Hacking an Internship

April 26, 2012 Posted by Nate Westheimer

This is just an idea. It's not tested. Take it for what it's worth.

As an entrepreneur, I have a problem with having interns, and I'm not alone. I've tried to place interns in startups and it can be like pulling teeth.

The problem is simple: If I'm going to have an intern, I want the experience to be both meaningful for the intern (it's their future we're talking about!) and net-productive for my company. Regardless of skill, any intern requires managerial investment, of which a startup is always in short supply, and so the idea of having an intern feels like a big commitment and is scary. Definite risk, ambiguous reward.

And this is for "engineering" interns. For others, forget about it.

At my weekly Ohours, I inevitably meet at least one undergrad or MBA student looking to "get into startups," starting with an internship at a startup. "But how do I get an internship?" they ask.

Obviously they've noticed that they require managerial load with unknown benefits to the startups. That's why they're coming to me.

And so here's my totally untested advice to them:

STEP 1: Find a startup you love with a product you love that has an API.

STEP 2: Call them up, email them, whatever and propose the following:

You want a desk for the summer. You will come into their office ever day of the summer, building a product/hack with their API that you're excited about. If you already know how to code, great. If you don't, this is how you're going to learn.

All you want in return is the following:

  1. 2 hours of a staff developer's time each week, giving you feedback on your code, answering questions, giving advice, etc
  2. A chance to present the hack to the CEO, CTO, and 3 other high level product and/or engineering people in the company at the end of the summer.
  3. Tell their parents, school registrar, professor grandma, whoever that you have an internship with that company.

I think this could be a great hack because you approach a startup with an immediate strategy to limit their risk. 2 hours a week is a lot, but it's beyond manageable and can be shared across people. And for the startup, they get to feel like they are helping you, because they very much are, even without a big investment.

It's obviously perfect because you now have that much needed block of time to just dedicate yourself to learning to code if you don't already. You're going to build something real this summer and develop a skill. Your other friends may end up with more hands on internships, but its hands on coffee pots, not hands on code.

I think this model could be a win / win, and after disclaiming it profusely to the students I've advised to follow it, I've asked them to report back to me how/if this model has worked.

We'll see.

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