How to Scientifically be a Better Intern
It’s the beginning of summer and a whole new crop of interns is starting at HubSpot. On the marketing team, we’re starting a brand new two-day training program, and I was asked to give a thirty minute presentation on “How to be a Successful Intern at HubSpot”.
When I started at HubSpot five months ago, I was immediately thrown into the mix and didn’t get much formal “training” at all. HubSpot is known for its high-energy, fast-paced culture and I was really excited to join the team – but I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was.
I spent my first month floundering around, unsure of basic operating procedures, as well as broader business survival skills. I had my fair share of missteps along the way – at one point I was trying to figure out if I’d be able to make it until August without getting fired…
But after many weeks – and a little coaching from my fantastic boss – I started to turn things around. I began to feel that I was becoming a team member who was adding value to the organization, instead of a dead-weight intern that everyone else was dragging along.
This post is an adaption of the presentation I gave to the new batch of interns, summarizing the three main lesson I’ve learned in my first five months at HubSpot. And at the end, I’ll provide some science to back it all up.
One of the most important lessons I learned was the power of context. Without context, very smart people can end up making very stupid mistakes.
It’s inevitable. When you start a new job anywhere, you’re going to have very little context for the projects you’ll be working on. Even if you’re familiar with the organization on the outside, once you actually start working there, it’ll seem totally foreign.
Context includes the organization’s vocabulary, the tools and software you’ll be using, the priority of your tasks and how your project fits into the broader goals of the organization. Sometimes the projects you’re working on have already been attempted by someone else, and you can benefit by learning from their mistakes.
A lot of the more subtle context you’ll need comes from you interactions with other people. Sometimes various people in the organization have different opinions about what you’re working on – some thinking it’s very important while others think it’s a waste of time. Someone might give you advice, when they really don’t know what they’re talking about.
It can get especially dicey when you’re working with people outside your organization. Sometimes you’ll be working with hot shots that you have to suck up to. Other times you might be working with a sales rep who is trying to suck up to you.
Context is important to be able to understand the nuances of each of these scenarios so that you can respond appropriately. It helps you understand problems as they crop up, and make effective decisions.
Working without context is like running a race blindfolded. You might be able to do it as long as nothing unexpected pops up, but it has the potential to end up horribly, even if you’re a very capable runner. Even the brightest people will stumble when they’re working without context.
If your job has a very narrow focus and tends to involve repetitive work, then it might only take a day or two to gain all of the context you need. Jobs that are more project-based will be more dynamic and will require a lot more ramp-up time to get familiar with everything. At HubSpot, it took about six weeks for me to really feel comfortable with the projects I was working on.
So how can you get context? Ask questions. Tons of them.
Hopefully your organization will offer a training program that gives you a crash course in what you’ll need to know. But even these aren’t perfect. They’re usually either too high-level and end up glossing over all of the details that you actually care about, or else they’re so detail-focused that you’re overwhelmed with information and can’t take it all in at once.
Neither of these situations is your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the nature of getting acclimated to a new working environment. So ask as many questions as you can, whenever you’re unsure about anything.
Some people are scared to ask questions since they think it’ll make them come off as dumb or annoying. Try to find a mentor on your team that you’ll be working closely with. They should be someone you feel comfortable asking all of your questions – big and small. They could be a boss, a coworker, or even another intern who’s been around for awhile.
Ask questions. Get context. Be curious.
Once you’ve gotten your project and feel comfortable with the information you have, jump in. To borrow from Nike, just do it. At HubSpot, our version of this mantra is “get shit done”.
Don’t sit there forever, too timid to make decisions. Do what needs to be done to finish your projects effectively. If this means reaching out to new people, do it. If it means asking for more budget, ask for it. If this means delegating responsibility, then delegate.
Don’t get stuck with “paralysis by analysis” or “decision by indecision”. If you don’t jump into your projects and do what needs to be done, then you won’t end up accomplishing anything. It sounds painfully obvious, but it’s worth remembering.
Don’t get caught up in thinking “but I’m just an intern, I can’t do that…” A lot of people use that as a crutch and don’t manage themselves effectively.
Use whatever resources you need and ask for help if you get stuck. Your organization wants you to be productive, and it’s your manager’s job to help you be successful. If you have a hurdle you can’t seem to get past, get help with it so you don’t lose steam.
Be proud of what you’ve worked on. Ask your boss if you can present at the next team meeting. Share what your goals were, what obstacles you ran into, and what you ultimately achieved.
One piece of advice I was told early on was that people from all parts of the organization should know who I was and what I was working on. You don’t have to brag, or be annoying about it, but you should feel comfortable sharing your successes with other people on your team and in front of management if asked.
Be prepared, cause it won’t always be easy. You might be asked, “Why do you think this was successful? What metrics did you track to see if this was effective? How hard was this for you? How long did it take? Does it still need more work?” Be honest, but defend your work. It’ll give you a chance to demonstrate your work ethic, tenacity, ability and experience.
It’ll give your coworkers a chance to admire your work, and congratulate you on what you’ve accomplished. It’ll help them respect you as “not just another intern”. Plus it’ll help your bosses realize your strengths and how you could potentially help the organization in the long term.
But most importantly, it’ll give you a sense of mastery and accomplishment that will motivate you to work even harder on your next project, and help you make the most of your internship.
Be curious, jump in, and have pride in your work. If you do those three things, you should not only learn a lot, but you’ll have fun in the process.
I watched a fantastic TED talk a few weeks ago by Dan Pink called the “Surprising Science of Motivation”. If you have 18 minutes, I’d highly recommend checking it out.
He proves how old methods of motivating employees are no longer effective in the 21st century. Using rewards and punishments as an incentive structure can lead people to be narrow minded, less effective and more unhappy at work.
Instead, he proposes three qualities that managers should foster and employees should strive to achieve:
people like to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves
people hate being micro-managed and prefer to make their own decisions
people like being good at what they do, and being recognized for it
He uses the example of Wikipedia’s battle against Microsoft’s Encarta. One of them was written by a team of paid experts, chartered by an organization. And one was built without paying a single writer, by an open-sourced community.
Ten years ago, no one would have thought a free project would gain market share against Microsoft, but it has. And today, it is far more successful than its corporate competitor.
These incentives are extremely powerful. And they’ve been proven again and again across many experiments in many cultures. As I was preparing my presentation, I noticed that they tied in brilliantly with the three points I had developed.
Be Curious - find purpose in your work
Jump In - work autonomously and do what needs to be done
Have Pride - help others recognize your mastery in certain areas
These lessons aren’t just my experiences – they’ve been proven again and again by social scientists as the top indicators of both employee happiness and employee effectiveness.
So be curious about your organization, jump into your projects and have pride in your work. You’ll impress your coworkers and – more importantly – have a more rewarding and successful internship.