Highspot and Smartsheet both believe in internships as important levers for hiring and building diverse teams, as springboards for people entering the engineering field, and as worthy investments in the future of tech workers.
Smartsheet’s internship program onboards large cohorts of university graduates with an extensive internal support network. Highspot primarily invests in community partnerships with mission-driven educators including Ada Developers Academy, Year Up, and Rainier Scholars.
For both of our companies, the rapid shift to remote internships beginning in 2020 was a major adjustment for everyone involved.
As Highspot’s VP of Engineering Operations and Reliability, I partnered with Smartsheet’s University Programs Manager Lauren Houk to dive into what we’ve collectively learned. In this article, we share context on why internships matter, the challenges of moving from in-person to remote internships, and the solutions we’ve discovered.
Why Internships Matter
There’s an overwhelming “engineers’ market” for job-seeking software developers, with tens of thousands of unfilled jobs across the United States. But most jobs in the industry require real-world experience, which means that aspiring engineers, full of energy, agility, and ambition, enter a job market where years of experience is the number that counts the most. This creates a serious barrier to entry into one of the most lucrative professional fields.
A software engineering internship bridges an aspiring developer’s education with an entry-level software engineering job. In a well-structured internship, an intern learns about the real world of engineering, gets career coaching from management, and obtains hands-on experience with expert mentoring. The experience can be transformative for the intern’s professional growth and for their career opportunities.
Essential Components of a Successful Internship
Mentorship is at the core of a successful internship. A great mentor supports, motivates, champions, and appropriately challenges an intern. They know when to step up and when to step back; they are attentive and adaptive to the intern’s learning style; they foster the intern’s powers of inquiry and curiosity to set them on a path of continuous learning.
At Highspot and at Smartsheet, we intentionally separate the roles of Manager and Mentor. Whereas the mentor’s primary mission is to teach, challenge, and champion, the manager’s role is to listen, equip, and provide regular, actionable feedback and support.
Access to other company leaders also enhances the intern’s experience. Smartsheet hosts a Leadership Panel Series that gives interns first-hand access to advice from senior leaders and encourages them to ask questions.
Intentional, Structured Program
At Highspot, most internships are six months long. Interns take part in Highspot GROW, our week-long company onboarding and product orientation, after which they complete their technical onboarding. Their internship plan also includes learning milestones, regular 1:1s with their manager, a midpoint review, and periodic mentor and peer feedback opportunities.
At Smartsheet, internship programs are three months long, a timeframe that demands a proven and efficient structure. Smartsheet begins with a Day One plan that ensures the intern can hit the ground running with access to all of the right people and tools.
“The team helped me create a plan for my internship project, which guided my summer journey at Smartsheet,” explained Mandy Lin, a former intern and now full-time Software Engineer at Smartsheet. Thanks to “efficient time management and abundant support,” Mandy said, she was “able to ramp quickly, get familiar with the product, learn new tools, and ensure a timely delivery.”
How Going Remote Has Complicated Internships
New obstacles to access
Access is what internships are all about: access to a great mentor, to a manager, to peers on your team, and to new kinds of partners, like quality assurance, TPMs, Product Managers, UX Designers, and more. Working remotely makes it hard to discover and get to know these essential partners.
- Zoom meetings can be uncomfortable and draining
- The mechanics of how teams do work are often hidden
- It can be hard to overcome fears, ask questions, and ask for help in a virtual environment
- Networking is challenging – organic conversations are rare on digital channels
- Time management can be difficult when work and home are in the same space
How We’ve Adapted
If we’ve learned one thing since going remote, it’s that we have to make things happen regardless of what new obstacles emerge. For Smartsheet, that meant removing geographical boundaries from the internship search. In 2021, Smartsheet’s fully-remote summer internship program onboarded 15 software engineer interns from across the country. This meant there was no longer the standard onsite 9-5 pm PST working hours and intern lunch meet-ups. In order for interns to feel connected with one another, Smartsheet created a Slack channel that allowed the interns to discuss their work, any challenges they may be facing, and to celebrate their successes with each other. For Highspot, going remote meant developing new resources and hosting best-practice conversations with our community internship partners.
New tools & access
Resources for remote communication have become fundamental tools. We equip interns with best practices for remote collaboration using tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Slack, and CoderPad.
Additionally, because Smartsheet and Highspot both develop products designed to help teams collaborate across organisational and geographic boundaries, we leverage our own products to organise and share information. We invest in product training for interns so they are equipped with self-service onboarding resources.
Double-down on inclusivity
An inclusive environment where people have a sense of belonging is a core value that our companies share. Building comfort and confidence with a brand new team remotely can be challenging. As leaders, mentors, and internship program managers, it’s our responsibility to go the extra mile to establish open communication channels so that interns are welcomed onto the team, provided with a sense of belonging, and rewarded for asking questions.
To plan ahead for an inclusive internship experience, managers and other leaders can:
- Reserve weekly recurring 1:1 time in advance of the intern’s start date. Managers have busy schedules. Planning ahead ensures time is set aside for interns and is not an impossible-to-schedule afterthought.
- Facilitate introductory 1:1s for the intern, in their first week on the job, with every member of their core team. Give the intern a chance to familiarise themself with names, faces, and roles on their team before the standups and team meetings begin.
- Create peer networks. In addition to the various Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) provided to all employees, Smartsheet maintains an affinity group specifically for intern managers, previous interns, and current interns to connect. Similarly, Highspot cultivates peer networks for former and current Ada interns as well as cross-department meet-ups for Year Up interns and graduates.
Inventing a Bright Future for Tomorrow’s Engineers
By investing in our interns today, we’re helping to build not only a promising future for our companies, but a future with talent that will push the boundaries of what’s possible with technology. It’s through inspiring and developing our people to do their best work that we’ll unlock the potential of every individual, resulting in extraordinary progress and workplaces that people love.