The Best Questions I Received From Software Engineer Interns This Summer | by Lindsay Zhou | Jun, 2022

And answers to help you make the most of your internship

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

It’s summer, which means that it’s intern season, and for the first time in my life, I get to sit on the other side of the line as a full-time employee. The first wave of interns at the company I work for joined a few weeks ago, and I’ve gotten the chance to chat with so many bright, curious students.

As I’ve been having these conversations, I’ve really enjoyed seeing what kinds of questions incoming interns have. Some of them are questions that I struggled with as an intern, too, and others are entirely new questions that I would’ve never thought to ask. Here are a few of the best questions I’ve heard in the last few weeks, as well as my take on answers as someone who has been through the software engineering internship process.

If you have this question and you feel silly, don’t worry — it’s more common than you think!

Internships vary a lot from company to company and even team to team. Some internship programs are set up so that interns work on isolated projects, often with other interns, that are more focused on developing relevant skills for a full-time role in the future. Others have interns working like junior members of the team, taking on tickets or work items in the same way a full-time employee would.

My past internships have been somewhere in the middle, where I had a scoped-out project that was part of the work that my team was doing. During these internships, it was up to me to execute my project, but I didn’t have to worry about extraneous responsibilities such as fixing defects, which full-time employees on my team had to juggle with their feature work. It goes without saying that completing the work assigned to you is a large part of your job as an intern.

Internships are also about exploring the company, building connections, and learning. Whenever I talk with an intern who wonders what their day-to-day should look like, I encourage them to build in time to attend intern events or have coffee chats.

Employees are never as willing to help as they are with interns, so your internship is the perfect time to soak in as much knowledge from the people around you as possible. Plus, as much as you probably want to impress your team and the company, the company wants to impress you, too, so I mean it when I say part of your job is to enjoy your summer.

For a student that has never worked on a corporate code base, it can be daunting to transition from class projects of a few hundred lines of code to huge webs of millions of lines of code. The student mentality also tricks you into believing that you need to understand the entire picture before you can be an effective employee, but that’s not the case.

It may feel counterintuitive coming from school, but don’t try to learn everything. Focus on learning just enough to get your work done. This may sound like taking the lazy approach, but even learning the bare minimum is a large undertaking when you’re talking about complex code bases like the ones you’re likely to see in your internship.

If your internship is only a few months, you just won’t have time to understand everything, and that’s okay; building your breadth and depth of knowledge can wait for if and when you return full time. Your priority as an intern should be to learn enough to get your work done so that you can make a meaningful contribution to the company and get recognized for the awesome job you did.

As far as learning about what you do need to complete the work assigned to you, I think that software engineering is one of those fields where you just need to figure it out as you go. As I learn new skills or information on the job, I find it helpful to keep a running document of things that may be important again in the future.

This has included commands I need to run, design decisions, outcomes from running tests, and links to important repositories or resources. Not only does writing things down allow you to reference information later on, but it’s also helpful for memorizing the resources you commonly need.

For me, asking for help was always one of the scariest parts of my internships. I worried constantly that I would ask a “dumb question,” shattering any shred of respect that my teammates might’ve had for me. This sounds dramatic, but that was honestly what went through my head, and from talking to some interns this year, it sounds like this fear is fairly common. Now, I can confidently tell you as a full-time employee that I get so excited when others ask questions.

The “right time” to ask for help can depend on who you’re asking. Some people prefer if you ask right away, and others would rather you spend some time on your own before looping them in. If you have a dedicated mentor for your internship, definitely ask them about their thoughts on when to ask for help. Just know that whenever you do end up asking for help, it’s okay. People expect you to have questions, and asking them is how you’ll learn and grow during your internship.

I often find it helpful to ask my questions in my team’s communication channel, rather than messaging any one individual unless my question is truly specific to one person. This prevents me from inundating a single person with questions, and I’m also more likely to get an answer quickly since anybody who knows the answer can chime in whenever they’re available.

Make sure that you thoroughly describe the details of your question to help others help you, too, and keep track of the responses you get so you can avoid asking the same question multiple times. Asking questions can be a bit of a balancing act, which is why I’ve written a whole other article about it, which you’re welcome to check out if it might be helpful for you!

For many interns, the end goal of an internship is to have a full-time (or returning intern) offer in hand. I can’t provide clarity on the exact return offer process at your company — that’s a question for your recruiter—but here are some general tips about securing your return offer.

My number one piece of advice is to stay in contact with your manager throughout the summer. They should be giving you regular feedback and supporting you throughout your internship. If they’re not the kind of person who gives feedback unprompted, make sure you’re asking them along the way about what you’re doing well and what you can improve on. You should never feel blindsided at the end of the summer as to whether or not you receive a return offer.

I would also suggest having a meeting or two at the beginning of the summer to set actionable, measurable goals with your manager. Then, throughout the summer, make sure you’re focusing on those goals. This allows you to better advocate for yourself and shows that you’re achieving what you and your manager agreed you should set out to achieve.

While we’re on the topic of having successful internships, here are a few more unsolicited pieces of advice that I found helpful as an intern:

  • Make small, frequent pull requests. Smaller code reviews are much more manageable for your teammates, and shipping small chunks of (well-written) code more frequently will also help you build a positive reputation faster.
  • Keep a log of your accomplishments during the internship. This will help you put together your end-of-internship presentation if you have one, and it’ll also be useful in your end-of-internship performance review.
  • If you’re connecting with a coworker via LinkedIn, send them a personalized note. It’s better for you to only connect with those who you have a meaningful reason to connect with, and nobody likes to feel like they’re just one of dozens of connection requests you sent that day.

Internships can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first one, but know that whatever questions or uncertainties are on your mind, someone else surely has the same ones.

Internships can also be incredibly fun and exciting, both in the work you do and the experiences you have outside of your direct responsibilities.

If you’re getting ramped up in your internship now, I hope you have a fantastic time!

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