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Dealing with Worthless Interns

By September 17, 2018 No Comments
Do you deal with worthless interns? Take a shot at giving them difficult work with real deadlines while supporting their work.

Let me start out by saying that no one is worthless. Much like internships, gimmick subject lines are what you make of them. They can waste your audience’s time with a worthless ad, or they can pull people in and provide valuable content. Now it’s my job to give you value on this post.

What I used to think

When I was a senior in college I quickly realized that one of my biggest weakness was that I never had an “internship”. I had been working since age 13, starting lawn mowing businesses, delivering papers (yes I am that old), and working in retail and restaurants. But, I never had an “adult” job that looked good on a resume. I quickly found a company willing to call a non-paid role an “internship” and I was off to serving coffee and running errands for the team. During this short six week experience, I created a definition of what an internship was in my mind. An internship is a worthless obligation meant to provide documentation of ‘experience’ in return for boring, non-impactful work that is potentially illegal due to not being paid.

This definition followed me to a few jobs post-college. I hired interns, I managed interns, I fired interns, but my picture of an intern’s value was always the same: a time suck for the company and the intern. I thought I was dealing with worthless interns. It was inertia of years of bad hiring practices.

Then I joined Mycroft

Mycroft AI Interns JumpingI came on board with Mycroft in July of 2017. At this time we had ten full-time interns. As soon as I met them my attitude probably said, “Great, now I have ten of these people to deal with at a company moving faster than the speed of light.” A couple of them were on my direct team, so I started off one on one meetings with them and quickly realized there was something different about this group. Over the following couple of weeks, I saw real work being generated from them, a desire to really learn new things, and most importantly the ability to bring different thought to the team. I remember pausing and thinking, why? What was different about this team? What was different about this company?

I think the answer is two-pronged:

  1. Mycroft as a company has a powerful mission that speaks to different people differently. Some thought it was a high tech company that they could learn a lot from. Others saw the potential of the market and wanted to be part of the crazy train.
  2. The team before me attracted the right type of people. I reviewed some of the documentation that was sent out in 2017, and I reused most of it to get a new team of interns in 2018. It was very blunt and honest. Here is an excerpt from our application process:

Expect guidance and mentorship, but no hand holding. Some tasks will require you to work independently, on some tasks you will work as part of a team. You will have direct access to company leadership and will be exposed to cutting edge technology such as machine learning and voice user interface.

Show up on time, ready to work, and expect to stay late. If you can’t handle that, please don’t apply! We are looking for people committed to building this technology. On the other hand, don’t expect the summer internship to be an office-only affair too!

We treated this as a mutually beneficial program. The intern received some real-world experience, and Mycroft held them to the following standards:

  1. Work hard every day at everything you do.
  2. Figure out your areas of passion, and bring those passions to Mycroft.
  3. Ask questions, but be prepared to solve the problem with your own solutions.

In 2017 we had some amazing people. Some wrapped up their internship and went back to school. Others went to other companies. But a few stayed on full-time. To my amazement, these were some of our most brilliant minds. They helped shape the company, both from a technical and cultural standpoint.

2018

Fast forward to our summer class of 2018, and it was no different. It was my fault that I didn’t get a full class of ten, but we did have an amazing team of four come aboard.

  1. Mikhail: Probably not the best idea to tell people’s ages, but I will just say I wasn’t comfortable signing him to an internship until his birthday came around. Mikhail is probably one of the smartest and most well adjusted technical minds I have met. He worked on the Machine Learning team looking at ways to measure and adjust some of our ML frameworks. It was amazing to see his contributions to the team, and even more inspiring that at an age where he hasn’t been driving that long, he could add value to the team. He also took a couple trips while with us to attend conferences that 20 to 30 year olds don’t even think about. He just got it. His maturity rivaled that of seasoned professionals in the field who chose their careers decades ago.
  2. Andrew: An educator by trade, and a student of CS by night. Andrew brought eagerness to learn new things, and the execution to make them reality. He spent most of his time building the framework for language translation to Mycroft. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing his endeavors out into the wild for the rest of you to experience. Language Translation is one of our top questions about Mycroft, and Andrew gave us a great path to this.
  3. Kusal: I worked directly with Kusal every day. His eagerness to learn was only stifled by me telling him to focus on less than three things at any given time. He is a go-getter. If there is a roadblock in his way, he looks at it as a challenge to break through it in whatever way possible. Kusal helped me tremendously on grassroots marketing, Contract Manufacturer vetting, and maybe most importantly, his contribution to Mimic2 as the next voice of Mycroft.
  4. Sam: He started a little later than the rest, and is still with us now. Sam is responsible for 80% of the new images, photography, and animations you see at Mycroft. With minimal oversight, he plugged into the Marketing team and solved some major backlog items we had. He has an amazing eye for detail and has provided excellent work in impossible timeframes.

Thank you, interns, for joining our team and our journey. Mycroft wouldn’t be the same place if you weren’t here, and we are already missing you guys being full-time.

To sum this up, interns are not worthless. Preconceived notions about interns or internships make them worthless. To have worthwhile internships staffed with valuable interns, align the vision of the company with the attitude of someone that wants to learn. In my experience, it’s a recipe for success.

Nate Tomasi
Nate Tomasi is the COO of Mycroft AI. He's built and operated strong teams and processes at companies like Captify Health and Rhythm Engineering.