The following notes provide some guidance and resources to help you in your role as a mentor to a remote working intern. Find out more by reading this blog about how we managed remote working students during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Timeline of work
HPCC Systems interns apply to the program by project proposal submission which uses a timeline to show what will be achieved each week. Since development often throws down roadblocks and challenges which may require a change of direction, it is used as a guideline that may be adjusted as the project progresses. Student who join via other means also need some sort of timeline so they know what they will be doing when they arrive and what is expected of them during their internship. Students get demoralised very quickly if there isn't a plan of some kind or if it falls apart. So it needs to be reviewed regularly.
Suggestion - Compare the timeline with the weekly report. It's a good barometer of progress being made and issues that need resolving. If a student is spending a long time on one task, maybe they need more assistance, or maybe the task was underestimated. Using this method, you will pick this up quickly and be able to make any necessary adjustments at the time rather than waiting until it's too late and risking the student losing interest in the project.
Welcome meeting (before start date)
The main purpose of this meeting is to break the ice. It is often the first opportunity the student has had to interact with their mentor in a human way rather than by electronic communication. Other colleagues who will work closely with the intern may also be invited to attend. There is a bit of admin to cover. It's nothing the student shouldn't already know. They will have received an email including the details below. However, they may have questions or comments and this is the time to raise them.
Admin details to be discussed:
- Holidays - Interns get paid by the hour. If they aren't in the office, they don't get paid. This means they don't get paid holiday. But we do allow them to make up the time by working extra hours at another time if they want to, but we should stress that they are not obligated to do so.
- Weekly reports
- Creating a personal blog journal to record their experience using a source such as blogspot or wordpress look at this example, and here is another.
- Mid-term and final evaluations - These are simply questionnaires designed to be completed in less than 10 mins.
- Final presentation to be completed at the end of the internship - can be a video or Powerpoint presentation or using another media type if preferred such as one of our Tech Talk webcasts.
- HPCC Systems Technical Poster Competition held at our summit in the fall - see the poster competition wiki for more details about eligibility and to see previous entries.
Suggested ideas for mentors (add your own):
- Introduce yourself and any colleagues present explaining briefly what your team does and the responsibilities of anyone attending the meeting. Indicate how the student will fit in.
- Say something about how your team works.
- Is there any background reading (blogs, papers etc) they should complete before they start?
- Should they download the HPCC Systems software and run though some tutorials?
- Should they take an ECL training course?
- Do they know GIT and do they have a github account.
- Introduce them to concept of using JIRA to log issues.
- What will happen on the first day. Who will meet them, what they might do.
Format of the weekly report:
There is no exact science to this and each mentor may have ideas of what they think will work best for them and their student. So the format is up to you. However, if you are not sure where to start, here are some suggested guidelines:
- What the student achieved this week
- What the student intends to achieve next week
- Some indication of how they feel the week went, mentioning any specific challenges and how they overcame them. Do they feel a sense of achievement as a result of something new they learned or frustration because they aren't quite there yet.
- Any unresolved issues or questions. Some mentors ask students to list JIRA issues they have raised during the week so they can make sure any blockers are seen and fixed. Students have used the weekly report to remind mentors about things they still need or to arrange some time to revisit a difficult concept or task. Take note of this section and act on all points raised so the student feels you are listening.
Suggestion - Compare back to back weekly reports. It's interesting and revealing to see the comparison between the prediction of what the student intended to achieve and what was actually achieved in any one week. You will pick up clues about how the student is progressing and what may need to be adjusted. Are they achieving more or less than expected? Do they need more information or training? etc
Good communication is by far the most important factor in ensuring a successful internship because it is key to helping the student stay motivated. In days gone by, the student was the person who was given the jobs no-one else wanted or sent to make the tea and run errands. Those days are gone. It's important to have a plan before the student starts and present them with a timeline of work to be completed which allows them to see the purpose behind the work they are doing and also the potential for extending their learning and skills. See Timeline of Work above. Some other things to consider:
- Be clear who the student reports to. While the student may work on a team and the work they are doing may involve interacting with a number of team members, be clear who the student should go to if they are experiencing problems and need assistance.
- Encourage your student to ask questions. Some are embarrassed to admit they don't know something or can't do something, particularly when it is clear they working amongst others who are obviously very capable and experienced. They may think it will reflect badly on them. Let them know it's ok to ask any questions they want and that the only silly question is the one they don't ask.
- Be specific with your instructions. They may not know how to fill in the gaps and may misinterpret what you say.
- Be understanding if they ask the same question several times. Some students have never worked in an office environment before and they are taking a lot in just by being there. This is particularly true at the start.
- Make sure they understand the significance of the timeline and weekly report. They they should also send a copy of their weekly report to the intern program manager. Always check in with them after you have seen their report.
- Be positive about their contribution. If it's not quite what you want, emphasise what they did well. If things aren't going well, don't give up. They are probably feeling bad too! Give them a chance to improve. Try breaking down the task in to smaller bits. It may help you to see where the problem is and help them fix it.
- Work isn't just about work for any of us. We probably spend more of our waking hours with our work colleagues than with our family, so it's important to feel welcome and fit in. Be inclusive by, for example, inviting them to lunch or after work gatherings. If there are other interns in the office, encourage your student to get to know them and hang out together.
- Keep in contact with the intern program manager who needs to know how it is going and details of any issues regarding the student's progress or attendance. Send a brief report every week summarising progress and ask the student to send a copy of their own report and a link to their blog journal.
Suggestion - From time to time, take a moment to think about how well your student fits in and responds to the demands of the work environment Is the weekly report getting later and later? How do you think they integrating with the team? What is the feedback from your team? Ask them how they feel.
There are two evaluations, one at the mid point and one at the end. All students and mentors complete these reports. The result is either a pass or fail. A fail is serious and it should not come a surprise to anyone. Failing students should be identified via the weekly reporting system in advance of the evaluation. Once identified, measures will be put in place, with the agreement of the mentor, to help the student recover. Problems can occur which can cause students to lose confidence. Attempts will be made to help the student recover, but if it is clear that the situation is irretrievable, failing may be the only option.
Failing at the mid point means the internship is terminated immediately. Failing a student should be used as a last resort if, for example, the student:
- Shows no willingness to improve.
- Is disrespectful/impossible to work with.
- Has an unsustainable negative work ethic.
The following are examples of situations to identify in advance and work on to encourage improvement:
- Gaps in knowledge that may be plugged with additional training or advice.
- Poor organisational skills.
- Poor communication.
- The need to scale back a project that proves to be overambitious based on skills and timing.
The evaluations themselves are very straightforward. Mostly multi-choice, requiring a short declaration in places which indicates your point of view. They shouldn't take more than 10 mins to complete. The contents are confidential and are only shared with HR and the team that manages the program. Comments are discussed generally with students and mentors at a meeting afterwards.
Avoiding problems with a student
Our experience tells us that the key issue is keeping your student motivated and this means taking time to track progress and create a comfortable working environment. On average, we estimate that you need to spend about 10 hours per week mentoring your student. At the beginning it may be more and as they get settled maybe a bit less. Here are some things which may help you and your student to have the best possible experience:
- Greet your student every day and ask if they need anything.
- If you notice your student lacks focus, check in with them to make sure they aren't stuck. Be prepared to adjust your expectations if it becomes apparent your student lacks a skill you assumed they had.
- At the end of every week, make sure your student has completed their weekly report.
- Check in with your student at the beginning of the week to make sure they know what they need to achieve during the week.
- Spend time training your student so you can be sure they know how to use the resources your team uses.
- Give your student a bit of background. Sometimes it's easier to complete a task if you know why you are doing it as well as the steps to complete it.
- Don't assume knowledge but don't patronise. You may have got the impression that your student knows something about what you want, but their knowledge may not be at the level you think. Give your student the opportunity to demonstrate what they know, so you can help them make adjustments if necessary, or be pleasantly surprised.
- Always read the weekly report and act on any requests or issues that might be apparent as soon as you are aware of them.
- Give your student the chance to show off to the team every now and then by showcasing something they have completed.
- Communicate effectively (see above).
- Make your student feel part of the team, referring to them in a way that makes them feel valued. For example, developer/data scientist/ etc. Give your student the credit for their extended study because they have worked hard to get this far.
When things go badly wrong
It can happen that things don't go as well as you hoped. You have probably done everything you can and still there is a problem. The student may lack motivation whatever you do, fail to integrate with the team, procrastinate to the point that no progress is being made. Whatever is happening to make you feel it's going nowhere, there is help, but don't leave it too late:
- As soon as you sense things are going so badly they may fail the mid-term evaluation, make sure the main mentor and the intern program manager know.
- Be prepared to make one last attempt to rescue the situation. This may involve putting into place some firm measures and targets that must be successfully completed to continue on the program.
- The intern program manager will work closely with you to agree the best course of action and will arrange an independent discussion with student away from the team in the interest of preserving your relationship with student should things improve after this point.
- A student who fails the mid-term evaluation and doesn't manage to improve according to the new guidelines set, fails the program completely and cannot continue. So it isn't a decision to take lightly and is the solution of last resort.
- Be prepared that the student may indicate they don't want to continue.
- We will reflect as a team to decide whether there is anything we might do differently next time.
- Remember, sometimes these things happen despite our best efforts.