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I'm starting an internship program for our software department and I was wondering about creating a position ("chief intern", intern supervisor, or whatever one should call it) with the following responsibilities:

  • Train interns
  • Coach interns
  • Manage projects and tasks for interns
  • Supervise intern's work in terms of rhythm and quality
  • Act as a liaison between the main team's needs and interns performance/aspirations
  • Evaluate and facilitate intern's progress when they want to grab a higher-level domain-specific task (at this point, a main dev team member can do mentoring)
  • Get freely involved in the main team's software development tasks so that he himself can grow, and have full mentorship from the main dev team.

I'm thinking that an apprentice-level engineer (below Jr., or Jr.; but being a graduate and working full-time) can handle this for a while (he will be trained by the main dev team first), until one of two things happen:

  1. He/she decides to move on to the main dev team by recommending an appropriate replacement (or me finding another one as a new hire)
  2. Keep leading the interns while still being able to grow to Jr. Eng., Eng., Sr. Eng

I know the notion of a "chief intern" is common within the medical world, but I don't really know about that in the software world (I was a freelancer for most of my university years).

A side-intention to this is also that, if this ends up being a higher rotation position (organically) because the intern supervisor wants to join the main dev team, this could help interns that aspire this position emerge as leaders.

My main intention for this, though, is removing distractions from the main team but without making the interns suffer the lack of attention, which could lead to boredom and little intern retention.

Is this "chief intern" idea common (or good at least)?, are there any obvious risks to it that I might not be seeing?


Edit: I have a draft plan for the kind of work the interns would be doing: Are R&D mini-projects a good activity for interns?

Edit #2: My intention is not keeping them isolated, but having someone focus on giving attention to them when we cannot.

Edit #3: I'm now convince it is a good idea, but I will take the organic approach to hiring someone in such position: do it myself until I cannot. This way I'll know better what to expect from a person I hire for this role in the future, as well as what works and what doesn't with interns.

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Wouldn't it be better to have the interns coached by someone on the team itself? Personally, I'd have each intern coached by someone on the dev team so that they get a better view of how the dev team actually works and I get a better view of whether they are worth hiring. Someone spending all their time managing interns isn't going to be a bit disconnected from the rest of the organization. –  Steven Burnap May 29 '12 at 15:58
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I might have misunderstood the question. Are you wanting to hire an intern to manage the interns or a dedicated "intern manager"? –  Pete May 29 '12 at 16:10
    
I have a plan for interns' tasks, the work we do might not be as simple to have them face our tasks head-on (we do embedded software development; we have offices on another country and interns there mainly do testing work AFAIK, I don't want this to be the only thing available for my interns): programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/149866/… –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 16:13
    
@Pete I corrected my question a little, I'm looking for a recently graduated engineer with leadership qualities... but if an intern is good enough for the position and can work full-time, that would be good too –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 16:19
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when you say this is already popular in the medical industry are you thinking of a "chief resident?" That is something quite a bit different than what you are proposing here, residents are already similar to junior engineers, and chief residents are generally those at the end of their residency so they have a few years of experience. –  Ryathal May 29 '12 at 17:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm uneasy about this, at the very least you will need a senior dev, acting as a safety net, making sure your 'chief intern' isn't 'the blind leading the blind'.

Really I think you are best having your best people working with your interns, yes it means they will be slightly less productive, but your interns should become more productive sooner.

Your best people should be able to cope with the burden of training interns and producing their own stuff, that's why they are your best people!

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We're just starting the software department and have a high-tide of work coming our way. The main dev team will still act as a safety net and be available to interns, but in a less hand-holding way until they emerge by their own interest (with guidance). Having interns getting into production code right-away has a higher degree of risk here, it is a very critical environment as we don't manage the integration ourselves and software bugs can cause our factory to halt production –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 16:46
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It sounds like you are biting off more than you can chew with your intern program. You have a new team with a tide of critical work coming. Hiring so many interns that you need a real dev to be a dedicated intern supervisor sounds like a really bad idea. I suggest just hire one, or at most two interns, if and only if you have an experienced dev who is willing to mentor them. Probably even then interns will add risk to your program for little gain. Consider waiting a year and then relook at hiring interns. –  Jim In Texas May 29 '12 at 17:33
    
@JimInTexas Can you elaborate on what you think the risks are in a separate answer? –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 18:46

When I was an intern (and also a junior employee), in order to write program code, I still needed to obtain exact technical specifications from a developer. If I am supposed to do coding and the lead intern actually knows these specifications, that would be a great help.

How well this would work seems to me to depend on what tasks I would have done as an intern (I have done these tasks both as an intern and as a student employee):

1 Testing

It is easier to understand what a valid test case is than it is to write code to match a valid interface

2 Coding

To write code, especially as a junior employee it is important to discuss specifications with someone who is familiar with them in detail - someone with direct experience.

3 Flowcharts/Process Diagrams

I have written flowcharts for software as a student employee, but in order to do this I had to be able to meet face to face with the stakeholders.

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Looking across industry, this is common elsewhere. At investment banks, there is frequently an HR person assigned to watch all the interns, and frequently a somewhat senior (6-10 years?) line manager as well. Even when the interns get spread out, there is a line manager who watches over them since the interns are viewed as a corporate asset.

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Agree. My previous company was quite active in using internships to get the best graduates. You're competing for them, not the other way around. That means you have to treat well, and that includes attention from your senior employees. –  MSalters Jun 1 '12 at 11:04

Having interns focus on proof of concept/R&D work sounds like a good, potentially productive way to keep them out of your hair if that's the problem. Their exposure to staff, however, should be direct if infrequent. It's what they're paying for by not being paid well (or not paid at all).

The other issue is that internships can be competitive. By having one intern rise above the rest, you could end up with somebody who's willing to make his competition look like chumps at the expense of their work and experience with your company. In my experience, devs tend to see through office politics better than most but it still happens, especially with the types of aggressively competitive college kids that score internships.

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Interesting perspective, definitely he wouldn't be called "chief intern" then. My intention is not keeping them isolated, but having someone focus on giving attention to them when we cannot. –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 19:29

As a recent graduate this is something that I would love to be able to do myself. I feel that I have a lot of skills but my depth is shallow. I know enough about software development but have never really managed a team.

Something like this can totally work if you set it up correctly.

  1. Consider only the strongest interns for the position
  2. Set them up for success by having small and manageable projects for them to take on
  3. Provide resources (especially access to more senior developers) and proper tools

3 is absolutely essential. If you can afford it, dedicate at least 1 of your more senior developers as a mentor for this person. They don't need to be available 24/7 but at the very least the chief intern should have somewhat immediate access to the mentor.

Overall, I think this is an awesome idea and would give really strong candidates an opportunity to do something challenging and meaningful that will hopefully help your bottom line as well. It's a win for everyone if done properly.

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The chief intern would be an extension of the main dev team whose main responsibility is mentoring and leading the interns, while still getting involved in development the other half of his time (or whatever healthy proportion). –  dukeofgaming May 29 '12 at 16:49

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