Dan Luu tweeted about some great work interns that he has mentored accomplished at Twitter:

One intern did https://t.co/nsFW20j9Hm and another did interesting data analysis then built a working prototype for across the fleet profiling that others were able to use to find real inefficiencies.

Those are things that could go into a staff promo packet as a major project.

— Dan Luu (@danluu) August 31, 2022

It made me think of internships I had, and when I produced my best work. There are two outcomes I’m particularly proud of:

  • I was an intern at the National Ignition Facility in 2008, and I proposed and wrote image processing code to detect and monitor flaws in laser lenses as they grow. That code was still in the system 5 years later, still doing its work.

  • I built and programmed a battery qualification rig for rechargable “wet” batteries that GE Healthcare used in its mobile X-Rays. I found and bought equipment, built the rig in a lab with help from techs, programmed it, designed the test protocol and kicked off the first qualification run.

On the other hand, I had a few experiences that were interesting enough, but didn’t stand out to me as particularly impressive results:

  • I did ESD testing for patient monitoring equipment. This was fun, in that I got to shock things with static guns and visit an anechoic chamber, but it was largely “assigned work” without a lot of autonomy on my part.

  • I worked for GE Healthcare writing RF switching designs in VHDL. These were for small, fairly simple components and were almost a direct analog of microprocessor design work I did at school.

There are qualities of the work I’m most proud of that are missing from the two “eh"s:

  • Autonomy: Starting with a clear but high-level goal like “how do we make sure these batteries work?” and being responsible for everything that addresses the goal is a powerful motivator. You know that you’re being trusted to do something real, and do something right. If you’re just doing work that’s already speced and given to you, the motivation is considerably lower.
  • Focus: This is something that interns get more than anyone else. Everyone knows that you’re a goner in 3 months. You don’t do on-call rotations. You don’t do roadmapping. You find your project and you work your project. That’s a productivity superpower. Context switches are expensive, shipping quickly is essential, and focus fixes that.
  • Mentorship: The other side of the autonomy coin - you will get stuck on a high level goal, at any phase of your career. You need people you can safely ask for advice, and a surprising percentage of people don’t get this. Their internship hosts may be too busy or uninterested, their manager may be managing too many people, “competing” teams at dysfunctional companies may be actively undermining it.

These conditions won’t make up for a lack of skills or ambition, but they are critical enablers for skilled, ambitious people. When I think of professional frustrations of mine (dropping out of grad school, botched design proposals, having to fire a direct report), one of these was missing, or worse, being actively undermined.

PS: I’ll write that second blog post about OKRs, I swear.