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Common challenges of interns and grads and the solutions to them

Below hear from Anton Black, a five-time intern turned full-time Atlassian Product Security Engineer, discuss some very universal challenges and experiences new interns face when shifting from the classroom to the workplace. 

In software engineering, we often talk about how critical it is for managers to be hands-on—to stay relevant technically. But it's equally important for individual contributors (ICs) to learn the basics of managing people, especially as they grow professionally.

In this article, we explore a few techniques for ICs to employ when learning to manage their managers, junior teammates, and those peers not on your immediate team.

Not feeling properly awake, or feeling weirdly sleepy during the day

As an intern, you've likely grown used to the university environment. But you're not in Kansas anymore.

Problem: Your body's sense of day and night is out of whack. You've transitioned from a visible day/night cycle cued by sunlight exposure and physical activity to a dim, muted environment without obvious time markers.

Solution: Make time for an outside walk to get that sweet, sweet sun exposure. Exercise also helps prompt your body to know that it's the middle of the day and you'd like to be awake.

Not producing a steady stream of output, but rather having bursts of productivity followed by stretches of doing nearly nothing

Problem and solution: This is totally normal. It's especially normal in software development, where indirectly productive activities like reading documentation can feel useless. Productivity is cyclic; this is normal and not something to be concerned about.

Worrying that you might be abruptly fired since your casual employment contract technically allows this

Problem: While it's legally possible to be fired as an intern, it's something that rarely happens at Atlassian. 

Mistaken judgment

Correction

I don't know much about the technical details of this field. Therefore I am a bad intern.

Correction

Interns and grads are not judged on having comprehensive knowledge but on having positive attitudes and adapting quickly.

Don't believe me? It's in our official performance rating system. Even at the grad level (P3), the requirement is that the grad is currently "learning" (as opposed to "has already learned").

Other interns seem to spend their out-of-work hours learning more about this field, whereas I have unrelated hobbies like art and sports. Therefore I am a bad intern.

Correction

Internship performance is not judged on extra-curricular activities.

Sure, work-related hobbies can be helpful because they’re nice on your CV and may get you an interview. But once you’re inside, the performance criteria are strictly limited to what you do at work.

I prefer to work during weird hours of the day. Professionals work from 8 AM to 5 PM, so I am being unprofessional. Therefore I am a bad intern.

Correction

As long as you do your tasks, turn up to meetings, and are available to talk with your teammates, your hours don’t matter.

If you have a sleep disorder or another condition that messes around with when your “best work hours” are, consider telling your manager so you can move meetings to times that are the most comfortable for you.

Solution: Judgements like these leave interns in an echo chamber with no accurate performance feedback. Instead, I suggest asking your internship mentor and team manager for detailed input. They have the experience and knowledge to give you an honest review.

Feeling awkward and scared to ask for help

Problem: Most of us feel okay about asking a few questions from our teammates, but it's easy to start worrying that you're bothering the busy people around you, even if you've done the due diligence to answer your question(s).

Solution: Remove the need to keep making requests. Instead, ask your internship mentor to set up a recurring daily 15 minute time for questions and concerns. And if you're working in the office and feel awkward about walking up to someone, ping them.

Being exhausted by 1 PM, specifically in a social sense

Problem: As a new intern, you're doing much more talking and listening than you usually do. You're asking questions, listening intently, observing how things are done, collaborating with teammates, and discussing plans. 

But all that focus takes a lot of energy! So it's normal to find that your social stamina runs out by lunchtime. This can manifest as an aversion to talking to people any further, loss of verbal ability, difficulty in parsing spoken words, desire to move away from people, etc.

Solution: Take a break, find a dark, quiet place, and sit in for a while.

In terms of prevention, try exerting less effort as you socialize. For example, if you find it easier to look at a wall, table, or notebook while listening to someone (rather than carefully watching their eyes), do that instead.

In a WFH setting: try turning off your video in meetings to save yourself the work of unconsciously "acting" for the camera.

As your internship continues, you can expect your social stamina to improve to the point where you can make it through the whole day without hitting the wall.

Not understanding what the heck your teammates are talking about

Problem: Your teammates are not intentionally confusing you. Rather, they've forgotten that their vocabularies are full of industry jargon.

While terms like "shadowing" and "onboarding" are industry-standard, you'll also hear plenty of Atlassian-specific project names or acronyms, which you couldn't possibly know as a new intern. So what do you do?

Solution: Take notes when unfamiliar words or phrases are used and ask your mentor/teammates about them afterward.

"Be The Change You Seek" is frightening when you're an intern

Problem: Quite reasonably, you assume things are the way they are for a good reason — an assumption called Chesterton's Fence. So, of course, you're hesitant to suggest changes. Even something that seems weird or odd is likely there for a reason, right?

But then you notice your internship performance review includes a score on each value, and you get nervous. How could you possibly presume to Be The Change when you're just an intern?

Solution: Explain your idea to your internship buddy/mentor.

Suppose it's really a Chesterton's Fence situation. In that case, they'll tell you why the fence is there, or they'll research its history with you — so you both learn something

And if they agree something's off, you can be more confident that your idea should be shared with more people.

Alternately, write a blog post detailing your ideas. Explain what you know and why you're suggesting the change. This allows you to offer changes/ ideas politely and appropriately without directly speaking to anyone about it.

Feeling bad about not attending all of the intern social events

Problem: You will be invited to easily 10+ intern social events. You may then find yourself feeling bad about not attending all of these events.

Solution: None of these events are mandatory. You can skip them. I repeat: Apart from the onboarding sessions, none of these events are mandatory, and you can literally just skip them.

Invited to an event at 5 PM, but you go to bed at 7 PM? Too busy to go? Just want a break from socializing? Skip the events.

Intern social events are created to be fun. If going to them won't be fun for you, don't go!

Interested in learning more about Atlassian's intern's program? We're always looking for outstanding students looking to work on real-world challenges. 

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