The Internship Effect

Article by:
Nikhil Mistry EO South Africa-Johannesburg
Nikhil Mistry
EO South Africa-Johannesburg

What happens when you recruit 100 inexperienced interns to support your clients, and you only have five people on your team to manage them? You enter the land of lessons learned, and those lessons are both humbling and invaluable.

About a year ago, my business partner and I were spit-balling ideas on how to use interns to work on our software-development projects. We wanted to lower the cost of our project teams, while giving local university students valuable work experiences and mentoring opportunities. Six months later, the Global Center of Innovation was launched, a program to educate interns on the rules of business, while helping us achieve continued growth and success. It was a win-win setup; we received extra support in delivering quality products to our clients, and the interns received real-world experience!

Like most things in business, however, it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Upon launching the program, we secured 100 interns from around the world, all of whom were ready and willing to help out in our various offices. But just as we got the program up and running, it dawned on us: We weren’t prepared to support all of them. With such a small management team, how in the world could we track the interns’ progress? How were we supposed to train everyone? How would we manage the teams? Across the road our clients were eagerly awaiting the reduced product costs and quicker turnaround time we had promised them. Needless to say, we were beading with sweat.

To ensure our internship program worked—and our clients stayed happy—we had to connect our interns globally, train them, assign them work and deliver immediate results. Unfortunately, we were confronted with several unexpected issues. Most of our interns had little or no experience working in a professional environment; they were inexperienced when it came to collaboration technology like video conferencing and cloud storage; they wanted to play instead of work; and they had language barriers.

Thankfully, we were able to overcome these obstacles and develop a solid working structure by adopting the following approaches to managing unskilled labor:

  • Use interns to manage interns. We refrained from jumping into disciplinary hearings whenever we discovered that an intern’s work hadn’t been completed. Instead, we used the interns to form project management, human resource and employee relations teams to hold everyone accountable and keep things on track.
  • Emphasize lessons, not failures. Instead of punishing mistakes, we approached failures as learning experiences. Okay, you screwed up. What did you learn, and how will you adapt so that you can overcome this obstacle the next time you face it? This approach created a sense of respect among the managers and interns, and allowed for more solutions.
  • When in doubt, innovate. We spent a considerable amount of time instilling an attitude of adapting to and overcoming obstacles. Everyone hits a wall, and everyone faces problems to which they don’t have answers. The interns knew that they could come up with innovative solutions without being admonished for failure, and as a result, they got creative. To this day, I am astonished at the innate ingenuity that our interns nurture.
  • Make face time a priority. Rather than relying on our task management system or sending round after round of email updates, we recorded weekly “status update” videos to show interns their progress. The videos covered topics such as achievements, risks and trouble areas that needed to be addressed. No matter how short the videos were, interns seemed to flock to them whenever they were made available.

Having worked with more than 300 interns since the Global Center of Innovation was launched, I have learned that given the opportunity and responsibility, even unskilled and inexperienced workers can surprise you. Watching them fall over, get up and try again to eventually succeed has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entrepreneurial career.

Nikhil Mistry is the director of Ativio and an avid technology enthusiast. Fun fact: In 2003, at age 20, Nikhil was the youngest certified Oracle instructor in the continental USA.

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