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6 Steps for a successful tech internship

A question I often get is, “How I get the most out of my internship”? There’s a lot less structure and the win criteria is more uncertain. You can spend 99% of your time on something that barely matters, and you can have 30 minute meetings that end up changing the course of your entire career.

I feel like I learned a thing or two in my back-to-back 4 month internships at Microsoft, and I ended up on an incredible team for full time. Having a successful internship means a better offer and an opportunity to 10x your learning once you come full time.

What you think you’ll learn in your first full time year of work is only a small slice of the learning you'll actually experience, and the rest is for you to discover with an awesome manager once you start full time. The first priority of your internship is to find the best place to learn the whole pie.

It’s fine to diligently do your work, get a return offer for your team and be happy. But chances are the company just put you somewhere there was space, and it’s worth exploring whether there’s another place that’s a better fit in terms of tech, people, and growth. Your current team won’t mind, you’re generally talking to people from a place of curiosity and the team switch is a secondary priority, and besides their first priority is for you to join the company rather than their specific team.

1. Choose your project wisely

This is crucial. Delivering something from idea to conception is always better than having three cool-sounding projects that don’t end up working. It’s easy for your eyes to be bigger than your stomach since you’re smart and ambitious and you want to have a big impact on the company.

Just remember that you want that line on your resume afterwards that says “created and shipped mission critical feature to 100 million people.” Don’t do something that’s too big, 90% of intern projects are just shelved and disappear afterwards and you want your project to ship. Don’t take on too many projects either, for the same reason.

It’s also possible to spend an infinite amount of time on something that turns out to be a useless, say because you missed some small detail, or someone already did your project but better elsewhere in the company. Work with your manager to come up with an idea that’s needed and doable (and aligned with your interests), and keep working with them at tight intervals. They’ll feel more invested in your project and thus advocate for it, you’ll learn a lot more, and you’ll be sure that it will turn into something at the end of it all.

You want to have one good deliverable you can point to at the end of your internship, while keeping time in your schedule for the other points below. Anything beyond this is diminishing returns at best, and more likely a distraction from other more important things.

2. Finish your project in < 10 weeks

Things always take longer than expected, especially at a big company, and you can lose multiple weeks waiting for approval, people to get back from vacation, credentials to propagate, and so on. You’ll probably need the extra time to make sure your project actually ships.

You also want to maximize career capital from your work, and for it to live on after you’re gone to have even more impact. Both of these are achieved by taking some time to evangelize your project to the rest of the company. You can convince other people to invest in your work, and you can have a bigger impact within the company.

The end of your internship is a hard cutoff, and 80% of the value to you comes from the last 20% of the work.

3. Pretend that you have an all-access pass to the company. Because you do.

If you want to talk to someone at the company, they’ll almost certainly make time for you. Why? It’s fun to talk to curious people who are looking for mentorship, and it’s in their interest to make you like the company so you come back. You should be fearless and try to set up times to chat with anyone in the company you’d be interested in talking to.

At Microsoft I sat down with my entire chain up and including the CEO, around 10 VPs/technical fellows, and some other high-performers within the company. These conversations are mind blowing and super inspiring – these execs operate on a level very different from the professors and friends you’re used to interacting with. You’ll also learn where the key areas of the company are, and who the badass teams and managers are in these areas. Plus your recruiter will think you’re fearless/awesome for doing it.

Once you get the meeting, just make sure to not be boring or let the conversation die – just stay curious and open-minded and you should be fine. Their time is valuable, but if you guide the conversation to be as life-altering as possible for yourself they will be happy. A small tip, if they are sufficiently senior (manage >200 people) then offer to get a roundtable going and bring other interns along for the ride.

4. Zero-in on the team/project you want to move to next

Once you have an idea of some great teams and managers (through the conversations above, crawling the company directory, and keeping your ears open), it’s time to start meeting some potential new managers and colleagues. Set up lunches and one on ones with people who manage teams, generally people who manage other managers (with 20-50 below them) and just be super curious about what they do, what their working philosophies are, what’s their story, etc. to get a feel for how well you get along.

Try this with a few teams, and when you’ve found a couple good ones, go one level down and start talking to people who might actually be future managers. This person will have a huge impact your future learning, so try to find someone whose skills you admire and you get along with.

5. Go to intern events and parties

These are some awesome people who will probably be living in the same city as you after graduation. Making friends in a new city when everyone’s working and already settled socially is hard, and you won’t have such a good opportunity to meet lots of people again. Social circles naturally expand and sustain once they have momentum, this is your chance to get that momentum.

6. Go hard in the paint

It’s only 12 weeks, intern burnout is not a thing. Remember you can sleep when you go home at the end of the internship. 12 weeks is too long to be a sprint, but I’d say start burning the candle at both ends with around 6 weeks to go – work late, party on weekends and meet people, wake up early on weekends and go for hikes/road trips, do it all.

All of this is to be taken with a grain of salt of course, but this general approach worked for me. I ended up on an incredible team where I’m learning more product, coding and leadership skills than I would anywhere else in the company. It’s been a huge life upgrade, and I’m sure I’m miles ahead of where I would have been on the first team I interned with.