Thumbs-up, Coffee, Pyjamas, and Rabbit Holes: our Summer Internship Program

Compared to other tech companies, we have a relatively small (well, tiny) team to be taking on summer interns. But we felt it would be a valuable learning experience, both for our intern/s and for us.

Being a distributed company brought additional opportunities and challenges to the idea of an internship program: we knew we’d need to find a special kind of intern, someone who was able to be self-directed when necessary while also receiving mentoring.

Why we Wanted to Offer an Internship Program

We had been tossing around the idea of taking on some interns for at least a year or so. With a growing customer base, we are always looking for talented engineers to join our happy little crew. We thought getting to the best graduates before they were even graduates might be a good way to grow. Working with WooCommerce is also an important skill for grads to develop, especially if they are interested in eCommerce, since Woo now powers 39% of online stores.

However, up until recently we didn’t really have the capacity to give the kind of mentoring and training that would make an internship really valuable for the intern. But this year it looked as though we could manage with our current capacity.

Also, we like experiments: even when something doesn’t work, at least it tells us what doesn’t work, so we try another approach. We had some experience with bringing new people on to the team (new to Subscriptions and to WooCommerce generally), so we had an idea of what sort of guidance we were going to provide for the interns.

Of course, you can’t predict everything.

Internship Recruitment Process

Our initial expectations were (admittedly) not very high – we knew that we might not even find one candidate who was a good fit for the team.

Hot Chocolate Expectations vs Reality

So the first thing we didn’t predict accurately was the quality of the applicants for the internship. We thought we might at best get one or two outstanding applicants, but we really had five or six, with 20 or so very good candidates. This was great, but we hadn’t planned for that level of success!

The application form was pretty standard, with a space to upload a CV, and a question about “Why do you want to work with Prospress”. We also included a question asking “What is the coolest thing you’ve ever built? Why was it cool? Why did you build it? (Doesn’t have to be code/software)”. While we only had two questions on the application, they both allowed applicants to let their personality shine through in the answers. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone from two simple questions.

In order to filter down our final shortlist, we went through a couple of stages, including:

  • a 30-60 minute chat or video interview (based on the candidate’s preference)
  • a brief technical test with basic WordPress functions designed to test attention to detail, basic understanding of programming languages (like functions), and ultimately, a programmer’s most important skill – their Google-fu

After a lot of deep thinking about the applicants, and finally accepting we couldn’t take on all of them, we ended up offering two internships: one to Lauren, focused on engineering, and one to Kelly, which was to be a combination of engineering and project/product management.

Early Results of the Internship

The next thing we didn’t accurately predict was the speed with which our interns would get a handle on writing code for WooCommerce Subscriptions. We expected a (naturally) slow start to the engineering side of things, as both Lauren and Kelly were completely new to our codebase and didn’t have a lot of experience using GitHub.

The reality was that they blew all our expectations out of the water, tackling issues right out of the gate and having code ready for review and merging within seven days. We set an initial goal to work toward helping the interns ship live code after one month.

After a quick recalibration of our milestones for their internships, Kelly and Lauren were given features to work on and harder issues to tackle. This is just an indication of what they have achieved:

  • 10 different fixes and tweaks written by Lauren have already been shipped to our customers and are now running live on their stores. Along the way, Lauren has also been working on a major new feature we hope to include in Subscriptions version 2.2 that gives store managers a way to set a shipping schedule that differs to the billing schedule. This is a popular request from store owners.
  • Kelly undertook a major refactoring of an important, yet poorly architected feature of Subscriptions – product limiting. This will help improve the maintainability of that code for many years to come. Before diving into that larger task, she also submitted a couple of small tweaks that have been shipped live. At the moment, she’s working on a fairly major fix to be included in the next major version of Subscriptions, version 2.1.

Kelly and Lauren tying ribbons on gift boxes

We are just past the midpoint of the three month internship now. It has been a resounding success. Kelly and Lauren have integrated really quickly and very easily into our work culture, have shipped live code, and have learned a lot… and WE have definitely learned a lot!

Conversations With the Prospress Interns

Now that we’re at the midpoint, it seems like the perfect time to share their initial experiences with Prospress and remote work, and to share some tips with others who we hope will go through this program in future. We asked them a few questions and their answers are below.

Kelly

Ali: How would you describe Prospress in five words or less?

Kelly: Subscriptions, issues, coffee, timezones, pyjamas

Ali: What does your average day look like?

Kelly: Here’s an example…

Time Activity
8:45 am (at the latest) Wake up, brush my teeth, walk downstairs for a quick bite
9:00 am Check Slack channels in order: Interns, Water-Cooler, WC-Subscriptions, personal messages
9:20 am Check for updates on current assigned issues and pull requests
9:25 am Begin fixing said issues
12:30 pm Food time!!!!
12:50 pm Back to work
4:00 pm Desperation hour: ask for help if I’m still stuck on the same problem
5:00 – 6:30 pm End of the day, sign off on Slack, relax!

Ali: What advice would you give on working from home?

Kelly: The greatest advice I have for any intern in a work from home internship is this: don’t be afraid to make the most out of your unique situation. Freedom is the most daunting luxury an intern can have and probably not what you expected to have when you were searching for a summer internship.

Chances are, you were not even expecting to work from home this summer, but now that you are, live the experience! Try working in different environments, incorporating chores into your stretch breaks, and allowing yourself to work in bed when it’s too cold to get out. Take this opportunity as a blessing or at least a learning experience. Perhaps you will realise you have a hard time staying on task when alone, or that working from home is just not right for you. Perhaps not. You’ll never know unless you actually work from home!

Ali: Remote, distributed work often means setting your own priorities, and working to your own schedule. Have you found it difficult to stay on task?

Kelly: Staying on task has never been too big of an issue for me, but this practice can be draining on the mind and the body. It seems counterintuitive, but the best way to stay on task is to take breaks. Let your brain wander, relax, recover, and begin working again. Walk around, stretch out your shoulders! I learned this the hard way by developing a kink in my right shoulder. Keep a bottle of water by you at all times. Not only will this keep you hydrated, but it will also make you get up and walk to bathroom to empty or the kitchen to refill.

The only coffee you will make is your own in this internship

What kind of working relationship have you had with Lauren as a remote intern?

Kelly: My first impression of Lauren is that we have very different tastes in bows and I must say, her taste was much better than mine. We were putting bows on the Small Woorld gift boxes as part of a bonding activity (much less awkward than sit-down meet and greets) and I could already see the value of having another intern in the same program. I have already gained a new perspective just from a simple turquoise bow and this learning experience carried on when we started working.

On top of having new perspectives, having someone in your situation is always comforting. We go to each other to discuss little questions, share important research and finds, and talk about our latest tasks and our approach to solving the issue.

Without Lauren, my internship experience would not be complete.

Ali: How did you go about creating a workspace for yourself?

Kelly: There are three things that I look for in a productive workspace:

  1. Pen and paper (I guess this could count as two things). Writing helps me organise my thoughts as well as point out what I might be missing. For example, sometimes when I see a word that I’ve written down, I think of another helpful word that is usually used in association with the first. In coding, this process reminds me of other places to look and other issues to consider when solving a problem.

  2. Ambient noise. Absolute silence distracts me. When I am in a space that is too quiet, I sing songs in my head. When I hear songs, I dance. Thus, when I am in a space that is too quiet, I dance. So, I turn to ambient noise (not music!) to fill in the empty space. At home, I live right next to the highway, so there’s almost always some natural ambient noise around me. On especially silent occasions, I turn to A Soft Murmur or Rainy Mood for help.

  3. Temperature. I usually move around the house in search for a cozier space. I prefer extra warm weather over cool or an average person’s “just fine” weather. All I want to do is climb into bed when I am cold. My family finds it ridiculous that I would occasionally wear a beanie on a summer day. I call that productivity.

Kelly's Desk

Ali: If you were to use Subscriptions to sell something, what would it be?

Kelly: If I were to sell something with Subscriptions, I would sell custom made care packages for college students. Contents range from healthy study snacks, to a new pair of shoes, to personal hygiene products, to a note from mom. You could order it for yourself or gift it to someone in dire need of a pick me up.

Lauren

Ali: How would you describe Prospress in five words or less?

Lauren: Thumbs-up, Woo, rabbit holes, PHP

Ali: What does your average workday routine look like?

Lauren: The average day follows this sort of pattern:

Time Activity
8:00 – 9:00 am Wake up, morning routine, get coffee
8:30 – 9:30 am Morning greeting, check Slack activity
9:00 – 9:30 am List out what to work on and scheduled activities
Morning Work on feature, issues, code review
12:30 pm Nom
1:00 pm Back at it!
Afternoon Video calls, continue morning work
5:00 – 6:00 pm ‘Til tomorrow!

Ali: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with working from home?

Lauren: There are perks and there are challenges to working from home.

Perks

Working remotely can be a great situation. One of the greatest things about working remotely is the flexibility. You can set and experiment with your own schedule, work from different places or even just different rooms or chairs. I like to move around during the day, sometimes I start out in a coffeeshop and then go home, and while at home I move chairs, move rooms, and even go outside. There is also the ability to work in a style that is best for you.

For example, when I get to a problem that is difficult to work out, I like to pace around while I think it through. In a lot of environments, it wouldn’t really be possible to get up and pace without annoying a few of your workmates, but in the comfort and freedom of your own workspace, it is.

Challenges

Working remotely also means that your team is remote. One outcome of that is that your team could be in different time zones. So far this hasn’t been too big of an issue but is certainly something that I’ve learned to keep in mind. A remote team also means reduced face-to-face time. There is no physical water cooler, no popping in on someone, no passing in the hall, no shared lunch breaks.

I think Prospress does a great job of maintaining a company culture and having interaction and this has not been an issue for me. However, if you thrive on IRL interaction, then this set up could be too isolated. On the other hand, if you’re more of an introvert, this might be the best set up you’ll find!

Ali: Do you take any specific steps to stay on task?

Lauren: With the great power of working from home, comes the great responsibility of staying on task. For myself, I like to make a plan of what I want to do before I start the day so that I can reduce the in-between time when wondering what to do next. If I’ve written it down, I don’t have to wonder. Another strategy I use is to listen to music.

Internship mixtape

The style of music varies according to what I’m doing and what I’m looking to get out of it. Want upbeat, energizing music to get past that mid-afternoon slump? How about a playlist of pop/rock mashups. Want some nice sounds to keep on the steady? How about an instrumental soundtrack. Want some fun songs without the distraction of trying to sing along? How about pop/rock/r&b in a language that you don’t speak.

Ali: How have you found working with Kelly as a remote intern?

Lauren: Working with Kelly has been one of the most unexpected and indispensible parts of the internship. Having another intern to bounce ideas off of, or chat with, or check in and make sure you’re on the same page has definitely added to my experience. There have been a number of times when I’ve come to Kelly with a question about how she’s approaching something or what she’s up to and found that we both were of the same mindset or were having the same challenges. It put to rest concerns I didn’t even know I had to be able to tell her about something and have her say ‘same,’ or vice versa.

I don’t think just any other intern would have provided the same camaraderie. Kelly has brought an inspiring drive without unnecessary competetiveness to the experience that has made for a motivated and collaborative environment.

Ali: Have you done anything special to create a workspace for yourself?

Lauren: The most important part of my workspace is that is has space. I can spread out and have room for the computer, a planner, a notebook, speakers or headphones, drinks, and whatnot without feeling cramped. I usually work at the desk first thing. It signals to me that I’m at work and gets me in that mindspace. Later in the day I’ll move for a change of pace and sit in a more comfortable chair and use a lap desk to work on the computer. It definitely helps to find what works for you and gets you to your most productive.

Lauren's Desk

Ali: If you were to use Subscriptions to sell something, what would it be?

Lauren: If I were to sell something with Subscriptions, I think I would to sell craft packages. In each bundle would come the materials and instructions to do a craft, such as making a bracelet or crocheting a scarf. They could serve as an introduction to different crafts for those who had never done them before. Or, for those more advanced and with the tools there could be more advanced bundles and projects. The aim would be to inspire crafting and providing a fun project without information overload or the challenge of coming up with a project. Simple fun with something to show at the end.

Plans for future internships

We are quite pleased with how this internship experiment has turned out so far. One of the most unexpected aspects of Kelly and Lauren’s experience is the value they’ve found in having another intern go through this process. The level of camaraderie, support, solidarity, and encouragement they provide for each other was surprising, but also very awesome to see. We’ve already learned a lot from our interns, all of which we will use to make next year’s program even better. I’m sure we’ll learn even more when they wrap up the internship with another blog post in a few weeks!


About the Interns


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