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Tips for successful IT internships
Mario Matthee
Head of SQA Architecture and R&D, Global Testing Solutions, DVT

Tips for successful IT internships

IT internships are the future builders of our industry, which makes it particularly depressing that so many of them fail. That said, I have an added advantage – I work for a company that runs regular education programmes (internships and learnerships) for university students and high school learners – and this gives me insight into the failure and the success of these internships.

To better understand the how’s and why’s, we first need to understand the five building blocks of every internship, each of which can either work for or against a company and its interns.

1. The intern

Before we even get into a discussion about failed internships, consider the intern. I’ve seen so many companies take learners out of school straight into an internship, which sets both company and learner up to fail. That’s because a learner is not an intern.

An intern, by definition, is someone already qualified in his or her profession, who requires focused training to bridge the gap between academic qualification and practical experience.

A learner, on the other hand, is someone fresh out of school who needs training just to get to the level of a professional-in-training (that’s right, an intern).

Assuming you have a bona fide intern at your door, the next step is to pick the right intern for the job. As you would do with any other recruitment process, the intern needs to be someone who not only has the base knowledge and training but someone who is also suited to the requirements of the job at hand.

A free-spirited, anti-establishment maverick is not going to be comfortable spending most of his day behind a screen if that’s what the role calls for, just as much as a thoughtful introvert will not be comfortable meeting with high-level clients on her first day at work.

Get the recruitment right, and your internship is off to a good start.

2. Bridging the gap

So you have a varsity-qualified, bright eyed, bushy tailed, enthusiastic intern in your midst. Now what? He or she may have all the necessary certificates, ticked all the right boxes, but have no idea how to host a client briefing, or work in a live development environment.

As professionals, we need to give interns a foundation in their new roles, and then quickly get them up to speed with what we expect them to do as working professionals in their own right. Too many companies complicate this step by overtraining their interns. A three-month induction is about right; six months is too long. Remember you’re not dealing with learners that need training to code or test code, you’re working with interns that one day soon should be able to work for you.

3. The mentor

The bulk of an intern’s internship should be on-the-job experience and real-world projects. That’s where the mentor comes in.

It’s fair to say the mentor is the most important part of any internship. An internship will not succeed if you don’t have that crucial top layer in your company actively invested in developing your interns.

The mentor is the catalyst that turns varsity graduates with talent and potential into focused, effective professionals. Mentors are vital resources for their interns, particularly in the first three to six months where raw knowledge needs to be converted into practical experience.

You could have the most enthusiastic intern, who without a mentor invested in his success, loses his way and drops out of the programme. Dedicated mentors are even harder to find than good interns because, for them, their interns are not a side project or part-time role. It is a full-time, all-consuming job to mould interns into colleagues, and inspire them to pursue their career of choice by sharing their knowledge and passion for what they do.

4. Get real

I said it above and I’ll say it again: an intern is not there to learn how to be an intern, he’s there to learn how to be a professional. The best way to do that is by doing what professionals do – for real.

The mentor’s role is to get his interns to the point where they’re proficient enough to work unsupervised on a live project. After that, it’s up to the intern – and his team and team leaders – to go the rest of the way by showing the aptitude, attitude and application to succeed.

A good internship programme will not wrap its interns in cotton wool; if interns are expected to solve real problems for real clients, they need to be working with real problems for real clients. They won’t be fending for themselves – at least not at first – which is where a carefully structured programme eases interns into their roles.

As with any other role in any other company, interns should be picked for the roles that suit them best. They need to be exposed to every aspect of their roles, from project deadlines to irate clients, Scrum Masters, delivery managers, business managers, and the head of marketing.

You’ll know they’re ready when they start to have a real impact on the outcome of a project.

5. Show me the money

There’s a fine line between running a successful internship programme and running a production line of cheap labour. One is meaningful and constructive, the other is self-serving and destructive, for both company and intern.

Any company can hire a qualified graduate and call them an intern, but the real value of an intern is the value they add to the business while growing and maturing as a professional. An internship should never be about cost cutting or profiteering, although that’s what too many companies try to do.

As with any other industry, you’ll get superstars, and you’ll get strugglers, and both will need different levels of care and attention within the confines of a structured internship programme. In South Africa, we don’t have laws and regulations that govern the movement of IT interns as you would, for example, medical or law interns. That makes it all too attractive for companies to poach other companies’ brightest interns with the lure of more money, more responsibilities, or both.

An early exit from an internship not only damages the prospects for an intern in the long term, but it also nullifies an often-substantial investment the original company already made in them.

Even if you’ve navigated the first four hurdles of a successful internship, it’s usually this last, crucial step where so many interns – and internships – ultimately fail.

To learn more about DVT’s internship opportunities, go to: