A mistake to avoid with summer interns

July 7, 2013

If you're part of a university and you have both some spare money and some work that you'd like to get done but don't have the time and energy for with your existing staff, one traditional solution is to hire a student or two for the summer. We've done this in the past and in retrospect we made a mistake or two in the process. Today I want to write about it, partly so that I can hopefully avoid mistakes in the future.

The big mistake to avoid is do not abandon your summer intern in a corner. Even if your interns are perfectly competent (which ours have been) and are working on completely self contained projects, there are two things that will go wrong here.

The obvious problem is that what you will get at the end of the summer is a black box, because you won't have been involved in developing or doing whatever your intern worked on. Even if your intern has meticulously documented everything about it you're going to have to read that documentation first and the odds are very good that the documentation will turn out to be not good enough. This is especially likely if you don't read the documentation until the end of the summer, when the intern is leaving. The less obvious problem is that there probably will be design issues with how the project is constructed and how it works. Your summer intern is likely quite competent, but they are still an inexperienced student not an experienced sysadmin or programmer like you are (and especially they're not familiar with your specific environment and so on).

In retrospect, none of this should be surprising to me. We really need to treat summer interns as (very) junior people that we actively supervise and work with, not as magic black boxes where we insert requests and get perfect results back out from. The corollary, which I hope I remember in the future, is that it's a mistake to get summer interns if what we really want or need is a black box.

(Abandoning interns in a corner may sound crazy, but trust me, it came about in a very natural way. When you're already busy yourself it takes active work to carve out time to work with an intern, and because you're busy doing so feels like an imposition that's slowing you down. It's very tempting to think that you don't really need to or just to let it slip, although this is not a good thing.)

PS: there are other reasons not to do this that have to do with the intern's experience, but that's a topic for another entry.

Written on 07 July 2013.
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Last modified: Sun Jul 7 01:06:46 2013
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