How to hire an intern (or eight)

One of my absolute favourite things about my job is working with the interns. Each year we have about seven or eight interns on the Bristol site, working with us for 13 months - a slightly unusual timeframe, but one which allows for an overlap of the new cohort’s first month and the old cohort’s last, so they can hold the newbies’ hands for a while, something everyone actually really enjoys. These interns are split across the various teams on site and usually assigned a mentor within that team. I mentored our team’s intern - Harry - last year, something which I greatly enjoyed. He was smart, capable, willing to throw himself at the deep end, and was easy to get on with. As our team has grown, we’ve nabbed two interns this year - Ruth and José - the former of which I’m mentoring. Two months in and she’s proving equally willing and able to put up with what I’m throwing at her, and very importantly in this time of Zoom calls and Slack (or Slack-equivalent) chats, an absolute joy to talk to.

None of this is luck, though. This is a matter of hiring those interns who have those qualities in the first place. It helps when getting the interns you want on your team to know the person who’s organising the intern hiring. Luckily, though, that’s me. I’ve been running the intern hiring on the Bristol site for the last couple of years, and the result is two of the best cohorts of interns we’ve had in recent years, something I’m immensely proud of. As I’m beginning to consider how we even begin to go about this without getting candidates into the office, I thought I’d talk about how we go about interviewing and selecting our candidates, which hopefully might be of some help if you happen to be a) trying to hire your own interns, or b) trying to be hired yourself.

Let people on the ground run it

It’s fair to say that the managers have very little to do with running the intern hiring. I’m safely straddling that junior-senior line, as are Niki and Matt who also help pull all this together. We’re pretty much left to our own devices, and by god it works. We’re also very insistent on involving the current interns, which has so many benefits. It lightens the workload, sure, but the interns are the ones who know most what it’s like to be in that room recently on the other side, and can provide often-needed empathy in the proceedings. It’s also incredible experience for them, and once which they’ve invariably highlighted as one of the best parts of being here.

Have a short process

In the scheme of things, we keep our intern hiring process relatively lightweight for the candidates. A successful candidate will have sent us a CV, gone through a 20-30 minute phone interview, and then come in for a single assessment centre. The assessment centres involve a welcome talk, a group activity, some lunch, a technical interview, and a management interview. I sincerely don’t believe you need more than that to pick out the interns you want to hire for the year, and all our candidates comment on how much more enjoyable our hiring process is in comparions to their other applications (inasmuch as any hiring process can be “enjoyable”)

Start early

In previous years, we were chronically late hiring interns. It would take ages for the recs to get opened, we would push it until March or April, and at that point all the top candidates had obviously found their place with the FAANGs and the banks. We’ve been reigning that in massively over the last two years, making sure that we’re getting our assessment centres in and offers being made before Christmas. Judging by the quality of both candidates and hired interns, this is absolutely making a difference. Our job here’s not quite done yet though - we need to be earlier this year, starting about now, really. Last year we started having candidates we’d invited to an assessment centre ring us the day before to say they’d accepted an offer at one of the big boys - a good sign that we’re starting to get that level of candidate interested, but not early enough to lock them up first.

Cull the list

We receive in the order of hundreds of CVs for our internships each year, and it’s simply not feasible to talk to all of them. We split the CVs up between myself, a couple of my colleagues who help with this, and the current interns in order to help whittle down the list. Here are the things I’m looking for when deciding who’s worth doing a phone screening for:

I honestly don’t mind what uni you go to, and I really don’t care whether you’ve worked at Greggs and how that’s taught you teamwork and time management or whatever. But hey, I get it, you’re 19 and you need to pad, it’s all good. This is probably the stage we’re harshest at. It’s easy to want to let everyone through, but that’s just gonna make your life harder down the line.

Phone screenings

These are meant to last 20 to 30 minutes, but I’ll be damned if they ever do. This for me is more just a means of getting to know them, and as long as they’re vaguely sensible, they’ll probably be fine. I’ll ask about what their favourite module is, about any group projects they’ve had and how they’ve gone, a couple of quick technical questions. Nothing difficult. We’ll all then meet and mark our screens out of 5, and decide which 12 we want to invite to our assessment centre. We’ll keep a few on hold, just in case.

The big day

We aim to make the interview day as relaxing and calm as possible for the candidates - there’s really no point putting them under artificial stress when they’re probably nervous enough as it is. We do ask them to dress formally, though, to be fair. We give them a welcome talk, let them ask some questions (and see who’s quiet, who’s too loud, and who seems interested), before setting them off on a group activity, split into teams, with a few of us monitoring each team. Not to give the game away, but it’s a task which allows us to suss out who takes the lead, who sits back, who shouts down suggestions and who tries to bring others in. It’s also really valuable to see whether any of them actually think to keep track of the time and how long left they’ve got - you’d be amazed how few do that. They then get a quite delicious lunch and a chance to take a breather for a bit, before the interviews.

We give each candidate two interviews - a management interview and a technical interview, each lasting an hour. Both interviews are conducted by different managers, with a different intern or junior engineer sitting on each one. This last bit is massively important, for a number of reasons. It gives the juniors a chance to experience interviews from the other side of the table, it gives us a slightly more balanced take on each candidate, and I think it also puts the candidates a bit more at ease. We have standardised interview questions for both interviews and ask that the interviewers stick to those as a minimal set, but being free to ask further questions if they have time. We have one coding question. That seems like very little, but it’s surprisingly enough.

The room where it happens

Once the interviews are done and the candidates sent on their way, we have my favourite part of the whole process. We gather in a room, all the interviewers, interns, junior engineers, and us three, and we mark the candidates out of 5 for each part of the day. We go down the list and get each interviewer to quickly give us a mark, then end up with a list of obvious “yes”s, obvious “no”s, and then dig into the “maybe”s. I make sure to actively solicit opinions from the interns/junior engineers, who hold as much weight as the managers do here. The hardest part of this is standardisation across interviewers - we have some who’ll give a 4 or 5 to anyone, and we have those where I have to warn the intern/junior I’m allocating them to keep them in line because they have way too high standards. You learn how to take these marks within context. My manager and I came out of one interview where he said to me “I’ve never given a 5 before for a management interview, but [that candidate] was an easy 5” (to be fair, that candidate was). Having come to a decision, we make offers the next day over the phone - there’s no sense wasting time or playing coy.

No jerks

Finally, we don’t hire jerks. That’s both actual policy at large and also just common sense. We had one candidate this year who got 4/5 for each activity/interview. But at lunch, he seemed like a jerk to the multiple people I asked to keep a lookout. We reflected, and the interviewers conceded that, yeah, as brilliant as he might have been technically, none of us would actually want to work with him for a year. So we didn’t. Being nice and being genuine will go a long way.

Sam Healer

Sam Healer

Software engineer. Occasional musician. Erstwhile comedian. Cultural omnivore.

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