Remote Mentoring an Intern while Working From Home

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Market St, arguably the busiest street in San Francisco, shown deserted during the beginning of Bay Area lockdown in March (source: SFGate)
Market St, arguably the busiest street in San Francisco, shown deserted during the beginning of Bay Area lockdown in March (source: SFGate)

 

Remote working has been on the rise for the last several years. The number of people working partially or fully remote has been increasing around the world, especially in developed countries. The COVID-19 pandemic may have pressed the fast-forward button on this trend. Implementing work-from-home protocols seems to be a necessity for many institutions, either private or public institutions. Our contributor, Tiffany Citra, shares her experience of remote mentoring an intern while working from her apartment in San Fransisco.

I, along with millions of others in the US and around the world, have been mostly working from home for the past four months. The perception of remote working has taken a complete 180 degree turn due to the COVID-19. Quite a few American (mostly tech) companies have announced that they are either allowing their employees to work remotely forever or going remote-first even after in the post-pandemic world. 

After a while, I find myself getting used to having all sorts of remote interactions, from weekly planning meetings, Friday happy hours, to occasional technical interviews. My company also decided early on that the summer internship program would be online, and so I’m currently mentoring an intern who’s working remotely from New York. For context, I work as a software engineer at a medium-sized tech company based in Menlo Park, California.

What should be prepared before the internship?

I am really glad that the company I work for has such a kickass recruiting team, since they are the ones who primarily run and drive the overall success of the program. 

Since this experience is new for everyone, our recruiting team made sure that they provided adequate resources to the mentors prior to the start of the internship. They hosted a training session specifically tailored to the remote nature of the program, put together checklists with action items that need to be done by various checkpoints (e.g. first day, first week, midpoint, end of internship), and regularly reached out to make sure that we had everything we needed.

My manager introduced me and my intern via email, and later on I scheduled a video call with my intern as an opportunity to get to know him, his technical interests, and what he hoped to get out of his internship experience. I also offered him several project options that he could pick from, so that I could put together a more detailed project doc. 

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Working remotely means there are more scheduled meetings compared to when we were all at the office

After the introductory conversation, I worked on the project document and sent it to my manager for review. It contains some introductory information and links to helpful resources on our tech stack, project goal, as well final deliverables with detailed milestones for each of them (linked to a ticket in our project management tool). It’s crucial to ensure that the intern has a clear sense of what the program will look like and what we expect them to deliver by the end of the internship.

Per the recommendation from our recruiting team, I also assigned a buddy to my intern. A buddy is an additional technical resource for the intern, so ideally they work on projects related to the intern project.  They would also provide the intern with an opportunity to regularly talk with another person in the team and get more insights about the company and team culture beyond just the intern mentor.

What are the potential challenges and how can we address them?

First of all, timezone. I’m currently based in San Francisco and my intern in New York, so he’s three hours ahead of me. At the start of the internship, we established our preferred working hours to keep a healthy work-life balance. This would be helpful later on since we work closely together and try as much as we could to unblock each other. For example, I would prioritize reviewing my intern’s code earlier during the day and keep my other tasks later in the afternoon and early evening.

Secondly, since my intern and I are not working in the same physical location, we can’t just drop by at each other’s desk to answer each other’s questions and have a discussion. Given the situation, I personally think that it’s better to over communicate with each other. My intern sends me a message every morning with what he plans on working that day. In addition, we also have daily stand ups early in the day with other people in the team who work on the same umbrella project. We would also go on a video call and screen share to go over more complex technical discussions and debugging sessions.

Finally, the lack of opportunities for social activities to expose the intern to the team and company culture. It’s pretty tough to organize recurring social activities remotely. Our recruiting team has come up with pretty creative remote outings for the interns, like meeting dogs of Chernobyl, working out with an olympian, and doing a cooking class. The other intern mentor and I decided to organize a biweekly lunch with 4 other members of the team for an hour-long water cooler conversations and Jackbox game sessions. We also scheduled 1:1 for our interns so they get the chance to meet everyone in the team and learn what other people are working on.

IMG_1779A screenshot from one of the Jackbox game lunch sessions with my team’s interns and coworkers

Are there any benefits to remote internship? 

Although I would personally prefer an in person internship any day over a remote one, there are some benefits to it. The biggest win for me is not having to commute. My commute takes 1.5 hours each way from my apartment to the office, which includes a combination of bus, train, and walking. With my extra responsibilities, I definitely appreciate the extra three hours that I could use to relax (and sleep more in the morning!) instead of rushing to get to and from the office.

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My work from home setup! While it’s nice to be able to have more flexibility in my work hours, it’s also tough sometimes to disconnect from work since I have my desk in my room.

The extra time also gives some flexibility to my working habits that could help me to be more productive. I could take a short break to beat the afternoon slump, and sometimes order a delivery from my favorite boba shop. Open office could also be pretty distracting, and working from home makes it pretty easier to focus and be more productive.

In conclusion, I really enjoy my remote mentoring experience so far. It comes with a few challenges; a lot of them stem from the fact that it’s everyone’s first time doing it, and so we’re all still learning the ropes on how to make it an enjoyable experience for our interns. It requires more effort for everyone involved to ensure that the interns can learn, make an impact, socialize, and make the most out of their internship experience. I’m really glad that I get the support I need from my company and my team to do my best as a mentor.