How to Make Engineering Interns Effective for Your Startup
People & Culture

How to Make Engineering Interns Effective for Your Startup

Startup Sift Science relies on its interns to hit its goals. Here's how it designed its program to produce incredible and effective engineers.

At just three years old, Sift Science has accomplished a surprising amount. Its product, which combats fraud using machine learning, is an important tool for companies like Kickstarter, Airbnb, Uber and Opentable. But with just over 30 employees, they have to make the most out of all of their resources — including their interns. For Sift Science, having an internship program isn’t just about training the next generation of technical talent, it’s about extending its capabilities.

That’s why CTO Fred Sadaghiani has focused tremendous effort on building a program that “activates” engineering interns to become full contributing members of the staff. Now that summer is coming to an end, and many interns are headed back to school, it’s the perfect time to run a post-mortem on your internship program (or lack thereof) and think through ways to turn your interns into assets. In this exclusive interview, Sadaghiani breaks down what Sift Science does differently, how it’s accelerated the company, and how other startups can build mutually beneficial internship experiences.

Why invest in an internship program?

“We're seeing a much higher caliber of intern than ever before in tech history.”

First and foremost, building a robust and effective internship program is about talent, says Sadaghiani. “As almost everyone in the valley knows, recruiting is the hardest part of building a company. The technical talent pool is so constrained. People have bigger dreams and bigger opportunities to choose from at a younger age. And as an early-stage startup, you have to have access to that talent.”

As he recalls, computer science students at schools like Stanford and Berkeley used to learn about data structures, algorithms and systems —but in the last several years, the bar has been raised. Students are tackling bigger problems in academic settings. And they aren’t just doing it in the classroom. More of them are pursuing extracurricular research projects, building their own software, assembling impressive portfolios of work on Github. As early as sophomore year, there are people with the same capabilities of full-time engineers at many companies, he says.

Sift Science’s goal is to tap into these abilities to power their growth. This last summer, the company employed 13 full time engineers and five interns. That means more than a third of their engineering output came from interns. There’s no question that they're incredibly influential in the direction and quality of the product.

“We realized the value of interns from the very beginning and made it a part of our culture,” says Sadaghiani. “Within six months of founding the company, we recruited interns. We didn’t even have an office. We were squatting one of our investor’s office and this was already important to us.”

With the battle for talent heating up more and more, providing a remarkable intern experience can be one of your most compelling and convincing weapons. People form bonds with familiar environments. Companies have a huge opportunity to generate loyalty and cherry-pick talent for full-time positions if they engage interns in their products and culture.

What does a good internship experience look like?

Sadaghiani believes the following five components have made Sift Science’s internship program particularly effective, equipping interns to meaningfully contribute to the company’s goals.

1) It’s flexible where it can be, and firm where it needs to be.When it comes to deciding how many weeks or months an intern will work, Sift lets the individual make the call. Sometimes their schedule allows them to stay three months, sometimes four. “If you have to start a couple weeks later than everyone else, or end a couple weeks earlier that’s fine. We don’t want to create constraints that would make a skilled student decide not to join us.” This also differentiates Sift from very large companies like Google and Apple that have more regimented programs. Sadaghiani and his team want to send the message that each intern is important to them.

At the same time, Sift isn’t so flexible about hours spent in the office during the program. “We want interns to be in the office when they're working. We believe that we can be most effective enabling them for success when we’re all present — that’s really the only way we can invest in mentoring them and helping them learn,” Sadaghiani says. “We make it clear that we’re making a big investment in these people, and the beautiful side effects of this investment are that they get to learn a lot and produce wonderful product for our business. They can’t have that experience working remotely.”

2) It removes as many barriers to success as possible.A month before interns arrive at Sift, they receive an email giving them all the information about what to expect, providing details they need about relocating to San Francisco, and connecting them to their managers, mentors and peers. This allows them to start conversations, ideally find accommodations, and ask any questions before they get started.

Finding housing for interns is especially challenging, Sadaghiani says, so they try to solve that concern early by suggesting solutions on Airbnb and introducing them to the Y Combinator list to see if any hacker houses or apartments have openings. Sadaghiani and his team make it a priority to help interns find a comfortable, safe situation that will allow them to do their best work. “We recognize that these are young people who may need a bit more help and information to get oriented, and we believe it’s absolutely worth it to give them that support.”

As another example, every intern receives a brand new MacBook Air or Pro — whatever their preference is — just like a full-time member of the team. This alleviates any worries about technology or how they’ll set up their development environment. Sift prides itself on thinking through all the snags that could put a damper on the internship experience, and helps people solve them before they get to work.

3) It focuses just as much on cultural immersion as technical mastery.“It’s so important to us that every intern understands our ethos, our culture, our motives, policies and practices,” Sadaghiani says. Sift runs on collaborative horsepower, with many people contributing to and continually iterating on solutions. A lot of very bright young people are used to simply working very independently. Even if they're in the top percentile that Sift would consider drafting as an intern, this mode of working won’t be a good match, and it’s unlikely that the internship would be a good experience, Sadaghiani says.

In addition to choosing interns who seem like they would thrive in the Sift environment, the staff does its best to promote togetherness wherever possible. Interns are included and encouraged to participate in even high-level meetings where they couldn’t expect to contribute at other companies. Game nights and meals are planned to bring people together around common beliefs, challenges and inspirations. A lot of places might downplay this to get more work done, but Sadaghiani and the Sift team believe this type of immersion actually improves the work people do.

4) It generates achievement-oriented camaraderie.While Sift does make it clear that interns have a chance to be hired on full-time, they never say how many spots they have open or make the opportunity finite. This has had an interesting side effect, Sadaghiani says. Instead of getting competitive with one another, he sees the interns all pushing each other to achieve more. “We see interns starting to mentor each other — and when that happens we can be a more effective company as a whole,” he says. “We aim to create these types of connections organically by sitting all of the technical interns together. That way if someone gets stuck on a problem, they are more likely to turn to their neighbor than to walk over to their mentor or manager."

“Mentoring a peer has become a major way that interns can distinguish themselves.”

“Last year, it became very clear within the first couple weeks of the group getting to know each other who would be teaching and who would be learning,” Sadaghiani says. “It was definitely more helpful than competitive. They were making each other better. They were asking good questions, like, ‘What are you thinking when you decide to do things this way? Have you thought about this? What if I challenge your hypothesis here?’ That’s the kind of thing you want to bring to the surface but not force.”

5) It leaves people with actionable feedback.While Sift does have a culture of hiring out of the internship program, and that is a reasonable expectation for someone to have, it's something that must be earned, and the company emphasizes that in several ways. “In addition to regular meetings with mentors and managers, every intern has a mid-term review and a review at the end of the program,” Sadaghiani says. “The mid-term review gives us a chance to see how fast and well someone can respond to feedback.” The goal of this meeting is to give them extremely actionable takeaways that can improve their performance.

This also functions as a buffer when people don’t get offered a full-time position. “It should never be a surprise that you didn’t get an offer,” he says. “It’s really important to us to provide very constructive feedback that is clear and based on objective observations. Every review or performance meeting contains ways we think the person is greatandareas for improvement. And, if someone isn’t invited back, we put a lot of effort into showing them why Sift wasn’t the right thing for them — whether it was a cultural mismatch or they need more training that will ultimately help them.”

How do you find star interns?

“Look for interns the same way you would look for full-time engineers. There should be almost no difference.”

“Sift doesn’t lower the bar at all in terms of raw talent, but we do account for lack of experience,” Sadaghiani says. “You find out how much they know and what they have been exposed to, and you determine how good they are at the things they should be good at. A second year student probably isn’t going to understand complex modeling techniques, but they might be great at something else you need done.”

Some of the criteria for interns are standard:

  • Do they have a good GPA?
  • Are they taking classes that are consistent with the nature of the problems your company is working on?
  • Can they handle questions getting at core CS principles, coding, design, etc.?
  • Have they had previous jobs or research experiences that speak to these problems?
  • What kind of passion projects have they started or participated in? Do they solve problems like these for fun? Out of pure interest?

“The thing is, all of the answers to these questions can be good, but you can still end up with an intern who isn’t great,” Sadaghiani says. “Part of it is rolling the dice, but part of it is really getting to the core of an individual and what interests them, what makes them tick, how they work. You have to ask these questions of them directly and test their responses.”

To go a level deeper, Sift has created its own intern pipeline. This has several parts.

“One of our best strategies is to talk to professors and really try to cultivate those relationships,” Sadaghiani says. “We explain to them why Sift would be such a great opportunity for their students interested in machine learning and other areas, and then we ask them to think of any students who would be good matches for what we’re doing. That way we can start a conversation with those students before they start running around frantically with their resumes.”

“We want to know who interns are as people before we know what grades they got.”

For the most promising candidates this pipeline produces, Sadaghiani and CEO Jason Tan will sit with them in person or on Google Hangout or Skype and tell them about Sift. “We spend about an hour talking about what it’s like to work at the company, our vision, what’s important to us, what’s important to them,” says Sadaghiani. “It’s a huge investment on our part, but it really pays off. It gives us an immediate sense of whether or not they will be a good match for the program.”

Another strategy Sift uses is to have its current or former interns speak to prospective members of the program. “We had one intern in particular, Keren, and when she talked about what she was able to accomplish in just her first two weeks at Sift, the other students hearing her speak were just beaming at her in disbelief. They said things like, ‘Wow, they let you do that?’ It really makes this point that we won’t just give them a nice little project to finish by the end of the summer. We have the advantage as a small company that they’ll get something meaty and impactful to work on.”

During these types of conversations, Sadaghiani says it’s critical to do two things:

1) Don’t lie.“The bar is very high. Prospective interns expect to be part of something where people are brilliant and want to make a dent in the universe, and they’ll have the opportunity to help. You can’t use smoke and mirrors and sell them some fake snake oil that they’ll have all the opportunities they want. If you do, they'll be dissatisfied. They’ll have a bad experience, and that's even worse for your company.” (More on this later.)

“Don't tell someone they'll get to work on something unless you know your company needs that thing done urgently.”

This is especially important at smaller startups where you can’t afford skilled human capital working on problems that don’t need fixing. “You hear stories all the time where an intern joins to do some cool new stuff but the company is actually just entering shipping mode or bug fixing mode and there’s no room for cool new stuff,” Sadaghiani says. “Then that intern finds themselves squashing bugs all summer and feels like they have nothing to show for that time.”

2) Be very explicit about what’s going on at your company.“At Sift, we tell all intern candidates upfront about the company’s struggles and pain points, and what we look like from the inside out,” says Sadaghiani. “We tell them that our engineering and product efforts are divided into three pillars: infrastructure, machine learning and storytelling (making it easy for customers and users to understand the results we product). It’s really important to us that any intern understands these three areas, where they might fit in, and whether they can make an immediate and genuine impact in that context.”

What else should the interview process include?

When recruiting interns, the default is to assume that young people won’t know as much, or won’t be as skilled as your full-time engineers. Remember, Sadaghiani says, these people are often way closer to the knowledge and should have even sharper skills — they should know most of the stuff you ask them cold.

“You should be very familiar with data structures and algorithms because you’re studying them every day versus someone 10 years out of school who is probably a little rusty. What we really want to know is if this person can code and solve problems. Do they understand what production code is? Can they understand the constraints of writing a real application? Those are the things we test for.”

Every candidate has to write code in a collaborative app so that Sadaghiani or one of his hiring managers can see the person’s thought process at work. It’s vital that any intern drafted into the program has the technical chops for the role — but there’s so many people who hit that bar that other criteria becomes more important (and often harder to interview for).

“We ask them very directly: ‘What kinds of problems get you excited to work hard? What are your favorite things you’ve worked on during hackathons? We wait to see what brings out their energy when they talk about them. We want to make sure they're dynamic and love to solve problems, but not just any problems — the problems we have urgently at hand — and that they like to solve them with other people.”

When interns don’t have a good experience, it’s usually because one of these pieces didn’t quite fit. Either they weren’t stoked about the work in front of them or they didn’t like the more collaborative approach Sift takes to most of its products.

“You need to be very mindful of the experience you create because these people will go out and tell their friends about your company.”

Talented people know other talented people. You don’t want to get a bad reputation as an employer because an influential intern didn’t align perfectly with your program. “This is why we put so much time into making sure we've found the right fit, and why we’re so mindful of matching people to problems that we know they’ll be excited to solve.”

So, how do you get the cream of the crop to sign on the dotted line?

“No matter what people want to work on, whether it’s machine learning and big data or storytelling and visualizations, it all comes down to one thing: impact,” Sadaghiani says. “Interns want to know that they will make a noticeable and sizable impact on your company.”

In his experience, this means giving them a chance to make a difference for customers. “For us at Sift, we try to make it clear to our interns what customers care about so that every intern will want to make a customer say, ‘This is amazing. I love this.’”

To convince candidates that this type of impact is possible, Sift has curated stories about what past interns have been able to accomplish in short time spans. “That’s really our competitive edge,” Sadaghiani says. “There are countless components of Sift’s systems that have been almost entirely built by interns. We can point to those and how we’ve invested even more in evolving those systems. That really wows people.”

Believe it or not, providing a great candidate experience even for the people you don’t want can help you net the ones you do, he says. So many of these candidates are connected, and the frequency of connections is only growing. “It’s so vital that you make sure every single candidate you talk to, even the ones you reject, feel like they got fair treatment, that you were kind and gracious, and that your startup is a place where smart people work. You want them to walk away thinking, ‘I wish I would have gotten that,’ not ‘they don’t know what they’re missing.’” Sift has managed to deliver this kind of experience, to the extent that rejected candidates have actively recommended that their friends join.

Also, somewhat counterintuitively, Sift doesn’t negotiate intern offers. “We know beforehand exactly what we want to offer them, and that it’s a fair amount of compensation,” Sadaghiani says. “If they can’t see the inherent value in that and the work they’ll have the opportunity to do, then they're not a fit. We want them to be motivated by the work, not the money. I think the candidates who really get that are drawn in even more.”

How do you train them once they’re in the door?

Sift’s intern onboarding is made up of two main components: A first day that solidifies impact and trust; and a first week of immersion courses.

“On everyone’s first day, they need to launch a change to the live website. Usually, we have them add their photo and profile and a short blurb about themselves,” Sadaghiani says. “The goal here is not to stretch them technically, but to demonstrate and underscore that we trust them. To make this change possible, we have to give them access to the whole code base and the keys to deploy. They can actually push code to our customers on day 1.”

This task is followed up by a week of light-duty classes to get the interns engaged with Sift’s culture and priorities. For example, the first class they take is all about what the company and its products look like from the customers’ perspective. “We start at this level and then dive deeper into box after box to give them insight into all pieces of the company and product.”

Tan, the CEO, then teaches a class himself called Sift 101 that goes even deeper. “He talks about what the company’s true value proposition is. What the reality of our market is. What are the risks we’re facing? What do we absolutely need to do to succeed? What are the honest challenges and competitors we’re facing? He pulls no punches.”

As Sadaghiani puts it, even though the audience of interns is mostly technical, they get the same amount of transparent insight as the company’s investors. They get to see pitch decks. They get to hear about pain points and fears from the highest level. If the CEO at a company this small can take the time to do this, leaders at larger companies certainly can, and it’s well worth it, he says. “Being honest with people rallies them to your cause. You aren’t being vulnerable, you’re showing them that they are part of building something real, together.”

As a last piece of the puzzle, every intern — no matter how engineering-oriented they are — shadows a customer call with a salesperson. They’ll get the context on whether the person is a prospect, or a new customer, or an existing customer. They’ll hear the answers to questions like, “Are you happy? What can we be doing better? What problems are you having?”

“We find that interns come in at a distance from customers, but we want to bring them closer,” Sadaghiani says. “They need to learn the language that we speak on both the product side and the customer side to succeed, so we commit to teaching them."

What role can mentors play?

“Every intern is assigned a mentor on staff, and that person becomes 100% accountable for the success of their mentee — we give them permission to make being a mentor their number one priority. Priority two is everything else they're doing in their job.”

This gives mentors the latitude to proactively talk to their intern about things they’ve observed or things they should know about. “This could mean pulling them aside to have a conversation about how a particular sub-system works, or simply how they are doing that day — it’s an expensive thing to burden our full-time team with, but it’s worked immensely well for us,” Sadaghiani says.

Mentors are also instructed to constantly reinforce the impact interns are making. If an intern takes an interest in a different class of problems and that can be accommodated, it’s the mentor's job to advocate for this switch. It’s all in service of a good experience.

“We know a mentor relationship is working when an intern can do a good code review by themselves.”

“If they’re capable of reviewing code that their mentor has written, that means they’ve built up enough knowledge in an area of the code base that they can be a backstop for the full-time engineers. Our interns do code reviews for our staff all the time.”

Well-mentored interns are also likely to be the ones who sit in on meetings and stay on top of company decisions as they are being made. “It’s one thing to come to meetings as an intern and recite, ‘We’re launching this on this date,’ it’s another thing to say, ‘I’m responsible for important components of the product and this is what I’m thinking.’ The latter intern is the one who has the confidence and backing of a good mentor.”

One of Sift’s recent interns wrote how the company’s unified search APIs should work during his third week in the office. “That’s the power of putting trust and faith in someone,” Sadaghiani says. “That’s another big advantage startups have in recruiting — whatever someone is working on that day is probably one of the most important things the company is working on too.”

How can you keep interns engaged?

A lot of companies struggle after the first several weeks of a program to keep interns focused and excited about the work they’re doing. So, in addition to matching interns with projects very carefully, Sift has employed several strategies to keep energy high.

“We have an internal mailing list called Launches, and whenever someone builds something really cool or solves a hard problem, they or their mentor can send an email to the list to show everyone else in the company,” Sadaghiani says. “For example, if an intern has created a new UI for a part of a product, their mentor might send along before-and-after screenshots along with metrics showing the bump in customer engagement from the change.”

In team meetings, interns are often asked to stand up and give brief synopses of the projects their working on, what challenges they’re facing and how they plan to get around them. This keeps people on their toes, incentivizes them to be prepared, and gives them an opportunity to shine.

On top of that, all hands meetings have been turned into celebratory occasions for interns. “Sometimes mentors will request to present about their intern and all the great work they're doing. We encourage this. Even if someone isn't a mentor — if their current project just happened to be touched by an intern — it’s awesome if they want to stand up and recognize the work. And we try to follow each one of these with a round of applause.”

What’s the best way to close out an internship?

First, figure out what the most important metric for intern success is, and then make it a big deal, Sadaghiani says. In Sift’s case, it all rolls up to culture.

“The CEO of Airbnb wrote that the company will be successful in 100 years if it’s remembered for its culture — not because it helped people find places to stay. We really embrace that same kind of attitude at Sift. Building the right culture with every hire and every internship is what will take the company where it needs to go. So, when we conduct exit interviews for interns we think first how did they do relative to that bar.”

Sift’s leadership defines its culture in three parts: the “I”, the “We”, and the “It”. The “I” stands for every employee showing up at work as their best possible selves every day. The “We” represents their ability to collaborate and to respect that every component and role matters. And finally, the “It” stands for the mission to serve customers and how well employees and interns understand the difference they are making for people. How much responsibility do they take on to create awesome experiences?

Sadaghiani is a big proponent of breaking down the success of an internship along these types of lines — something that is concrete, at least subjectively measurable, and that speaks to the heart of the company, not just the technical expertise. Of course the latter is part of any review and subsequent hiring decision, but the cultural analysis should be just as if not more important, he says.

“A great internship is a hands-on class that will pay dividends over an individual’s career.”

With this in mind, Sift has designed its offboarding process to not only make its interns better engineers, but also more self-aware professionals. “We want this to be influential in letting interns thoughtfully select what they’ll do after they graduate,” Sadaghiani says. “If we don’t give them an analysis of the full breadth of their experience, that’s giving them low or bad signal to make that next more important move. Every intern should leave with a full understanding of what they did well and what they could have done better in every dimension. Then we’ve done our job right.”