Tech Internship Hunting Ideas

A question from a computer science student crossed one of my IRC channels recently:

Them: what is the best way to fish for internships over the summer?

Me: It depends on what kind of internship you're looking for. What kind of
    internship are you looking for?

Them: Computer Science, anything really.

This caused me to type out a lot of advice. I’ll restate and elaborate on it here, so that I can provide a more timely and direct summary if the question comes up again.

Philosophy of Job Hunting

My opinion on job hunting, especially for early-career technologists, is that it’s important to get multiple offers whenever possible. Only once one has a viable alternative can one be said to truly choose a role, rather than being forced into it by financial necessity.

In my personal experience, cultivating multiple offers was an important step in disentangling impostor syndrome from my career choices. Multiple data points about one’s skills being valued by others can help balance out an internal monologue about how much one has yet to learn.

If you disagree that cultivating simulataneous opportunities then politely declining all but the best is a viable internship hunting strategy, the rest of this post may not be relevant or interesting to you.

Identifying Your Options

To get an internship offer, you need to make a compelling application to a company which might hire you. I find that a useful first step is to come up with a list of such companies, so you can study their needs and determine what will make your application interest them.

Use your social network. Ask your peers about what internships they’ve had or applied for. Ask your mentors whether they or their friends and colleagues hire interns.

When you ask someone about their experience with a company, remember to ask for their opinion of it. To put that opinion into perspective, it’s useful to also ask about their personal preferences for what they enjoy or hate about a workplace. Knowing that someone who prefers to work with a lot of background noise enjoyed a company’s busy open-plan office can be extremely useful if you need silence to concentrate! Listening with interest to a person’s opinions also strengthens your social bond with them, which never hurts if it turns out they can help you get into a company that you feel might be a good fit.

Use LinkedIn, Hacker News, Glassdoor, and your city’s job boards. The broader a net you cast to start with, the better your chances of eventually finding somewhere that you enjoy. If your job hunt includes certain fields (web dev, DevOps, big data, whatever), investigate whether there’s a meetup for professionals in that field in your region. If you have the opportunity to give a short talk on a personal project at such a meetup, do it and make sure to mention that you’re looking for an internship.

Identify your own priorities

Now that you have a list of places which might concievably want to hire you, it’s time to do some introspection. For each field that you’ve found a prospective company in, try to answer the question “What makes you excited about working here?”.

You do not have to have know what you want to do with your life to know that, right now, you think DevOps or big data or frontend development is cool.

You do not have to personally commit to a single passion at the expense of all others – it’s perfectly fine to be interested in several different languages or frameworks, even if the tech media tries to pit them against each other.

However, for each application, it’s prudent to only emphasize your interests in that particular field. It’s a bit of a faux pas to show up to a helpdesk interview and focus the whole time on your passion for building robots, or vice versa. And acting equally interested in every other field will cause an employer to doubt that you’re necessarily the best fit for a specialized role... So in an interview, try not to stray too far from the value that you’re able to deliver to that company.

This is also a good time to identify any deal-breakers that would cause you to decline a prospective internship. Are you ok with relocating? Is there some tool or technology that would cause you to dread going to work every day?

I personally think that it’s worth applying even to a role that you know you wouldn’t accept an offer from when you’re early in your career. If they decide to interview you, you’ll get practice experiencing a real interview without the pressure of “I’ll lose my chance at my dream job if I mess this up!”. Plus if they extend an offer to you, it can help you calibrate the financial value of your skills and negotiate with employers that you’d actually enjoy.

Craft an excellent resume

I talk about this elsewhere.

There are a couple extra notes if you’re applying for an internship:

1) Emphasize the parts of your experience that relate most closely to what each employer values. If you can, it’s great to use the same words for skills that were used in the job description.

2) The bar for what skills go on your resume is lower when you have less experience. Did you play with Docker for a weekend recently and use it to deploy a toy app? Make sure to include that experience.

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you’re uncomfortable with interviewing, do it until it becomes second nature. If your current boss supports your internship search, do some mock interviews with them. If you’re nervous about things going wrong, have a friend roleplay as a really bad interview with you to help you practice coping strategies. If you’ll be in front of a panel of interviewers, try to get a panel of friends to gang up on you and ask tough questions!

To some readers this may be obvious, but to others it’s worth pointing out that you should also practice wearing the clothes that you’ll wear to an interview. If you wear a tie, learn to tie it well. If you wear shirts or pants that need to be ironed, learn to iron them comptently. If you wear shoes that need to be shined, learn to shine them. And if your interview will include lunch, learn to eat with good table manners and avoid spilling food on yourself.

Yes, the day-to-day dress codes of many tech offices are solidly in the “sneakers, jeans, and t-shirt” category for employees of all levels and genders. But many interviewers, especially mid- to late-career folks, grew up in an age when dressing casually at an interview was a sign of incompetence or disrespect. Although some may make an effort to overcome those biases, the subconscious conditioning is often still there, and you can take advantage of it by wearing at least business casual.

Apply Everywhere

If you know someone at a company where you’re applying, try to get their feedback on how you can tailor your resume to be the best fit for the job you’re looking at! They might even be able to introduce you personally to your potential future boss.

I think it’s worth submitting a good resume to every company which you identify as being possibly interested in your skills, even the ones you don’t currently think you want to work for. Interview practice is worth more in potential future salary than the hours of your time it’ll take at this point in your career.

Follow Up

If you don’t hear back from a company for a couple weeks, a polite note is order. Restate your enthusiasm for their company or field, express your understanding that there are a lot of candidates and everything is busy, and politely solicit any feedback that they may be able to offer about your application. A delayed reply does not always mean rejection.

If you’re rejected, follow up to thank HR for their time.

If you’re invited to interview, reply promptly and set a time and date. For a virtual or remote interview, only offer times when you’ll have access to a quiet room with a good network connection.

Interview Excellently

I don’t have any advice that you won’t find a hundred times over on the rest of the web. The key points are:

  • Show up on time, looking respectable
  • Let’s hope you didn’t lie on your resume
  • Restate each question in your answer
  • It’s ok not to know an answer – state what you would do if you encountered the problem at work. Would you Google a certain phrase? Ask a colleague? Read the manual?
  • Always ask questions at the end. When in doubt, ask your interviewer what they enjoy about working for the company.

Keep Following Up

After your interview, write to whoever arranged it and thank the interviewers for their time. For bonus points, mention something that you talked about in the interview, or include the answer to a question that you didn’t know off the top of your head at the time.

Getting an Offer

Recruiters don’t usually like to disclose the details of offers in writing right away. They’ll often phone you to talk about it. You do not have to accept or decline during that first call – if you’re trying to stall for a bit more time for another company to get back to you, an excuse like “I’ll have to run that by my family to make sure those details will work” is often safe.

Remember, though, that no offer is really a job until both you and the employer have signed a contract.

Declining Offers

If you’ve applied to enough places with a sufficiently compelling resume, you’ll probably have multiple offers. If you’re lucky, they’ll all arrive around the same time.

If you wish to decline an offer from a company whom you’re certain you don’t want to work for, you can practice your negotiation skills. Read up on salary negotiation, try to talk the company into making you a better offer, and observe what works and what doesn’t. It’s not super polite to invest a bunch of their time in negotiations and then turn them down anyway, which is why I suggest only doing this to a place that you’re not very fond of.

To decline an offer without burning any bridges, be sure to thank them again for their time and regretfully inform them that you’ll be pursuing other opportunities at this time. It never hurts to also do them a favor like recommending a friend who’s job hunting and might be a good fit.

Again, though, don’t decline an offer until you have your actual job’s contract in writing.