Internships

5 Keys to Building a World-Class Internship Program

As a summer intern with an east coast consultancy, I worked 80 hours a week scrubbing data for an econometric model of longwall mining. It was as terrible as it sounds. I had the classic intern experience -- a constant flood of tedious, low-value work.

Here at Vivint, we decided to build an internship program that was the exact opposite of what most companies offer. We wanted to elevate the intern experience from the basement to the executive wing.

As an emerging technology company, we knew the value that could come from an infusion of young, forward-thinking individuals. A good internship program welcomes young professionals who may be less experienced, but who have fresh ideas that can be partnered with the insight and supervision of those who have more developed business perspectives.

Related: 5 Ways Interns Offer Value Your Executive Team Can't Match

We’ve just completed the second summer of our Vivint Fellowship Program. Looking over what we’ve learned so far, I’d like to share five ways a company can build a world-class internship program for the fall, spring and next summer.

1. Make the program selective from the start. Careful and constrained intern selection is the foundation of a successful program. Even though it may be tempting to be less selective when starting a program, relaxed standards will undermine its long-term success. Selectivity allows you to have real confidence in your chosen candidates, meaning you can give them high-impact assignments.

To gain selectivity at the nation’s top universities, we assigned senior executives to personally be involved in on-campus visits, interviews and follow-up calls to attract the very best candidates available.

Keeping the program small and exclusive is also important from an organizational standpoint -- you must keep it small enough that you can dedicate a full-time manager to overseeing its success.

2. Provide opportunities to participate in hot trends. A powerful tool for recruiting the best students is to focus on popular trends and future technologies. Rather than recruit to maintain our company’s current state, we focused on articulating Vivint’s vision for the smart-home industry. We empowered interns by asking them to help us make the journey.

This draws in interns who are natural entrepreneurs -- exactly what a company wants, and what millennials want but seldom get from typical summer internships.

Harry Rein, an MIT student in computer science, said he choose the Vivint fellowship instead of a Silicon Valley company because he wanted to “help define the next multibillion dollar industry.”

And these aren’t empty promises: our fellows drove the development of the “Zero Home,” the first smart home in its climate zone that produces more energy than it consumes. Other interns have helped us develop a wireless high-speed Internet offering, while another team assisted with an important acquisition.

Related: Getting the Most From Your Interns -- and Giving Back in Return

3. Give interns meaningful work and high-priority projects. Many companies fear giving valuable projects to their interns. We’ve found that when we give our fellows meaty assignments, they deliver.

Greater accountability motivates maximized effort. From helping us codify our innovation process to building and testing product prototypes, our fellows have made truly valuable contributions.

Fellows also have access to mentors and senior staff across the organization. A senior executive joins the fellows as a group each week for lunch, and there is an open-door policy for individuals to stop in for project and general career advice. At the end of the summer, Vivint CEO Todd Pedersen invites the fellows to his home to talk about their projects.

4. Invest heavily in training. I know it seems counterintuitive to allocate resources to aggressive training when interns are only with the company for a short time. However, I would argue that it is one of the main drivers of an intern’s decision to return to your organization.

If interns feel their learning and growth was significant in the few months they were with your company, they are more likely to continue investing in themselves and their growth by returning full time.

At Vivint, weekly trainings covered business-school fundamentals and included discussions around our innovation methodology, streamlining operations and launching new ventures.  We also trained on basic technical skills, including financial modeling and using PowerPoint to tell compelling stories.

5. Create camaraderie among interns. Most internship programs do not take the time to develop a community. Interns are just embedded in different locations and any socializing is left to individual initiative.

Vivint fellows participated in team-building activities outside the office, including weekend trips to Utah’s national parks and day outings. In addition, most of the interns lived together or in close proximity. The resulting camaraderie benefitted the company, creating a group of fellows who were more open to collaboration and feedback.

Some thought it would be a challenge for us to draw top-tier students to an emerging technology company that is not in Silicon Valley. Our experience is that having a stellar program is as powerful as a big brand.

By incorporating the principles above and devoting real resources to its success, any company can have a premier internship program, no matter where the firm is located.

Related: 5 Essential Traits of a Great Internship Program