What We Learned by Making Our Internship Remote

The COVID-19 global pandemic forced businesses all over the world to quickly adapt their daily operations to be more remote-friendly. Unfortunately, many businesses also decided to cancel their summer internship programs rather than figure out what it would take to make them work. As a year-round professional internship organization, canceling our program was never an […]

by | Aug 17, 2020

The COVID-19 global pandemic forced businesses all over the world to quickly adapt their daily operations to be more remote-friendly. Unfortunately, many businesses also decided to cancel their summer internship programs rather than figure out what it would take to make them work. As a year-round professional internship organization, canceling our program was never an option. Instead, we quickly doubled down to figure out how to continue operating as normally as possible. Here are a few things we learned in the process.

New Tools and Tricks for the Future

Moving everyone out of the comfort of our office forced us to really consider what we do every day and how we do it. As a team, we dove into discussions about our entire process, and what we’d lose by not being in the office. We realized that our mentors frequently use a variety of techniques, such as mini “lectures” using a whiteboard and pair programming (two people working at one computer), to coach our interns through their development tasks. Yet our physical whiteboards were suddenly useless, and we couldn’t have two people working from the same computer anymore.

After much research and testing, we found the right tools to help us with all of this. The “lectures” and other meetings became Zoom video conferences, perhaps while collaborating on a virtual whiteboard like Miro. When pair programming, we use the Live Share feature of Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code, which allows more than one person to be able to see and edit project files simultaneously, as if they were all connected to the same computer with multiple keyboards.

Not only do these tools work well for remote collaboration, but we’ll continue using them back in the office as well. Even in-person, we can use Zoom to record our meetings, automatically creating transcripts for us to help with note taking. Pair programming over Live Share is an extremely pleasant experience, and doesn’t require the participants to be physically distant. We’ll continue to use it, even if we’re sitting at adjacent desks.

Communication Is Key

Continuous, effective communication is important in any job. It becomes even more important when all communication is done via remote channels like Slack and Zoom. Add to that the intricacies of mentoring a staff full of people who are just starting their professional experience, and you have a potential recipe for disaster if you’re not careful. We did a lot of introspection to determine the things that make our internship program successful and how we needed to pivot to account for a fully remote workforce.

One area we knew would be a challenge was replacing the high level of interaction among our distinct client project teams. In the office, when someone arrives to start their day, we say hello and have a quick catch-up session to discuss what they’re working on for the day. While they’re working, we routinely walk over to check in on how things are going. This often results in a deeper discussion about the project and creates an opportunity for a coaching session – for both the intern working on that task and any other interns nearby.

We quickly learned to utilize myriad tools to try to replicate that while remote, but we also needed to put new policies in place. We created a Slack channel for the sole purpose of our interns letting us know when they were signing on and off each day. This allowed their assigned mentor to have the “beginning of the day” conversation with them. We also implemented a 30-minute rule – if they haven’t made progress on something in 30 minutes, they need to reach out to their mentor and/or team for help. In a remote environment, it’s too easy for somebody to be quietly struggling with something and not receive the guidance they need. Since the purpose of a good internship is to gain experience through the guidance of experienced professionals, we had to ensure we continued providing this valuable mentorship. Even with that rule in place, I still found myself routinely “walking up to the desk” of an intern by sending them a Slack message to ask how things were going.

It’s Possible

Perhaps the most important thing we learned from creating a remote internship is that it is possible. More than that, it can be successful. We were able to maintain the same level of responsiveness and quality that our clients have come to expect from Exelaration. Instead of shelving our internship program until business operations could return to “normal,” we chose to find a way to make it happen and were rewarded for it.

We recently asked some of our interns for their feedback on our transition to a remote workforce and if they were still satisfied with the level of education and experience they were gaining from our program. The overwhelming response was that they still loved being a student team member, and were acquiring the industry experience and confidence they need at this point in their careers.

I won’t pretend we did everything perfectly. That same feedback also brought to light some things we need to improve, such as maintaining our culture of collaboration and cross-team information sharing when teams are not co-located. That’s something everyone is likely feeling right now and is not specific to just interns. We miss being able to see our coworkers in person and have the office chit-chat that helps break up the work day. Still, I’m ready to call our forced remote experiment a success and use the things we’ve learned to continue to improve our program, both in-person and remote.

Matt is an experienced developer with a passion for software development and Agile best practices. For the last 10 years, he has been sharing that passion with others as a trainer and mentor, working with developers of all skill levels. By day, he’s working to train the next generation of enthusiastic software developers at Exelaration, and by night he’s building Legos or playing Minecraft with his son. In his free time, Matt is an avid singer, instrumentalist, golfer, and runner.

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