Making Intern Assignments Is Tricky. Why Self-Selection Works for Us.

May 12, 2023
Unlabeled yellow, orange, and red signs on a post pointing in different directions.

We’re now in our eighth summer of managing intern assignments using our self-selection process for software engineering internships. Counting the six interns this summer, we’ve had a total of 58 software engineering interns use the process, and 65 teams offer themselves up as potential hosts.

Why We Decided to Experiment with Self-Selection

We’d been doing internships for over a decade when we first started this experiment. While executing the internship program was going pretty well, there was an aspect that always felt a little odd—the matching of interns to projects. The group that helps coordinate our engineering internships would try to determine from resumes and interview notes which project might best fit a given intern and then repeat that process for each of our intern assignments.

While this process worked, we did have the occasional mismatch between intern and project, often showing up as interns that weren’t very engaged in their summer.

Rather than us trying to guess which projects might best fit a particular intern, we decided to give the interns more say in what project they wind up on. The theory is that they’ll make decisions based on criteria we aren’t even considering and give them more buy-in to their summer with us. This, in turn, leads to our goal of giving the intern a good experience that they share with their friends (even if SEP is not the right place long term for them).

How It Works

Step 1: Hire interns for the following summer.

We generally start our summer software intern hiring process shortly after classes resume in the fall. We attend various career fairs in September and early October, start interviewing in October, and generally start making offers in early November. Usually, our spots are filled before the holidays. All before we even know which projects might be potential homes for those interns!

Step 2: Find potential homes for the interns at SEP.

In March, I work with managers and team leads to learn which projects might make good homes for interns over the summer. There are a lot of criteria that we take into account to determine options for intern assignments. Some of the simple ones:

  • Is the project expected to last the summer?
  • Is the project’s client open to us adding an intern to the team?
  • Does the team have a good support structure in place for an intern?
  • Are there project deadlines that might hit soon after the intern arrives?
  • Does the team feel like it can add an intern?
  • And many more!

Step 3: Get the teams to write the blurbs.

For the projects that sound like they’ll be good homes, I ask the lead to work with the team to write up a paragraph about themselves. Just a few sentences:

  • What technologies are they using?
  • What types of problems are they solving for either the client or end users?
  • What else do they think an intern might find interesting? (For example, a team shared that they cooked out brats once per month, and one of the interns mentioned that as part of their “why” for being interested in the team.)

Step 4: Send the options to the interns.

Once I’ve collected these paragraphs, I send them off to the interns and ask for their preferences (due back to me in early April).

Why I’m writing to you now is that we’re getting you involved in helping determine what you work on this summer. I’ve asked the teams interested in having one of you join them to describe themselves. These team descriptions are what you’ll see below. This wording came straight from the teams. This is why they each have different tones or styles.

What I need from you: Please tell me by xx/xx which four projects you are most interested in working on. Also, tell me what interests you about working on each of your selected teams. Give me your list in your order of preference, as we’ll be using that on our end to do our best to match you up.

Note: We try to ensure that each one of you gets one of your top picks. But part of why we ask why you are interested in each project is because we know random chance might cause you all to pick the same four projects. And since we generally only place one intern per team, we might need additional information to help in the matching process. Also, this being the real world, at times the unexpected happens, and we may need to change plans (like a client losing their funding between now and when you start – extremely rare, but it has happened once).

Step 5: Match interns to projects.

Once I’ve heard back from the interns, we determine the best potential fits for intern assignments. “Best” is always tricky, but interns generally get matched to their 1st or 2nd preference. Occasionally the preferences align in such a way that isn’t possible, though.

After the matching is finalized, I connect the interns to their teams, and away we go!

Step 6: Prep the teams.

In addition to learning how to do intern matching, we’ve also learned some steps to take to prep the teams. But that is a whole other article.

Step 7: Give the interns an awesome summer.

Again, this part is worth a whole separate article, but one of the things we do over the summer is have a monthly lunch between the interns and the team that coordinates the program. As part of those, we ask for feedback, and one of the things we hear regularly is that they enjoyed the process of matching to a team.

Step 8: Say, “Fair thee well.”

At the end of the summer, we do exit interviews with our interns. And again, the matching process often comes up as something they really liked.

  • “I love the flexibility I was given as an intern to “choose my path.”
    I think SEP should continue giving interns that freedom :)” – 2017 intern
  • [When asked: “Anything you would be sure to keep the same?”]
    “Let the incoming interns have a say in which project they get put on.” – 2019 intern

What We’ve Learned & Why We’re Still Doing It

We weren’t perfect out of the gate with our intern assignments process. There have had to be a couple of changes along the way. Initially, we didn’t ask for the “why” behind a team being on the intern’s preferences list, and we also only asked for three preferences. Changing to four preferences and asking for “why” were adjustments that came after a season where we had too many overlapping preferences and not enough information to complete the matching process. In addition to helping us get better at matching, a side effect I’ve heard from a couple of interns has been that it made them give a bit more thought to their preferences.

At the end of the day, the reason for internships is to make full-time hiring easier. We’ve successfully converted interns to full-time employees year after year, and we think the self-selection process helps set both SEP and our interns up for success. Four of our seven recent college graduates joining us this summer were past interns, and two others were college roommates of one of our interns.

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