Back when I was at university, I did two internships, one at a Fortune 500 corporation and another one at a small tech startup, both of which served as a nice bridge between my student life and my life after graduation.
Besides that, I’ve also worked with and seen quite a few interns come and go over the last several years.
Those experiences helped me gain a better understanding of how you can be an intern valuable to the organization that provided you with the opportunity, and how you can maximize the value you get out of the internship in return.
So, if you’re planning to do an internship in the future – or even if you already started – make sure to keep on reading.
Tip #1: Take your internship seriously
“Take your internship seriously” might seem too obvious of a tip. However, seeing some interns behave like their internship didn’t matter, made me put it very first on this list. After all, I believe that taking your internship – or whatever you do for that matter – seriously is the very basic thing necessary for success.
Sure, there are some internships that are simply not good.
But that is out of your control.
What is within your control is whether you take your internship – and every task you are given regardless of how menial it seems – seriously or not. Whether you show people around you that you are not there to mess around but to learn and help in any way possible or not.
The very two basic ways in which you can show the people around you that you are taking your internship seriously is to be on time and dress for a job.
If your internship starts at 9 AM, make sure to be in the office five minutes before that. And, if you have to deliver something on a certain day, stay past your official end time if necessary.
As for dressing for the job, unless told otherwise, wear business casual on your first day (assuming it’s an office internship). Then, adjust depending on what people around you are wearing.
Tip #2: Aim to be a “zero”
You got the internship, you arrived five minutes before your first day officially starts, and you can’t wait to make a big positive impact on the organization you just joined.
That’s the spirit!
…but, slow down as that’s most likely the best way you can provide value in the very beginning.
It’s easy to think you can do things because you learned about them. The reality is, however, likely going to be different as each organization has their own processes, their own ways of doing things.
And so, instead of rushing in with your suggestions, observe and learn as that will put you in a position to become valuable in the long-term, over the duration of your internship.
Also, don’t think it’s below you – or that it’s unfair – to do menial tasks. Whether it’s copy-pasting data into an Excel sheet or going to buy coffee for your teammates, take each task seriously and with enthusiasm.
Finally, make sure not to ask “stupid,” Google-able questions, but also make sure to ask plenty of deep, thoughtful ones that will speed up your learning process.
The title of this section comes from the former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Living on Earth in which he splits people into three categories: “minus ones” (people that have a negative impact on the organization), “zeros” (people that have neutral impact on the organization), and “plus ones” (people that have a positive impact on the organization), and mentions that it’s best to start as a “zero:”
The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible.
One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.
Tip #3: When given the chance, shine
Staying humble and aiming to be a “zero” is, as mentioned above, very important. While doing so, don’t forget to look for opportunities to shine, though. To look for moments where you can have a positive impact on the organization, and earn trust and respect of the people you are interning for.
Just as an example, when I was interning at the tech startup, one of my first tasks was to make a list of various stores around Tokyo that the sales team could approach to try to sell them our product.
As most people would go about doing the task, I started by making an Excel spreadsheet, Googling various directories, and copy-pasting the store names, addresses, and contact information.
While doing so, the guy running the company came to me, asked whether I’ve seen The Social Network. After saying that I’ve seen it, he went on to ask:
Did Zuck copy-paste all the Harvard data one by one when starting Facebook?
Then, he continued:
You can keep copy-pasting the data – it works. But, I’m sure there’s a better way…
That brief conversation was enough to make me think about approaching the problem differently.
I took the very (very very) basic programming skills that learned in a high school IT class, fired up Google, and got to work. I spent many hours on it – staying awake until 1 AM or 2 AM – learning how to program in Excel VBA and trying to create a script that would automatically scrape data off the directories.
By the time I arrived in the office the next morning, I had a working script that could copy-paste dozens and dozens of lines of information into an Excel sheet with just a single click. And, then I went on to create several more scripts, each working with a specific directory website.
Creating the tools not only felt good, but it also became a tool that saved me and other staff hours and hours – and it became a tool that was used even after my internship was done.
In other words, it turned me – momentarily – from a “zero” into a “plus one.”
Tip #4: Don’t intern in a bubble
Depending on the size of the organization you are about to intern at, its structure, and so on, you might either be working across a variety of different departments or be focused on just a single one such as IT or sales. Or, you might even be working for just a small subsection of a department such as overseas sales.
Regardless of what the area of your internship is, though, make sure to also – to the maximum possible extent – observe and learn about how departments outside your own work and what kind of work people in those departments do.
It will be easier to do at a smaller startup with twenty people in a single room as compared to a large multinational corporation where your department might be taking up a whole floor. However, even in that case, you can find ways to “expand your horizons.”
For instance, you can try asking your supervisor to connect you with people in other departments and invite them out for a lunch.
Doing this will not only help you create valuable relationships which might lead to full-time positions in the future, but also understand how the different departments of an organization work, what other people’s responsibilities are, and what job you might want to do once you graduate.
Tip #5: (Don’t over)provide your opinions and thoughts
The final thing I want to talk about is providing your unsolicited opinions and thoughts about the organization you work with – your feedback about its products, your ideas about how to improve certain processes, and so on.
When you start out, it’s simple. Refrain yourself from doing so – especially if it’s not 100% positive.
Instead, ask thoughtful questions to try to gain a better understanding of why things are done a certain way. When asking, avoid questions like “why is such and such thing being done this way instead of that way,” and instead ask questions like “are we doing this because it helps with that?”
And, once again, make sure the questions are thoughtful – not just simple Google-able questions.
As you start building trust and relationships with the team members, though, I believe it’s good to share your opinions – to a certain degree.
This can provide value especially in smaller organizations where things tend to be more flexible and adjustable compared to larger ones.
In that case, your feedback and ideas – if well thought out – will be valuable. They will provide the management with a different viewpoint than that of the people that are accustomed to the way things at the organization are.
And, they might get to hear valuable things they would otherwise not hear.
That’s because while you have – more or less – nothing to lose by sharing your honest thoughts, the organization’s full-time staff might compromise their job or have to deal with long-term consequences if they did so – especially so if the feedback in question is not particularly positive.
All in all, I believe that doing an internship where you learn by observing people at work and actually get to “do things” is one of the best ways to learn and to get prepared for life after university.
However, for the internship to be valuable – both to you and to the organization you intern for – you have to go in with the right mindset.
You have to take the internship seriously, and you have to go in with the intent to learn – not to make a big splash.