careers at FirstRain

Career Advice, Leadership

Top Five Dos and Don’ts When Employing Interns

Like most Silicon Valley technology companies, we hire interns at FirstRain. Sometimes they are active graduate students looking for work experience and interesting problems to solve while finishing their doctorate, sometimes they are in the final few months of a bachelors and want to try on a job to see if they enjoy it, and sometimes they are full time students working for the Summer. In all cases having them in our company is a huge win for us. So far every one has been an energy source, working hard and doing good work while allowing us to foster potential future employees (we like to hire our interns if they’re good).

But it’s important that being an intern is good for the intern, not just for FirstRain. I’ve got young friends who interned for free (at other companies, not FirstRain!) – long hours where they felt taken advantage of and that doesn’t seem fair. So here’s my (somewhat tongue in cheek) list of the top Dos and Don’ts for employing interns…

Do – hire the very smart ones and load them up with work. It’s a win-win. You get a lot of great work done at reasonable cost, they get to experience that incredible satisfaction of conquering a mountain of work. Yes conquering the mountain is fun in the end, trust me.

Don’t – take them out drinking and flirt with them. A challenge for some of you I know, but a friend of mine did that and even though he thought it was harmless she complained and his career with his company went sideways for 2 years.

Do – give them a plan for the time they are interning with you. What you expect them to learn, why, what you hope they’ll be able to do with it afterwards. This is motivating and gives the work a purpose.

Don’t – sit them all together and just expect them to work it out. One of the things you want them to learn is how to be productive and professional in an office. That means teaming them up with one of your professionals who’ll be there to mentor them.

Do – make the work you have them doing interesting and relevant to their ambitions. A brilliant PhD student in big data analytics – give her your hardest problem and watch her impress you; a creative and smart new graduate in marketing and design – show him your visual brand and all the things you don’t like about it and support him as he tells you all the ways he’ll bury your ideas with his own.

Don’t – expect them to read your mind. If you’re not getting what you want go and talk to them. Could be they are intimidated by you (always hard for me to imagine but I guess the title VP or CEO can be a barrier) and you need to help them get what they need to complete the task you’ve set them.

Do – stretch them. Let them try things they’ve never tried before. For example Facebook is running a summer intern program this year for non computer science students, teaching them how to code. They’re expanding their potential labor pool and introducing a bunch of structured thinkers to a whole new career. A great idea.

Don’t – treat them differently. They are with you because they want experience. Give them experience. Include them in company all hands, let them shadow you in meetings, treat them like employees so they know what it’s like.

Do – feed them. We call it the FirstRain 15. Hey, interns should be able to eat too much great food every day and gain weight too.

Don’t – let them hug you at work when they’re happy. It sets the wrong impression. Even if one of the interns is your kid. Seriously.


Why women need sponsors more than mentors

I was on a panel at GHC 2012 last week “Sponsors or Mentors – which will get you there?” Standing room only in a large room, it was clearly a topic of great interest to the female tech students and geeks at the conference. And the questions were priceless…

The panel, lead by Anne Losby of Thomson Reuters,  was prompted by a report Catalyst put out last year on Sponsoring Women to Success. In it the research clearly shows sponsorship is a powerful differentiator at the top and key to overcoming the barriers for women. And while we are making good progress as a gender, and women make up more than 50% of the workforce, they still only make up 3.8% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500. So plenty of room to improve the ratio.

First – do you know the difference? Mentoring has been talked about for
years but talking about sponsorship is a fairly new fashion. Mentoring is about advice and coaching, helping the younger employee figure out the system and skills. My advice to people seeking mentors is seek someone willing to tell you the truth about yourself. Seek someone who will hold the mirror up to you (and your behavior), even is the image is ugly. And a great mentor will put the time in to teach you.

A sponsor, however, is not a mentor. A sponsor has power and the ability to help you get ahead. They know you — strengths and weaknesses, talents and warts — and are ambitious for you. They help you prepare for opportunity by steering you into the right experiences and the right training. They will advocate for you and make the case when you are not in the room for why you should get the next promotion, the next cool project. They win when you win be because the company, and possibly their reputational capital in the company, are stronger when you do.

I experienced this myself in my first 12 years in Silicon Valley. I worked for 2 companies – one for 4 years, one for 8, but was never in the same job more than 21 months. I had two sponsors (although I could not have labeled them as such at the time) who were watching me, grooming me and putting me into opportunities to learn and stretch. Both were men, because back then there were no women in the organization above me. I would not have become a tech CEO at 36 without their sponsorship.

So why is this so important for women?

The tough reality is that women face a double bind. Catalyst research has shown that women who advocate for themselves can be penalized in the workplace. Women get labeled as “aggressive” when the same behavior in a man would be labeled as “assertive”. I’m not complaining, it’s just reality and so sponsors can help women get ahead by advocating for them and helping them avoid the double bind.

Sponsors are also important for women because men tend to know what they want and ask for it, women tend to wait to be asked. There is unconscious sterotyping going on with the men judging the women who do ask, but there is also stereotyping going on by the women who restrict their own behavior. Afraid to appear “pushy” or “too aggressive” they moderate their own behavior to meet the expectation of humility from women.

And this is where the questions lead on the panel. All the discussion, in the end, led to the double bind. How to get ahead and ask for the project, the job, the doctoral research without offending the men around you and being judged? Lots of advice ensued, but in the end I told the group to “Just go for it and course correct when you are in the job. Don’t tap down your natural energy and your drive, we need that in our companies!” Strong women (and men) – apply here.


My life is not a sausage factory

Yes high tech is still dominated by men – but it doesn’t have to be.

In Kara Swisher’s hilarious keynote speech at the Women of Vision dinner last week she said “my life is a sausage factory” referring to the predominance of men in the high tech industry. Kara reigns supreme in the world of tech journalism so she’s talking with men, and writing about men, most of the time. She’s a kick – outspoken, whip smart and fearless – had me in stitches.

She’s right though. There is an unhealthy focus on young men right now with the talk of “brogramming” and the frat house culture — probably about to be celebrated in Bravo’s new reality TV show Silicon Valley. I’m willing to bet anyone a dollar that the new show will stereotype women as a) young, pretty and in media, b) arm candy for partying with or c) if smart, then ugly.

But real technology companies do not have to be like that.

My life is distinctly not a sausage factory because FirstRain has women throughout it’s leadership – and what may be unique is that the CEO (me) and the COO (YY) are both women and mathematicians. Now this was not by design – it is simply a result of being open to women as tech leaders, and hiring the best person for the job.

Frankly when building a company having the best person for the job is the only thing that matters. The best person means the intellect, the experience, the creativity, the skills and the cultural fit to build a great solution. We don’t have enough women coming into the pipe today (hence the need for non-profits like the Anita Borg Institute who threw the dinner Kara spoke at) but even with the 20% women CS graduates we do have you can find great female software architects and engineers if you are open to them.

YY and I have worked together on and off for 20 years. We’re both mathematicians, both have programmed, both worked in marketing for a while. YY’s a deep nerd, mother of 3 with her wife Kate, and the best person I could have hired to run the technical teams at FirstRain. Our VP technology is male (Marty), one of our two lead architects is male (one of our founders), the other is female – again we were gender blind when hiring but sought world class talent. Our managing director in India is a female engineer (Aparna), promoted from the engineering ranks because she was the best person to lead what has developed into a truly world-class software engineering and analytics team.

So we have ended up with a management team that is about half female, the women are on both the technical and business sides of the house and I am very (unreasonably?) proud of that. And I’d like us to find more female engineers among the applicants for our open San Mateo and Gurgaon software engineering jobs. Give me a mixed grill any day.