Ambitious interns can provide enormous value to the startups they join. After all, it’s an opportunity for businesses to leverage fresh talent in their pursuit of rapid growth.
On the flip side, it’s not uncommon for internships to become gateways to prolific careers. What starts as peek at a new world of work can fast become the entry point to a prolific profession.
Just look at Ursula Burns. She began her career at Xerox as an intern in the summer of 1980 and rose through the ranks to assume the role of CEO in 2009.
In 2021, the employee experience startup hired four Startmate Student Fellows for a three-month internship program that proved the value of new talent, fresh perspectives and unbridled enthusiasm.
For Paul, nurturing rising talent doesn’t just give young people a leg up into a new industry, it creates a working world of equal opportunity, and paves clear career paths for the young professionals within it.
“When I think about what that great world of work looks like, support for people who are studying and just starting out their careers is an important pillar,” Paul says.
“I want to live in a world where there is equitable opportunity for people starting out their careers.
“I also want to live in a world where people are equipped to understand enough about what their work journey is going to be like, and are adequately prepared for it, so that they make decisions that are going to help them truly thrive as a person.”
When asked how the internship program came about, Paul explains it came from a convergence of a few things.
“One, a desire to contribute to making the world of work one of equal opportunity, and feeling that we have good experience and ability to do that,” he says.
“Two, a belief that there is value in this kind of program, both for the interns and for the teams they work in. And three, as a rapidly growing company, we want to do things that help ensure that our growth amplifies our diversity.”
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Culture Amp is just like any other startup.
Yes, they’re riding the waves of a brilliant new business model, but they also – by nature of what they do – bring a fresh perspective to workplace culture.
Their mission, quite literally, is to ‘create a better world of work’.
“We believe in the foundational importance of people and culture in organisations, and are doing everything we can to drive a change in the world where companies put their culture first,” Paul says.
“Our product is an employee experience platform that helps organisations amplify the experience and impact of their employees at work. But even more than that, we’re always thinking about what it means to be ‘culture first’ ourselves, and how we can bring that into everything we do.”
Fuelled by a desire to support young professionals from day one, Paul set about creating a three-month engineering internship program that hired five hungry and curious students, four of whom were Startmate Student Fellows.
Not only did the program prove mutually beneficial, with the interns exposed to valuable real-world experiences and Culture Amp in turn exposed to the value of fresh thinking, but it also proved to be an invaluable learning opportunity for Paul.
“One of our teams was on a mission to design and implement a new feature flagging service in our platform. The intern in their team, Ellen, was asked to build a sample application in some of the languages that we use to help test and drive it,” Paul tells me.
“Ellen took to this task with extraordinary initiative, and ended up building a sample application across five different technologies, three of which she had never worked in previously. Not only that, but the team came to depend on their interactions with Ellen as a key part of the work they were doing. You’d hear things like, ‘we’ve got to get that bit ready for Friday so we can run Ellen’s app against it’. And Ellen’s exercising of the feature flag service ended up refining and improving the way that service works.
“Ellen also started to be a key conduit to collaborating with our teams and groups on how to integrate with this service, teaching and guiding others on how to do that.
“Her ability to work out loud and collaborate, her initiative to jump in and proactively learn things, and her attention to detail all meant that she added a huge amount of value to her team.”
Good internship programs aren’t built overnight. Like any sound investment, they require great consideration.
If your motivation for hiring interns is cheap labour, you’re never going to reap the rewards of a well-structured program. Instead, you should also be considering the value you can offer your interns, and whether you have the time and resources to see the program to fruition.
Paul has seen firsthand the power of a high-reward internship program and has deduced that they require five key ingredients.
“All of our interns said that they felt really included and that they belonged in the teams they were placed in," Paul says.
"This comes from a genuine desire to help those interns grow.”
“You have to identify teams who are well-placed to have an intern. We had a couple of teams who had interest in taking one on, but wouldn’t have had the ability to embrace an intern to the degree needed for it to be a great experience," Paul explains.
"Some of the teams that did take on an intern also had pretty full plates, but they had thought about it and could see how they would support their intern well through that period.”
“For each intern, we had one or two identified technical mentors in their teams that they could turn to day-to-day with work tasks and questions," Paul says.
"We also had a mentor (line manager) who had existing experience managing people, and their role was to stay connected with the intern each week and make sure they were having a great experience, and to adjust anything as needed based on feedback.”
“Having real work the intern can do, and making it safe to fail, is important. It is so rewarding for an intern to be able to contribute to real things that are needed in the team or company," Paul tells me.
"At the same time, working on tasks of a critical nature can add a lot of pressure.
"Finding ways for interns to contribute to real-world tasks, with a lot of flexibility in how far the intern decides to go with it, and ensuring that their work isn’t a critical path thing, helps make a safe space for people to really shine.”
“Having fun together as a group is so important," Paul adds.
"We had many sessions as an intern cohort that included playing games, doing workshops, meeting and asking questions of the founders, and hearing varied career journeys, for example. The interns, and everyone involved in those sessions, found them really engaging.”
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