks

Interns are vital for the business too. They are a shot of energy and creativity. Helping them develop is not just a way of paying it forward to the next generation; there's some healthy self-interest at work too.

At MongoDB, we've had a thriving intern programme for years. It's had a huge impact.

About one-third of our current engineering organisation has come through our internship programme. A key tenet is that the features interns work on are intended to go into production. In fact a number of important features such as Atlas Search started out as intern projects. Then there are all the people in senior positions at MongoDB, and elsewhere, who started out in our internship programme.

This brings me to an important point: relationships and networks. As the saying might be updated, “it's not what you know, it's who you connected with on Zoom.”

Make sure your intern is meeting with new and interesting members of your company. Don't forget your wider ecosystem too (agencies and partners for example). Arrange calls or use other tactics like Coffee Roulette,a game we're trialling where you get paired to chat with a random colleague for 30 minutes. The more roots someone builds, the better they will be able to experience the full culture of the company.

Relationships are crucial. I know I wouldn't be where I am today without my mentors.

3. Start to “stack” their skills

The final benefit of an internship is, with any luck, a job offer. Given the wider economic instability, that promise is unfortunately less firm than in the past. Yet, there is a positive way of looking at the situation.

I didn't get to work where I had interned because I had the poor timing to graduate in 2002. This was right after the dot-com bubble burst (kids, look it up — it was bad) and there were no IT jobs.

I finally got my foot in the door because I had a mix of skills from different domains. This made me hireable. This is an approach known as “skill stacking”.

A good mentor should help their intern uncover and develop their own unique “stack”. Arrange a call to help your intern pair their academic theory with a whole new set of applied experiences. This will help both parties - after all, who knows what the future may hold.

Remote work isn't all that bad and remote internships won't be either. In fact, they present new and unique opportunities for learning and networking.

We're more likely to be taking a zoom call while doing the washing up, than we are to do an in person lesson on hand brakes, but perhaps that's for the best. It's on those in the driving seat, the mentors, to recreate that elbow to elbow experience.

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