How to make the most of your engineering internship

The Shift engineering team looking very pleased with themselves after eating ice cream

Are you about to start an engineering internship and are wondering how you can optimize your time there? Or maybe you’re starting your first full-time job and want to get started on the right foot. Throughout my internship at Shift and other past internship, I have learned many invaluable lessons that helped me grow as an engineer and perform well at my internships. Here are some of the lessons and tips that I find most important to optimize your internship!

Be customer focused

Whether you’re building a new consumer-facing feature or internal tool, you should always be thinking about your users and customers.

Who are the users of your project? Are they engineers, data scientists, or car buyers? Are they technical? What is going to bring the best user experience to them? Understanding your users will help drive the direction and vision of your finished product.

Why are they using it? Are they using the product to buy/sell a car, for entertainment, or something else entirely? This is a question to address early because if you can’t think of any reason why they would use what you’re building, you should hold off on writing code. Instead, talk to your manager, designers, and even customers to get a better understanding of why people would want your feature. This step will also help you understand the leverage and impact of your project!

How are they going to use it? Is it going to be a cron job that executes daily? A feature in a web application like my favorite internship project, an appraisal flow to help a customer sell their car! No matter what you are building, thinking about how people will use it drives the design and implementation of your project to provide the best user experience possible.

Constantly asking these three questions will optimize how you choose to approach, design and build your feature.

Take ownership of your work

What does it mean to take ownership? Ownership means you assume full responsibility for your work, and it’s one of the most important skills to practice as an intern. Ownership includes things like having a vision for what the finished product will look like, estimating how long it will take to build, seeing the project through to completion, and caring about the results of your work. A huge amount of ownership and responsibility is being thorough in how you approach things so that you build good software that your teammates can understand and maintain.

Be Proactive

There may be times where your project is blocked (waiting for approval or review) or finished, and it’s time to think about taking on more responsibility. Having a proactive mindset means you go out and look for ways you can be helpful to your team. It will exponentially increase your learning, opportunities, and, hopefully, impress your manager as well.

Shift was especially good at offering a diverse set of learning opportunities. Having a proactive mindset meant I was able to learn React.js, GoLang, and PostgreSQL, having no previous experience with any of them, all with

Mac and the Shift engineering team getting ice cream
Mac and the Shift engineering team getting ice cream

in the span of a 12-week internship. I was able to make infrastructure changes, create Ops tools, and even add new features to the consumer web and iOS app. Being proactive at Shift has allowed me to touch every part of the stack, many parts of the code base, and different parts of the business as well. You’ll be surprised how many things companies will let you work on if you show interest and initiative.

Minimize Technical Debt

Your goal as a software engineer is to write code to solve the problem in front of you, but when engineers cut corners and aren’t thoughtful about the long-term ramifications of what they build, technical debt can accrue. Technical debt is the accumulation of work that builds up as incomplete, untested, or poorly designed code is added to the system. Eventually, you have so much that you have to halt forward progress to fix the issues that have been creeping into your codebase. Addressing technical debt early on will help with a lot of issues later in the development funnel. It is important to have a well-designed solution to your problem because it makes it easier to maintain at scale in the future. Here is a list of things that could help limit technical debt:

  • Create a design/planning document
  • Consider many possible solutions and weigh the trade-offs
  • Write high-quality, well-documented code
  • Refactor code when possible
  • Write tests
  • Log errors

Taking the time to think about edge cases during your development can prevent problems for your teammates in the future. Some common edge cases are invalid data, missing data, and a large amount data. For consumer-facing features, screen resize and rotation is also something to consider. Once you’ve thought of every possible edge case while building your feature, schedule a bug bash where you invite teammates to help find issues with what you’ve built before you launch it. These can help you find even more edge cases you didn’t know to think about.

Log Everything

Logging and erroring effectively will do wonders for your teammates if any issue should arise in the future. For example, let’s take a look at a situation where you are creating an URL and sending a GET request to that URL, and it returns a 404 Not Found error. An in-effective log would be “Page not found” because this doesn’t help with resolving the issue. A more effective error log would be something like “<Project-name> – Failed to GET <url>: 404 Not Found”. With the second log, your teammates are informed which part of the codebase the error came from, what the request was, and the error, which will make it much easier to debug and fix.

Focus on your Personal Growth

Internships aren’t just about adding a company name to your resume or getting a return offer. They should, as much as possible, be about learning to be a great engineer. Focusing on personal growth will help you get the most out of your internship and will show your manager that you want to learn and grow. Here are some tips that I think were helpful for my growth throughout my internships:

Set goals

It’s a lot easier to achieve a goal if you have one in mind, so take some time to work with your manager on setting internship goals as early as possible. Preferably, set goals that are achievable and measurable and try to break them down into smaller objectives.

Ask Your Manager for Feedback

Getting feedback from your manager every week or every other week is critical for personal growth and achieving your internship goals. Many of the lessons I am writing about in this post was gathered from asking for feedback. Setting up a regular cadence for feedback makes it less scary to hear and more manageable to start addressing the feedback on how you can improve.

Code Reviews

Throughout my internships, I have seen a lot of fellow interns feel extremely worried after getting a code review. This shouldn’t be the case. Code reviews (when done correctly) aren’t about making anyone feel bad. Code reviews should be seen as a resource for learning style and best practices. It is a great way to acquire more insight from senior engineers at the company and learn from their experience and expertise. If possible, try to be a reviewer for someone else’s code. This will allow you to see the process from a different perspective and learn from it as well. One thing that has worked super well for me was reading code reviews and/or code written by the senior engineers at the company. You’ll learn a lot about design trade-offs, best practices, and solutions to interesting problems!

Have Fun

Last but not least, HAVE FUN! After all, you only get to be an intern a few times. Go to all of the intern and company events and meet everyone. You’ll not only have fun at these events, but you’ll build a strong network. The interns you meet at your internships will end up at a wide variety of companies, the mid-level and senior engineers you work with will soon become industry leaders, and people who are already prominent in their field are generally very nice about meeting interns and answering questions. But don’t just stop at intern events, plan some activities to get to know your fellow interns on the weekends. Go out, plan activities and get-togethers, or plan a weekend trip somewhere. Throughout my internship, I was able to make some life-long friends across the world and start building a network that will be invaluable to me throughout my career.