Choosing the right internship can turbocharge your career

Main illustration: Mikey Burey

An internship represents your first steps from the world of college to the world of work, but we often don’t appreciate just how important finding the right internship can be.

Pick the right one, and you can set yourself on a quick path to a rewarding career. Pick the wrong one, and you might be searching around for a while before you find your best path. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of advice out there for how to search for jobs and prepare for interviews, but almost every single one focuses on how you can show the company that you are right for them. Very few tell you how to figure out if the company is right for you.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ll take whatever you can get, especially as an intern. But remember, these are your first steps into the workforce, so take the chance to picture where you want to get to in your career, or the effect you want to have (be ridiculously ambitious with this!) and then ask yourself if this internship is a step towards it. Feel confident in yourself to really push for those opportunities that take you closer to your goal.

Applying for the job

You should apply to many places, but mostly for practice. There’s no point in spamming 150 companies with the same generic CV and no cover letter. You’ll get far more value and practice if you only apply to 15, but take the time to customize your application for each company. Cover letters are hard and time-consuming – you have to know and understand a company to be able to accurately write about why you’d like to work there. If you have already thought about your ambitions for the future, the application becomes much easier. You know why you want to work there, since you’ve thought about how they can help you grow.

You should figure out a company’s values before applying.

You also want to get going early on this. The first few applications are going to be hard and really time consuming, but if you can build momentum they get much quicker and easier. I found it hard to stop procrastinating, so I needed a way to keep myself accountable. I sat down and created a list of companies that seemed interesting. I included a link to the career’s page if they had one. I set a goal to apply for 3 positions each week and worked through the list. I updated my mentor (from the Mastercard Female Mentoring program) on my progress to keep me accountable. You could do the same with a friend or family member.

If you find a great company, apply even if they don’t advertise intern positions. I did this for both of my internships. However, if you’re interested in applying to Intercom, we have a career’s page where you can apply or find out more.

How do you figure out if a company is right?

You should figure out a company’s values before applying. Check out a company’s blog (if they have one), watch talks their leadership have given, and read the information on their website, Glassdoor or careers page about what the company is like to work for. When a company or employee tells you about the values they hold, don’t just take them at face value. Look for evidence that what they say is true. Do they put their money where their mouth is? For example, if they value hustle/getting stuff done, do they facilitate that by not putting red tape everywhere?

Interview process

Once you’ve gotten an interview, the most important thing to bear in mind is that while the company will interview you, you also need to interview them. There’s plenty of questions you can ask to figure out whether or not the company is right for you. It can be hard to think of them on the spot, so I recommend sitting down before the interview and preparing a few to ask. Definitely prepare more than one since they often end up getting answered throughout the interview. Don’t be afraid to dig into the interviewer’s answers and chat about parts that are interesting. If it sounds like a process is outdated, incorrect or just bad, don’t say that outright, but definitely do ask about the reasoning.

As an intern, you have a short amount of time to make an impact.

It can feel uncomfortable asking questions of a company when you are searching for a job. You don’t want them to doubt your desire to work there, make the interviewer feel awkward or come across as stupid for asking an obvious question. I believe there are tons of questions which create the opposite effect. A well-considered question can show that you care deeply about the company you are applying to, can engage the interviewer and can make you appear thoughtful.

As an intern, you have a short amount of time to make an impact. Here are a few things you can ask about to maximize the opportunity:

Interesting problems to solve

This one seems obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of people forget it. Do you care about what they are working on? It’s much easier to seem enthusiastic in an application when you actually are enthusiastic. Applying for companies you don’t particularly want to work for is good practice, but ultimately you get out what you put in.

Interns work on real projects

You’ll obviously have the most impact – both on customers and your own learning – if you are working on real-world problems. If you’re stuck in a classroom-style programme for weeks on end, or building special intern assignments, you may as well be in college. Don’t forget that the purpose of an internship is to give you real industry experience.

I also find it really satisfying to see my work out in the wild.

The learning curve on a real problem will be much sharper as well. There will be unanticipated problems, a broader range of technologies to get to grips with and you’ll have to learn to handle stuff breaking in production. The pace is faster and more exciting. You’ll have a lot more to show for use in future job applications, since you can point to examples of your work being used.

Personally, I also find it really satisfying to see my work out in the wild. Last year, I built a new message type with my mentor, Waheed. Every time I see it being used on someone’s website, it feels awesome. That happens pretty often too, given that it’s the message type used by the default welcome message.

Intercom Messenger in action
The result of some of my work as an intern

If you’ve ever seen a welcome message pop up in the bottom right hand corner of your screen, chances are that you’ve seen my work. If your company trusts interns with that level of impact, you can make a huge difference.

Embrace change & developer autonomy

Safety and stability are important, but a company that ships quickly and has less red tape will let you grow exponentially faster. As an intern you already have a short period of time to get shit done, so there’s no point making it shorter. You can usually find out a company’s attitude to this on their blog, through talks they have done and often their job listings. Failing that, “What’s your average day like?” is a great question to ask.

From their answer, you want to get a sense of how much input they have into the development process and how much engineering work they do. If it sounds like their day is blocked with a lot of red tape (only 1-2 deploys a week, super long review process, super careful about changes, etc.), you probably won’t have much impact as an intern.

Finding a company that is product driven lets you have more impact as an intern.

It’s also a good chance to see what kind of tools they use. If the tools or processes seem outdated (eg. they don’t use CI), dig into that to find out why (and if they don’t have a good answer, consider running away). They don’t have to use the latest javascript framework (and in fact, they probably shouldn’t), but the technologies they use should be up-to-date.

Working with other teams/designers/PMs and so on is really good once they have input, and it’s not taking over and preventing them from doing engineering work. In a product-driven company, the product team decides what to work on next. There are sales- or marketing-driven companies as well, where those teams will tell the engineers what to build. Finding a company that is product driven lets you have more impact as an intern. You’ll get more input into the entire development process and it’s likely you’ll be more valued as a team member.

If you can find any of the company’s content (like podcasts, talks or blog posts), their attitude should be pretty obvious. There’s also a ton of questions you can ask to figure this out.

  • How do the teams work together?
  • How does the team decide what to work on next?
  • Do you have input into the decision process?
  • Do designers & engineers work closely together?

Mentor quality

The people you work with will have a huge impact on how much you learn. If you are surrounded by awesome people, you’ll want to do your best to be awesome too. Particularly as an intern, you need people that will give you the freedom to take on something tricky but be there if you need a hand with it.

The right internship can turbocharge your skills and education.

Working closely with experienced engineers can’t really be beaten for this – often they know when to let you at it and when to jump in. Interns at intercom are paired with an Interbuddy (an experienced engineer who mentors you, mine was Waheed) who will usually work with you on your first couple of projects. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it was. They’re around to support you if you need to ask questions, etc. but otherwise you are treated as a full team member.

It’s hard to get this level of mentorship at a super large or super small company. In large companies, you’re often bundled into a group of interns who work on special guided intern projects. In small companies, there often just isn’t enough resources to give you the optimal level of support. Regardless of the size of the company, they should be attracting talented people who enjoy working there. You can find this stuff out by checking out Glassdoor, seeing if they have speakers at events, their open-source contributions, etc. A thorough hiring process also helps!

Turbocharge your skills

The right internship can turbocharge your skills and education, and lets you discover far more about your ambitions than college ever can – what sort of work do you want to do, what drives you, what sort of impact on the world do you want to make. Give yourself the best shot to start getting the answers to those questions.

If this sounds like the sort of place you would like to advance your engineering education and kickstart your career, check out our current openings.