Reflections on Chinwag's First Tech Intern

Gregory MarlerOn Friday, Chinwag waved goodbye to Gregory, our first tech intern. It was an experiment, which proved extremely fruitful for Chinwag, and hopefully, Gregory too.

For a company that sits at the S end of SME, combined with some control freakery thanks to yours truly, taking on an intern would be a challenge on a number of fronts. Could we find the right person? Would they learn anything? Did we really have time to make it work?

Previous internships had worked well, with an editorial intern progressing into a full-time role, but we learnt just how much staff time is needed. Tricky for a small company that finds itself stretched at the best of times.

About the time we waved Gregory off, a tweet from Loic Le Meur (@loic) popped up, agreeing with Seth Godin’s take on internships,

"I think internships are overrated. Most of the time, the employer thinks he's doing the intern a favor, but he doesn't trust the interns to do any actual thoughtful, intelligent work worth talking about. And to be fair, most of the time the interns are busy hiding, not grabbing responsibility but instead acting like they're in school, avoiding hard work and trying to get an A."

Pretty cynical. Perhaps this applies more to internships within large organisations, because that’s not been the experience at Chinwag. He’s right about one thing, there’s little point in having an intern if you’re not going to let them do anything.

And as Conrad Oldcorn (@conradoldcorn), an intern himself, quickly replied,

“hm, think he needs to do some research, most places offer free work...All my work is going to be released, not silly projects”

So, in case you’re wondering, our experience with Gregory was great. Yes, it did take a chunk of staff time to get him up and running and yes, a little relaxing of the reigns was required on my part.

But did he get to do real work for Chinwag? I’ll say. Starting out on minor CSS changes, within four weeks he was writing substantial chunks of new code for our Drupal content management system. I’d count that as proper real work and one of the reasons we’re sad to see him go. Whoever manages to snag him full-time will be doing very well.

What did we learn? Good question, glad you asked.

  • From my experience, Seth Godin is wrong. Most interns, at least in SMEs get to do real work and this tends to happen sooner than they expected
  • It’s all about the people. The wrong intern gets nothing out of the process and worse costs the company precious time. Conversely, the right intern will add lots to the company and get a lot out of it.
  • Attitude is everything. Interns must be able to take constructive criticism well, there should be lots of it. Keyword: constructive. They also need to be pro-active about getting things explained, companies tend to assume long-used processes are obvious to everyone. Usually, they’re not.
  • Allow time and plenty of it. With the right intern, the more time invested, the better return for both parties. Some structure is needed, but we found that understanding the strengths/weaknesses meant support could be tailored as and when required.
  • Think about structure, we planned on starting with some exploration, moving on to simple tasks and then increasingly complexity as things developed and everyone felt confident.
  • Allow failure. See note above about constructive criticism. Taking a project from start to finish, then refactoring into better code with improved performance provides more learning that getting it right first time, as long as the process is explained.

Like any employment process, both sides should get out of it, what they put in. You’d think with 400,000 graduates hitting the employment market this Autumn and many people looking to cross-train into the digital sector there would be more government support.

There’s precious little information available on the e-Skills UK website about internships, although there’s much more detail and focus on the longer-term apprenticeships. I hope I'm wrong about this, but I couldn't find much here, let me know if the comments if you've found anything useful for internships.

There’s also independent help available from the likes of Internocracy who can help devise and execute an intern programme, as well as Enternships that focuses on providing entrepreneurial experience.

Overall. Try it, you might like it. And if anyone has some Drupal, PHP5, MySQL and CSS experience and would like to get some real-life experience, extend their skills and join our friendly little gang for a few weeks, samatchinwag [dot] com (do drop me a line).


From our experience I would

From our experience I would highly recommend interns. But like all recruits you've got to find motivated, responsible and self disciplined indivuals for it to really work out. You can’t just blame them if it doesn’t.

Interns, Inspiring Interns!!

I completely agree with Sam. Interns are great, work hard and are motivated to move forward in their career. At Inspiring Interns, we not only provide interns to our clients but also offer internship opportunities at our office.

At present we have a few interns at our office which I like to call’ Inspiring Graduate Pool’. To begin with, our web developers are an excellent team and have gone ahead with upgrading our website. Our marketing team and graphic designers have been involved in promoting Inspiring Interns and creating promos. Most importantly, our interns work with us to interview a large number of candidates’ everyday and even liaise with our clients to find them the most suitable candidates.

We provide them an opportunity to be flexible in their approach, make most of our networks and we are always there to guide them and work as a team.

To know more, check out what our interns and clients say about us: 



Interns rock!!

We're with you on this one Sam. Interns are great. We have two of them working for our startup right now. I dread to think how far behind our software development would be without them. Yes, it does take a chunk of staff time to get them up and running. But that’s OK, because if they’re good you will get that time back later on in the summer.

As for us doing them a favour, it’s not the case if you pay them. This changes the nature of the relationship. They are expected to deliver. We were lucky as our interns have past paid internships with Google and a digital agency.

From our experience I would highly recommend interns. But like all recruits you've got to find motivated, responsible and self disciplined indivuals for it to really work out. You can’t just blame them if it doesn’t.


Intern Time ROI

@Nick Barber - agreed on the time front, that was very much our experience, same on getting the right people. It can feel like overkill finding the right people for such a short-term position, but they'll be part of your team, so it's worth it.

I'd be interested to know how you handled things on the money front. Did you run into any queries regarding Minimum Wage, or stick to expenses only?

As I understand the law

As I understand the law states you have to pay minimum wage unless the works is part of the students course work. If this is the case the University owns the IP. I'm aware of EU funding which can help co-fund foreign interns for less than the minimum wage.

Despite being a cash strapped/starved, etc SaaS startup I think it’s best to pay them for the reasons I suggested in my previous comment. We also paid them a performance bonus and covered some of their out of pocket expenses. For us the alternatives are contractors which are too expensive, off shoring which is inflexible or full time staff which is too early for us at this point.

We found its better to put interns on a Student Placement contracts. This way there is no NI to pay and they don't have all the rights of employees in case things don't work out. HMRC has contracts in place with  Student Placement providers.

Internships are great in my experience...

I took on an Intern at Sift, it took a little persuading of higher powers at first but turned out to be a great investment and a fruitful partnership for both parties.

Our Intern was doing "actual thoughtful, intelligent work" within a week and even helped us to win a pitch we never would have without his skills in the first fortnight. Admittedly I took him on as I saw potential, I even created the position for him, and yes it did take a little while to train him, but no longer than another member of staff.

I should add that we paid our intern, not much, but some. However, at the end of the agreed period we kept him on - part-time to fit around his studies, and, although I left Sift nearly 2 years ago now, he went on to get a full-time permanent position with them at the end of his studies.

Considering he had spent his "placement year" of a web-design course up to that point working in HMV, I think it was a success all round. We had access to bright young talent and the chance to give someone a real opportunity to succeed with valuable real-life commercial work experience.