The lifeblood of every organization must be renewed and refreshed regularly. Of course experience matters – but left on its own it begins to grow stale and loses its vibrancy. The comfort and the stability of the known slowly takes over from the desire to forge ahead and look for different ways to evolve. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In that transition the organization grows stiff. It loses its vibrancy. It is a tale as old as time and probably as old as some of your key platforms.
Every leader will eventually face this challenge. You do not have to wait until its too late, however. There are a myriad of things you can do to keep a low level of disruption present in your organization to ensure velocity and change. One of my favorite ways to do this is through a robust intern program for your organization.
You might say – “Oh we already do the intern thing. Good kids. But I would hardly call it a game changer for our organization.” To which I would say you are probably doing it completely wrong. In fact I think most organizations do it wrong. Or at the very least – they do it in the same way that companies have been doing it for a long time. I liken it to a government social program. Take a bunch of kids, expose them to some interesting concepts or experiences, surround them in work areas associated with the programmatic elements of their major, managed and led by others who had their same majors. Definitely do not give them any real responsibility. Hire the ones that seem to acclimate well. Continue to make similar worker bots who do the worker bot stuff you already do.
It is important to note that in my opinion it will take a little more work than just hiring some talented young people into your teams from universities and stick on some existing teams. Sure they may gain the benefit and knowledge of interacting with old grizzled veterans or be exposed to processes or tools they might not have access to in school. But are you truly using them to drive change? To bring energy into areas that could use an infusion of velocity? To ACTUALLY have impact on your organization? You have this amazing opportunity to get a full view of what that energy can do for your organization and companies typically squander it. What new and differentiating things have they been exposed to before they met you that you could make use of?
Conversely, what are they getting from you or your organization? The honor of putting your logo on their resume for 8-12 weeks? Some routine body of busy work that your normal employees do not want to do? Some work experience in their area of interest that will hopefully translate into a future hiring managers needs? Are you igniting their passions? Giving them experiences that will matter? Allowing them to create interesting career stories that will be valuable for them long term?
So many companies talk about the need and desire to hire these young professionals and lock them up early believing that the job offer pre-graduation is enough of an enticement. That this is reward enough and they should be darn grateful for it. Maybe for some it is. But I believe that if you truly want to add the velocity and passion that they can bring to your organization. You have to make the effort worth it. Not someone in Human Resources. Unless of course you work in HR…then it would be you.
A high level outline
For as long as I have had the positional authority to do so I have strived for a different kind of culture and approach in how I have brought these folks into the organization. The kinds of projects that they worked on, the backgrounds and skillsets I would target, and ultimately the level of responsibility and accountability I would entrust to them. It’s a practice that always results in whispered conversations and doubts behind my back (at least at the beginning) but has ALWAYS resulted in big wins by betting big on these young men and women. I have found that when you encourage, bet, and value the work that they are doing they will never let you down. The trick is that it requires some work and focus from you too.
So you may be asking – what are the basic tenets of how or what you do that is so different? Well for starters the program has 5 starting requirements:
- The interns must be multi-disciplinary – The team I assemble must have different degrees and backgrounds. For example in my current program (‘Project Watchdog’) we have Computer Science majors, Mechanical Engineering Majors, Business Majors, Finance Majors and Data & Analytics Majors.
- Upon its completion the project must be usable as a production system, process, or technology for the firm that is publicly referenceable for each interns resume.
- This also means that the program or project must be scoped to be achievable in the internship window with stretch goals and minimum viable requirements to account for potential skill gaps or more than expected capabilities around delivery. This is where I have to work to do the sizing appropriately.
- The team is mostly autonomous. While I typically have one employee helping to steward the group through the company, run the daily stand-ups, and ensure that the overall program is progressing – it is largely upon them to self-organize, plot out the needs of the project and solve and complete. For example- This year’s employee interface is an intern we hired from last year’s class who is taking a quick pitstop to help me here this year before she moves back to her permanent role.
- While probably not specifically stated above, this also forces the team to try and navigate the organizational pitfalls, politics, and general inefficiencies within the organization. But why do that? Wont that chase these kids away? Because its a reality in every organization I have ever worked in, and it will be a reality in theirs once they hit the ‘real world’. Developing those navigational skill sets early will be helpful for their careers and give them insights into how dependent teams truly are upon one another in a corporate setting. I do profess that sometimes I have to give it a little nudge but the experience is valuable.
There are other perks that they get as well. Things like a personal reference from me on LinkedIn and/or written with specific callouts for the work that they did and drove for the project, the ability to interface with my technology leadership teams, and individualized career conversations. The program also has a weekly stand-up with me, but I am not sure they feel that this is a perk sometimes. 🙂 Its important to note that all of this is above and beyond the standard corporate program offerings.
This summer the interns within the Office of the CTO internship program are working on something truly interesting. Imagine a commercially focused observability platform for customers, but with the ability tier out information based upon different personas and their usage. Its a unique platform that blends custom new development, understanding of customer usage and financial impacts, data analytics across hundreds of platforms, with key expanded internal and customer level metrics. Tying in to our recent partnership with GCP the platform will be cloud native but collect the required information from services regardless of where they sit today. Its an ambitious project and it is not easy. You can see the stress sometimes on their faces. The challenges of not moving as fast as they had anticipated. The difficulties in getting the information (not being spoon-fed on how to get it) from the organization.
The team is interfacing with our account management organization and sales, our finance groups, they are touching the development teams, Our product organization, our SRE’s, and platform groups across technology. They are digging in and navigating strange and bizarre organizational boundary issues. They have identified some bugs in some of our newly minted orchestration technologies. They are moving fast and furious. They are about half way through their tenure of the internship program and I got my first look in a demo this past week. The excitement, smiles, and pride was palpable. I do believe they are learning. I do believe they feel they are making progress. They tell me so in one on one interactions. This is success for me.
That excitement, however, runs both ways. I routinely get notes from my management team or technology team members about their interactions with these interns. They prove to be a motivational force and have caused not a few teams to rethink different approaches on how things are captured, or aggregated, or learn new level of interactions through their work. Everyone feels the forward progress. The Project Watchdog team, our employees, our internal customers, and ultimately our external customers.
There is a sense of pride and fun. Each year one of the first things the interns get to do is craft and design their own team t-shirt designs. I mean sure they get the normal company swag – but this is their team. This is their work. This is their project and the shirt helps create the esprit-de-corps. You would be amazed as to how this simple task forces them to work together. They all bring their passions and ideas to the table, and then have to compromise as the design moves forward. What color? What should go into the design? How should the project be conveyed? What should be on the front? What about the back? In many ways its the beginning of the work they will do for the rest of their stay.
Its the little things like that which truly make the difference. It brings out a different level of engagement and passion. I wouldn’t trade this team, or any previous team at any company I have done this at for the world. I routinely get notes from past interns who share how their experiences in this type of program set them up for success.
So forgive this most latest victory lap of pride in my most recent team – The WatchDogs. They are doing some amazing work. Of course if you would like to see what they have ultimately built for us, you should buy some D&B products towards the end of summer.