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.


Living the Social Network: a Silicon Valley cliche

The Rosewood Hotel sits in the perfect location. At the intersection of 280 and Sand Hill Road with beautiful views of the Portola Valley hills it’s surrounded by sleek offices dedicated to making money. The who’s who of venture capital, private equity, and now even tech centered hedge funds for the guys who want to be where the real action is (and that’s not New York if you are a geek investor).

On any given evening the people watching in the Rosewood bar is better than any movie. Take an evening a week or so ago. To my right a group of Justin Timberlake knock offs – all white young men, 30-ish, dark shirts, dark pants and one even had on a fedora (I thought he was trying a little too hard). These are probably associates from a local private equity or venture capital firm – MBAs from the best schools apprenticing at the feet of the masters. Looks, brains and confidence – making money but less knowledge than they think.

After a while two women approach them, very tight white jeans, high heels, the requisite small slice of midriff showing below deep cleavage. Long hair and on the prowl for customers. A toss of the hair subtitle “have you noticed me yet”; a well practiced eye lock and knowing smile subtitle “I find you attractive and am available”; and next thing you know they are sitting snugly on a small sofa with money.

To my left a man walks by to greet the waitress with a knowing hug and a pat on the butt. Dark tan, shirt unbuttoned showing chest hair and a gold medallion. Thinks he’s a player but I doubt he is – he’s prowling.

In contrast standing in front of me are very young interns. 20-ish, skinny boys and girls, in cheap, ill fitting suits (short skirts on all the girls) clustered together drinking expensive drinks they can’t really afford. But no worries, there is usually a partner or two in the mix hosting them. They are earnest, ambitious and often an easy mark. The friend I was with is a wealthy partner in a prestigious firm and he sized them up with a practiced eye – giving me a hilarious commentary at the same time.

It’s not all about sex and entertainment. There are the two serious VCs sitting at a cocktail table outside under a heat lamp. They’re older – in their late 40s – and oblivious to everyone around them as they hammer through how to get a stumbling deal funded. If you listen carefully you hear talk of pre-money valuation, revenue run rate and dilution. Many a deal gets done on a hand shake in places like this.

I bump into a friend who is a partner at a household name law firm – although the lawyers are usually pale and tired – they don’t get out much when the Valley is as hot as it is right now.

The place is packed and the air is on fire – talking, flirting, drinking (vastly over-priced drinks), deal-making — many are there to experience Silicon Valley, to find the next big thing and ride the wave. The movie captured it well, and made it a cliche. It was like this in 99, again in 07 and now again in 2011. Wild, geeky and the real money is being made by the facilitators – the investors, lawyers, bars and entertainers all preying on the brains who hope to come up with the next big idea.

And me? The Rosewood bar is on my way home from the office, has terrific olives, and is a convenient place to meet my Palo Alto friends. I don’t go for the buzz and the people-watching, do I?