Aug 16, 2018 - Lee Matos    

How to make remote internships successful

Support Engineering Manager Lee Matos talks about pitfalls and successes in making remote internships work.

Back in December I introduced you to Support Engineering at GitLab. Now I'm excited to talk about my experiences – good and bad – with remote internships. I think remote internships can be a great thing but not without pitfalls. Let's dive in.

As I started to lead the GitLab Support team, Collen, our first Support Engineering intern, was wrapping up his internship. We started to spend some time together when I realized Collen was doing great work, but we didn't have a clear definition of what it took to transition out of “intern” to “Junior.” This was not due to lack of management, it was because Collen was the first. We had never even thought about what it would look like to graduate! Lesson number 1:

1. Clearly define success

Internships are challenging when you don't know what you want the internship to be about, or what you want it to accomplish. I think it's vital that everyone involved knows what success is, and how close they are to it. It took a lot of time and effort for me and Collen to figure out what we'd mark as success. That made it even more stressful as we were both scrambling to make clear and actionable markers of success as his internship came to a close. It was a sign of Collen's skill and grace that we managed to define and execute those things with a ticking clock counting down. Once we knew what success was, Collen knocked it out of the park. Now, success is different for every team and person. Keep that in mind as you define it here for yourself, and your intern.

A second chance

A few months later, we had an opportunity to hire Chenje as an intern and my number one goal was to improve that experience. For Chenje, he had a lot of drive and a few technical projects under his belt, but lacked experience with working in technical teams. We settled on three tasks as the definition of success for Chenje's internship:

  • Deploy Omnibus HA and improve Documentation
  • Pair on 25 ticket sessions
  • Gain expertise in one or two expert subjects

For Chenje, success was defined as completing two of the three defined tasks. This gave him some freedom to plan and schedule, and even room to fail in the face of challenging tasks. This was important because it was meaningful work, but it was also important as a manager that I can understand how team members approach problems big and small.

2. Set expectations

Some of this advice is good for any internship – not just a remote one. But one of the unique challenges of a remote internship is the lack of facetime and potential delays in communication. Both Collen and Chenje are six hours ahead of me, so the time difference was definitely a factor here. With remote work, a lot of the inefficiencies of communication and workflow that are just accepted as part of office life are exposed. There's nowhere to hide.

With remote work, a lot of the inefficiencies of communication and workflow that are just accepted as part of office life are exposed

In addition to other internship challenges, we now add the element of time coordination, and knowing that your reports can't just walk over to your desk with a question. We have to be very explicit about connecting to make meaningful change happen. There's a tendency to want that to happen synchronously, but we have to figure out alternatives.

I think setting the expectation that the intern should be ready and willing to ask questions was important. Instead of waiting for you to come rescue them, they'll also need to take initiative to snag time on your calendar if they're blocked, and on your end you need to make that time to help them out. With remote work you have to be willing to step forward; you can't wait on someone else to give you tasks or to check in if everything is going smoothly. It won't work at GitLab, and probably won't fly at other remote companies either.

3. Avoid busywork

I also made it clear to Chenje that I would not be giving him busywork and that he'd be able to make real contributions. One of the advantages of a remote internship is that there's no coffee to fetch, so busywork possibilities are limited. If you're managing an intern properly, you should consider them to be 1.5x an ordinary report. I thought about the things that I wanted to do but couldn't focus on and offered those to Chenje. I wanted to give him challenges that would result in work he could be proud of. If you're considering an intern to deal with the things you don't want to do, then you should reconsider. That's a recipe for a bad internship, and your intern won't want to work with your team afterwards.

If you're managing an intern properly, you should consider them to be 1.5x an ordinary report

Your intern should be someone who you believe to be capable and competent, just missing experience. The dream of an internship is that you're developing somebody who will end up working for your organization. If you're not doing it for that reason, then what's the point?

4. But don't throw them in the deep end either

We didn't push either Collen or Chenje to jump into interacting with customers straight away, to give them time to build up their comfort level, experience, and confidence. The initial goal was that the internship is skill-building period – a safe space. You don't want to overwhelm your intern by making them do everything. They're an intern for a reason.

The initial goal was that the internship is skill-building period – a safe space

5. Give clear feedback on progress

As an intern, Chenje had full access to the team and myself as a lead. We have weekly 1:1s and we'd review his progress. Now, Collen, our first intern, had regular 1:1s with me, but because we didn't have a clear structure of the internship, we weren't using this time to its full potential. Being able to use our 1:1 time to understand and help Chenje overcome blockers and organize made his internship incredibly smooth. We knew what success was, we regularly tracked it, and we learned how to communicate it to each other.

I'm extremely proud of the work that Collen and Chenje have done on our team and how they continue to excel in the face of two very different internship experiences. If you are running a remote team, or considering interns, these things helped me turn something that started out stressful into a recipe for success.

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