Doubling the intern class – and making it all virtual


Earlier this month, we announced our plans to relaunch our intern hiring and double our intern class this summer to support more students who may have lost their internships due to COVID-19. You can find that story here. We’ve had interns joining us over the last few summers – students were able to find their way to us by applying to full-time roles and sometimes through Twitter. But, it wasn’t until last summer, in 2019, when we officially had our first official Summer Internship Program. And this year, we are doubling down.

Why do we invest in interns?

We have found interns to be invaluable. Not only do they bring an electrifying new energy over the summer, but they also come with their curiosity to help solve problems, contribute to major projects, and bring refreshing perspectives to the company.

  1. Ship projects: Our interns are matched with a team and work on real and meaningful projects. They are expected to ramp up, contribute like other members of the team and ship by the end of their internship.
  2. Hire strong talent: The internship is the “ultimate interview” that allows us to better assess new grad talent. The 12 weeks they spend with us tell us how they work with the team, their curiosity, passion and interest in the company and mission, and overall ability to execute and ship.
  3. Increase brand awareness: Some of the best interns and new grads we’ve hired come from referrals from past interns. Students go back to school and will share their summer experience with their peers and classmates, and it can catch like wildfire. This will make long term hiring much easier.
  4. Help grow future talent: Companies of all sizes should hire interns to help grow a more diverse talent pool, otherwise the future talent would be shaped by companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the like. The experience gained from working at a small or mid-sized startup versus a behemoth company is very different.

Our founding principles. What makes a great internship?

How do we make sure we’re prepared for interns? And what should companies and teams consider to ensure a great internship experience? It’s important for companies to be prepared to onboard interns so interns have a great and fruitful experience. These are general items to consider:

  1. Committed manager and/or mentor: Interns need a lot of support especially in the beginning, and it’s essential to have a manager or mentor who is willing to commit 30+% of their time to train, teach, and guide the intern for the entire duration of the summer. I would even advise managers/mentors to plan their summer vacations accordingly and if they’re not there for a week or more, they should have a backup support plan.
  2. Defined projects and goals: We ask managers to work with their interns to clearly  identify projects and goals they would be interested in working on either before the internship starts, or within the first 2 weeks. By the end of the internship, we want each intern to have learned a lot, be proud of the work they’ve accomplished and present their work to executives and the whole company.
  3. Open environment and networking: Throughout the internship, we intentionally create opportunities to meet more people and allow a safe environment for them to ask questions and be curious. Interns connect with each other, employees across other teams, and executives through our Buddy Program, Executive Round Tables, and other social events and outings.
  4. Visibility and exposure: Near the end of the internship, all interns are encouraged and given the opportunity to present their work to the whole company and share their project or experience on the company blog. Because they are an integral part of the team, many times they’ll join meetings with our leaders and executives.

The pivot to virtual: what we changed

The above are general goals and best practices for an internship during normal times. These are far from normal times. Like many companies, we were faced with the daunting question of what to do with our internship program when it was apparent that all or most of it would be virtual. We leaned into that challenge and developed a plan to build a virtual internship program that still embodies the principles we mentioned and ensures a robust internship experience.

The general mantra will be to over-communicate and make sure interns are included in all the team’s activities, communications, meetings, etc. Not only will it be important to include interns in this, it’s even more important because these members of our team will crave it the most. They’ll lack the historical context existing employees share, and also won’t have the breadth of general work experience that their team has. This is where mentors and managers will have to find ways to go above and beyond. Here are some tips below.

Onboarding

Interns will need to onboard in a completely remote environment, which may be new to both the manager and the company. If possible, check in with the interns before their first day to start building that relationship – understand what their remote work environment is like, how’s their mental health during COVID-19, are they excited and prepared to start? Also, keep in mind that the first two weeks are critical to set expectations for goals and deliverables, to connect them with the right folks involved in their project, and allow them to ask all the questions and get comfortable with the team.

Logistically, this may involve a laptop being mailed to them, or other accommodations for remote work. Verify that the intern has been onboarded correctly with access to necessary tools. Make a checklist. Some ideas to start with:

  1. Can they send/receive email on your company’s email address?
  2. Do you have their phone number if all else fails? And vice-versa?
  3. Do they have access to your team’s wiki space? Jira? Chat rooms?
  4. Can they join a Google Meet/Zoom meeting with you and the team? Including working camera and microphone?
  5. Can they access Google Calendar and have they been invited to team meetings? Do they know the etiquette for meetings (to accept and decline) and how to set up meetings with others?
  6. Have they completed the expected onboarding training provided by the company?
  7. Do they have access to the role-specific tools they’ll need to do their job? Source control, CI, Salesforce, Zendesk, etc. (make a checklist of these for your team!)

Cadence of Work

It’s critical to establish a normal work cadence, and that can be particularly challenging if someone starts off fully remote. For some interns, this may be their first time working in a professional environment and may need more guidance. Some suggestions for getting that established:

  1. Hold an explicit kickoff meeting between the intern and mentor in which they review the project/goals, and discuss how the team will work and interact (meeting frequency, chat room communication, etc).
  2. If an intern is located in a different timezone, establish what would be normal working hours and how the team will update them if they miss certain meetings.
  3. Ensure there’s a proper introduction to the team. This could be a dedicated 1:1 for each member, or a block of the team’s regular meeting to introduce the candidate to the team and vice-versa. Set up a social lunch or hour during the first week to have more casual conversations.
  4. Schedule weekly 1:1s and checkpoint meetings for the duration of the internship.
  5. Set up a very short-term goal that can be achieved quickly so the intern can get a sense for the end-to-end. Similar to how you might learn a new card game by “playing a few hands for fun” – the best way to learn is to dive right in.
  6. Consider having the mentor do an end-of-day check-in with the intern every day for at least the first week or two.
  7. Schedule at least one dedicated midpoint meeting to provide feedback. This is a time to evaluate how they’re progressing against their goals and deliverables and if they’re meeting their internship expectations. If they are, great. If not, it is essential at this point to inform them so they can improve.

Social Activities

A major part of a great internship also involves social activities and networking opportunities for interns to connect with different people. This becomes more difficult and requires ever more creativity to try to create those experiences. Here are some ideas:

  1. Hold weekly virtual intern lunches and if there’s budget, offer a food delivery gift card. Have themed lunches.
  2. Think about virtual social games, Netflix parties, and possibly other apps that can augment virtual networking experiences.
  3. Set up social hours for smaller groups of interns to connect and rotate. Have interns meet with interns from their original office locations, from the same departments,
  4. Set up an intern group chat and have a topic, joke, picture, meme of the day to the conversations alive.
  5. Create a constant “water cooler” Google Meet/Zoom room so folks can sign on anytime and see who is on.
  6. Host virtual conversations or round tables with executives and senior leaders.
  7. Involve them in other company activities, especially Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
  8. Pair them with a buddy who is an employee from a different team or function. Also, pair them up with a peer intern buddy so they can share their experience.
  9. Send all the swag love you can so they can deck out their house and wardrobe. Maybe not all at once, so they can get some surprises.
  10. Find a way to highlight interns during regular all-hands meetings or other company events, so people are reminded they’re here.
  11. Survey the students and get their ideas! Very likely – they have better ideas on how to socialize in this virtual world.

Interns in the past have proven to be invaluable and have made huge contributions to Cloudflare. So, we are excited that we are able to double the program to give more students meaningful work this summer. Despite these very odd and not-so-normal times, we are committed to providing them the best experience possible and making it memorable.

We hope that by sharing our approach we can help other companies make the pivot to remote internships more easily. If you’re interested in collaborating and sharing ideas, please contact [email protected].



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