So You’ve Hired Summer Interns, Now What? How to Thoughtfully Plan a Summer Intern Program

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Like any great sports team, your company needs A-players; the stars, the ones who start and finish every game, and rarely sit out. But what happens when those players get hurt? Retire? Lured away by a more lucrative contract elsewhere? Any coach worth their salt knows a strong bench and farm system is critical for long-term success. Using the same logic, startups should not only be focused on retaining, managing, and growing their talent, but they should also be thinking about what my former manager called “building your bench,” also known as hiring great junior talent early in their careers to join the company and grow. The best way to build a bench? Summer interns.

Interns are a great addition to any company for many reasons. It’s a try before you buy model and 3 month interview, employees looking for management experience get the opportunity to step up, you start to build your brand on college campuses, and you are creating a pipeline for the best entry level talent. Furthermore, former interns become your brand ambassadors and can be a great way to build buzz. So, you want to ensure they have a positive experience.

You’ve heard the lavish perks companies like Microsoft and Facebook give their interns (i.e. a Macklemore concert), but maybe your startup isn’t quite there. Regardless, whether you’re hosting 5 or 50 summer interns, there’s plenty you can do to put together an awesome program to guarantee your interns will have a great experience and equally positive things to say about your company. Here’s a rough outline of what you should be thinking about before, during, and after the summer to ensure your intern(s) have a great summer.

As a side note, hopefully if you were planning on hiring summer interns, you’re already well along in the process. In my former role as a recruiter at AppNexus, all of our technical interns were hired by end of January, and all non-technical interns were hired by middle of March. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to find high potential candidates looking for internships. We’ll talk more in the coming months about building a successful campus recruiting strategy for next year, but for now we’ll assume you already have some recruits for the summer!

Before the Summer Starts

Touch Base with Your Intern - Some intern offers are extended as early as November. You should connect with your intern(s) 3-4 times before the start of the summer. Here are a few suggestions on when and what to touch base on.

First Touch Base (2 months from start date)

  • Casual conversation
  • How is the semester going?
  • Any general questions about the company that may have come up between interviews and now?
  • See if they have plans to be in NYC before the start of the summer. If so, get a team lunch on the calendar.

Second Touch Base (6 weeks from start date)

  • Learn more about their strengths and what they want to develop this summer.
  • Come prepared with potential projects and priorities on your Q3 roadmap. Ask which projects seem most interesting to them.

Third Touch Base (4 weeks from start date)

  • Give them some insight into their project, and if possible, let them choose their project.
  • Give them any pre-work to do. Pre-work should not take up an enormous amount of time but rather be a way for interns to hit the ground running from day 1.

Fourth Touch base (2 weeks from start date)

  • In-person team lunch if possible
  • Follow up call to discuss any unanswered questions about the summer, their project, etc.

If possible, the intern’s future manager should be doing most of these calls or sending these emails. If that isn’t something you can determine 2 months out, try to assign a manager at least 1 month out to discuss the project in more detail.

Send housing materials - Do you live in a city with an intimidating house market (cough cough, NYC and SF)? Some interns may have never lived in a city let alone New York City. Make it easier and put together some information on housing. NYU, FIT, and Cooper Union offer summer housing for students while sites like AirBnB, Craigslist, and Sublet.com are good short-term solutions.

Connect interns with one another - If you are hosting more than 1 intern, connect the interns via email. This helps to settle first day nerves and starts to build class mentality . Additionally, interns could find their summer roommate amongst their intern class. Consider creating a slack, Facebook or LinkedIn group.

During the Summer

Onboarding - Most internships are 10-12 weeks. Spend the first week onboarding your intern. I know it might seem like a lifetime to dedicate 10% to onboarding but it will pay off two fold later in the summer. What should you cover in onboarding? Think of a condensed onboarding session for full-time employees. Onboarding should include an overview of the company, product deep dive, org structure and what each team in the company does, shadowing with their manager and other team members, and reviewing any other skills necessary for the job. A lot of the internship will also be on the job training.

Buddy - Your intern will hopefully have a manager who is overseeing his or her project. Outside of that, assign your intern a buddy or mentor to be a go-to person for knowledge sharing, sounding board, and work friend for the summer. This person should be close in age and will be a critical part of the close process should your intern receive a full-time offer at the end of the summer.

Project - Try to assign your intern one, long, meaningful project for the summer. So long to the days of interns making coffee, printing name tags, and picking up dry cleaning for their managing directors, at least in the tech industry. In an industry where starting packages for college grads can be up to $500k, these students clearly have a lot to offer. Give your intern a project that will enable him or her to have an impact and walk away from the summer saying “I did A and B for this company and it resulted in X, Y, and Z”

Incorporate them into the team - This ties to my last point. If you can assign your intern a project that is part of a larger, team effort, that is best. This gives interns the ability to work cross-functionally and alongside your great employees. I know this is difficult given the time constraints of a summer internship so if you can’t assign your intern an inclusive project, ensure they are part of the team in every other aspect: standups, team meetings, off sites, and happy hours (only if they are 21 :) ). Interns are so eager to learn and soak up knowledge that they’ll appreciate being included.

Performance Reviews & Constant Feedback - As I mentioned, students are looking to learn as much as they can through their summer internship to hone their skills for the workplace. Therefore, it is critical to give feedback throughout the summer. Managers should block at least 30 minutes per week to meet with their intern to review their work, what’s going well, and areas for improvement. It is also helpful to have a formal mid summer and end of summer check in with each intern and review their areas of strength, areas for development, and project progression. Not only are you helping each intern grow by giving feedback, but you ensure that there aren’t any surprises at the end of the summer. If you plan to give interns return offers for the following summer, or full-time positions, you want each intern to understand why he or she did or did not receive a return offer.

Meet with company leaders - There are many things a small startup can offer their interns that tech behemoths such as Facebook cannot one of which is face time with executives. Plan a few events for interns to meet with senior leaders at your company. A lunch with the CEO, tech talk with your CTO, and perhaps a coffee and doughnut break with the co-founders. It’s not everyday that you get to meet with Mark Zuckerberg before he’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Events - Map out an event calendar prior to the summer and be sure to include both social and educational events. Social events can be escape the room, bowling, laser tag, a Yankee game, or movie night at Night Hawk. Feel free to incorporate managers and intern buddies into some of these events but keep a few of them intern only if you have a program with 5+ interns. Educational events can include tech talks from top engineers, advanced excel skills, public speaking workshops, and more! It’s great for educational events to focus on skills that interns wouldn’t learn in their day to day jobs.

Offers - Is your company at a place where you can extend a full-time offer 14+ months ahead of time? If so, summer interns are a great pipeline into full-time entry level hiring. They’ve already been on the job for 3+ months and you know their strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t extend an offer that far in advance, communicate that and stay in touch. If there are interns you would like to extend offers to in a couple months, make sure you communicate this and keep the door open.

After the Summer

Stay in touch - If you’re looking to close your summer intern for a full-time or 2nd internship offer, be sure to keep in touch. Develop a plan amongst the team where an intern’s teammates, manager, buddy, and an executive check in to see how he or she is feeling about the offer and whether they can offer any advice or guidance.

Make them your champion - Whether an intern gets an offer or not, or if one is on the table for a later date, the sign of a successful summer intern program is when all interns return to school as brand ambassadors. If you remember being on campus, word of mouth travels fast and if word on the street is that your company is awesome, then you’ve already started to build a great brand.

Solicit referrals - Smart students know other smart students. Reach out to your former interns to have them directly refer their friends and classmates to full-time or intern positions. Do you have multiple interns? Make a referral contest. The person who refers the most hires wins an iPad or an Amex gift card. If you and your team travel to campus for events, invite your former interns out to dinner or lunch and tell them to bring 5 high potential students– dinner is on you after all!

Ask for help on campus - Do you have an upcoming tech talk or career fair? Don’t hesitate to ask your former interns for help on campus. They can tap into student groups, hang fliers in high traffic buildings, and great buzz about your company before you step foot on campus. Companies like Google have full-fledged student ambassador programs, but you can make an abridged version that suits your company’s needs.

Hopefully now you have a good jumping off point to plan a memorable summer intern program. If you have any other questions about intern recruiting or program planning, feel free to drop me a line, and be sure to sign up here for the Work-Bench newsletter to stay up to date with all of our content!

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