The Not-So-Hidden Value of IT Interns

A professional sports team uses the college draft to fill immediate needs and build for the future. Likewise, an intern program gives IT shops a glimpse of what future college grads have to offer.
Posted February 17, 2005

Eric Spiegel

Eric Spiegel

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"Interns? We don't have time for interns!"

That was the terse response I received from our VP of engineering when I proposed we bring on a few interns to fill some immediate needs. Although I could understand his response based on the immense impending workload, I also knew from past experience that an internship program not only can help alleviate the work burden, it can plant the seeds to sow future leaders for an organization.

To demonstrate the value of interns, let's look at professional sports. A pro sports team uses the draft to fill immediate needs and build for the future. This is comparable to businesses hiring college graduates.

Now imagine if a football team could have college players intern with them for a year before deciding to offer a long-term contract. Not only would it increase a team's chances of hiring the right players, those receiving contracts would hit the ground running because they'd be familiar with the plays and their teammates.

In my experience, I have found this "try and buy" approach translates well in the business world. For IT shops, an intern program provides an extended, hands-on evaluation of what future college grads have to offer.

So where does one find good interns? The best place to start is at nearby universities. Unless you only want a summer intern, it is important to select a local university so the interns can attend classes and work part-time. Contact the career service centers and ask for a meeting. Be prepared to discuss the skills you need, so they can match students with an appropriate major.

Go the the Talent Source

According to Patricia Hilliard, a technology career counselor with the University of Pittsburgh, it can be as easy as establishing an account on the university's online career service.

"A company can use their account to search for potential intern resumes and contact that intern directly if interested," she says. However, Hilliard also suggests building a working relationship with either a faculty member or someone in career services. "We can help the companies find the best match for their ongoing needs," she says.

In preparing for your intern, you need to clearly define the job responsibilities. If an intern is working for credits, it is even more important because they will need pre-approval from their sponsoring faculty member in order to qualify for the credits.

"We have had employers assign computer science majors clerical work, which provides no value to either the intern or company," says Hilliard.

In other words, for those of you looking for cheap labor, go to a temp agency.

Hilliard says your best bet is to assign a project with a clear beginning, middle and end.

"It will be a better experience for all parties if an intern has a project they can get their arms around," she says.

Some projects that may ease the transition of an intern include quality assurance and documentation. By testing and documenting your applications they will gain the knowledge needed to be assigned future design or development work. If you do assign a development project, make sure it is well-defined and that the intern understands your methodology and standards.

Also keep in mind that this is most likely an intern's first "real world" job experience. Hilliard suggests having monthly meetings to gauge progress and provide guidance.

"Do not wait until the end of the internship to provide feedback," she advises. "This is a learning experience for the intern and they need direction throughout the project."

Now wait a minute...this sounds like extra work! Perhaps you are now thinking the VP of engineering was on the right track. While it is true that interns do take some extra effort, with minimal preparation and monitoring you will quickly realize their added short- and long-term value.

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