A more effective internship program

Posted by Aaron Smith on

Megan arrives excited for her first day as an intern at Awesome Company but unfortunately some wires were crossed and she has no assigned desk or laptop. There is also some confusion over who her manager is. While these issues were sorted over the first few days, it becomes apparent that she has no concrete assignment to work on. After being assigned to shadow someone, she eventually gets a project handed to her. She scrambles to deliver something of value, but is frustrated by the haphazard experience. She does well on her final internship presentation and receives an offer, but she holds out hope that she can find a better fit than Awesome before the offer expires.

There are so many ways an internship program can go sideways, and we’ve all experienced the dysfunction. On paper, internships are amazingly helpful. We’ve all got valuable projects and need the resources to tackle them. We want to build a pipeline of great candidates to test the waters and make sure they are a good fit for what we are looking for. Interns pretty much want the same things. They want to gain professional work experience and deliver something valuable that they can be proud of. They would also like the opportunity to see if the company  is a place they can enjoy working, and hope to get an offer. So why does it go so wrong, and how can it be better?

At Grubhub, our Product team decided to create a more effective internship program. The first step was to treat interns with the same importance as regular employees. This means that we don’t hand off to our people team and tell them to hire a batch of interns to be divvied up. We write the job descriptions, review the resumes filtered down by Recruiting to hand select the interview candidates. We then conduct the interviews and determine who is the perfect fit. Essentially, the same way we’d hire a regular team member.

After we select our interns, we then define meaningful projects before the interns arrive. We want to avoid giving interns projects that wouldn’t be a good fit for a regular team member, such as a research project with no measurable value. We choose projects that we could give to a product manager, with the same expectations: do the research, pull the data, do the planning, and execute as quickly as possible. Given the 10-12 week internship durations, there’s a limit to what they can complete end to end, but we wanted to make sure that they completed a significant, valuable deliverable.

Our third and most valuable step is to make sure that we provide a real mentorship to our interns. No fake assigned mentor who isn’t invested. Their manager, their colleagues, everyone is responsible for helping our interns grow, just as we support any new team member.

The recurring theme is that, with every intern, we’ve treated them like the permanent member of the team that we hoped they could  become. Our expectations are high and the results have been outstanding. We brought in interns from Harvard, Chicago, Penn, and they delivered. One intern compared his internship to his friend at a large tech company. While his friend spent the summer creating tests to optimize a small product feature and was bored to death, our intern’s time was spent leading a multi-million dollar opportunity for us. He worked with departments across our company, gained approval of his proposal with multiple SVP’s, negotiated a contract with a 3rd party vendor, and executed the project.

After our CEO had seen the final presentations from our interns, he was impressed enough to direct that we expand the program. Stay tuned for 2017 internships on our career page.