Internships can prove a critical part (sometimes the critical part) of a young technologist’s career. While the stigma of the “lowly intern” is still an unfortunate stereotype, many professionals will cheerfully tell you how they turned internship opportunities into full-time positions at the very companies where they interned.
Lean into the Intern Experience
Jenny Frazier, currently a Salesforce business analyst at IT security specialist Imprivata, landed her internship through family connections (an aunt works for the professional services department). They didn’t share the same last name, which took some of the pressure off Frazier.
Frazier started her internship at the help desk, setting up accounts and handling technical difficulties, but was given the opportunity to get to the other side of the IT department and work on applications development. “I was able to switch over to that team and learn Salesforce, and able to become an admin and learn something I didn’t even know I would want to do,” she said. “Learning a brand new software in general was such a great experience.”
Her internship was full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year, which also helped—many internships end after the summer. “I asked if I could work part time—from there, when I graduated they offered me the full-time position to be a Salesforce administrator,” she said. “I had the conversation with my manager and said that this is where I really want to work—first we talked about me being a consultant, then later I got the call that they wanted to offer me the full-time position. I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
Frazier said that, when making the most of internship opportunities, it’s important to really put yourself out there. “Being in the customer service side, I was able to show my bosses at the time that I really wanted to learn, and having that drive helps a lot,” she added. “I would take on anything. There are a lot of things you can be taught, but a lot of things you can’t be taught. I never said ‘no’ to anything.”
She said even if it makes you uncomfortable, the biggest thing is to make sure you always try: “Even if you fail, the next time you will learn to do it better… I felt like a lot of internships with my friends they were waiting around, and I felt like I was truly valued—I felt like I was actually making an impact.”
Jack Durham, a former intern with Armor’s Threat Resistance Unit (TRU) team and now full-time employee with the engineering team as a security engineer, found his way to an internship at the company through a friend who was vice president of security.
He was looking for internships that would line up with his computer engineering coursework at North Texas University, and landed an initial three-month spot, which was then extended through the school year.
“We weren’t really treated like interns, we were treated like employees—we came online and had to get stuff done,” Durham said. “It was all production stuff—when I was working the forensics team, I wound up writing a bit of the code that was used throughout the year—it was all proper projects. It was great because I was just thrown in the deep end and I learned very quickly—I learned more in those three months than I did in a whole semester.”
After the initial internship ended, his manager asked if Durham wanted to extended it to February 2019. He also offered Durham a switch from research to security engineering—and Durham jumped at the chance.
“Then my manager offered me a job because they liked what I was doing, and engineering is what I am doing right now,” Durham said. “I feel totally prepared because the internship did a really good job always treating us like full time employees.” (Remember, building a mentor relationship is always a good idea.)
Durham said he considered looking around at other companies, but stayed with Armor because it seemed “very organized” and he liked the corporate culture. “It’s a great mix of casual and formal… Managers aren’t micro-managing, you’re trusted to get your stuff down. The professional relationship works really well.”
Speak Up for Yourself
Josh Elsasser, a software developer at AppNeta, said he went through the usual co-op process: apply for a handful of development jobs, interview, and accept the first promising-looking offer. (For those unaware of the term “co-op,” here’s a good breakdown of how it differs from a “traditional” internship.)
“My second internship only took an email to my old manager,” he said. “I'd left on good terms and with the promise of a second co-op term if I wanted one.”
For his first co-op term, Elsasser was doing a mix of C++ network programming, writing Makefiles and Debian packaging scripts, and maintaining a set of scripts that automated the remote administration of network appliances: “I also got to validate some new hardware and work on a project porting a bunch of our applications off a soon-to-be-end-of-life Ubuntu release.”
For his second co-op term, he got to dive deeper into some kernel network bypass and systems programming. “A lot of the work I did in the previous term carried over, too, which was nice,” he said. “I enjoyed coming back to my old team and a familiar codebase.”
By the end of his second term, he was essentially a full-time developer with a "Jr." in his title, with active roles in planning, bug triage, and even getting the opportunity to hop onto a few high-priority customer tickets.
“My team was relatively small, so it was easy to start speaking up in meetings, the odd team lunch, and work social events,” he said. “One of the best parts of both of my co-op terms was the rest of the interns. I've kept in touch with almost all of them through the years, and there's still a small cluster of us folks at AppNeta who interned together and have since been hired on full-time.”
He said that, during his two internships with AppNeta, he spoke up for himself and wasn't afraid to take on tickets and bugs that required him to learn on the spot.
“When I wanted to come back full-time, I could point to a proven record of work at AppNeta. I knew the tech stack, and I didn't need any onboarding to gain product knowledge or ramp up on the codebase. I wasn't a risk,” he said. “When I did come back full-time, I didn't even end up going through the normal interview process. I had a small queue of tickets to work on by the end of my first day.”
Watch for Opportunity... and Find Mentors
Kevin Meister, a senior account executive for mid-enterprise at ecosystem integration software company Cleo, went to University of Wisconsin and studied economics with a strong math background, and had the opportunity senior year to meet CEO of Cleo, Mahesh Rajasekharan.
Speaking with him and learning about the software business in general, Meister formed a warm relationship, and in 2013 was presented with a three-month summer internship at Cleo… offered by Rajasekharan himself.
“I was definitely not a techie, so when brand new full-time employees start at Cleo, they go through what we call Cleo boot camp, an immersive three-day training program,” Meister explained. “As an intern, I was able to go through that boot camp, which was a really cool experience—feeling like I was getting into the Cleo story from a ground level.”
That experience gave Meister his technical background, and a big part of the internship involved sitting in on demos, seeing the software presented, and learning from customers about their experiences.
One of the fundamental parts of the internship program is meaningful work, and work that people “can really make their own” and put their own creative spin on. “I wasn’t doing back-office filing, I was making a difference on the front lines. I would have a ten-minute slot during weekly meetings to talk about my contribution—they gave you the platform to perform, and it was up to you to make the most of it,” he said. “They were looking for people who want to be challenged and step outside the box a little bit.”
After a second internship, Meister made it clear to his manager that he felt Cleo was where he wanted to stay, and the company soon opened up a new type of business development role requiring its own set of advanced tech tools.
“The Cleo team does a really good job of making sure the team is keeping up with new trends and developments,” he said. “I do a lot of my own self-education, too. Technology is evolving so rapidly—the cool and sexy thing when I started was cloud—now there’s constantly new technologies and use cases. That’s part of it—you have to take it on yourself to expand your knowledge personally, and that’s what makes people valuable to their company.”