How to create a great intern culture

I realized I’ve been at Khan for 7 weeks now. 

It’s awesome, but also sad–because I’m already halfway through. :(

In these 7 weeks, in the midst of all the coding and fun, I have tried to keep my head up a little bit and see how things work around here. And one of the most striking things is how much this company cares about its interns. It’s not an accident, that’s for sure. Khan Academy values its interns heavily, not only as future full-time hires, but as important contributors to the mission and to the culture of the organization.

It shows this value in several ways. Some of these are common in today’s best tech companies:

No differentiation between interns and full-time engineer

At Khan, just like at some of the other great engineering companies in the Valley, very few things distinguish an intern from a full-time engineer. For example:

  • Shipping real features. Interns don’t work on temporary, bogus projects just for learning, that will be thrown out once they go back to school. They also don’t make coffee (unless it’s for themselves). They work on the same stuff the full-timers do…real features, seen by millions of people. Need proof? See Dylan Vassalo’s summary of last year’s intern projects.
  • No social discrimination. Okay, discrimination is a harsh word, but what I mean is: interns don’t wear a big red stamp on the forehead screaming ”I’m an intern!”. They are just part of the team, like everyone else… Whether in a conversation at the lunch table or at a team event (like a recent BBQ), everyone is respected as a highly valuable member of the team.

A great development experience

This means things like great (free) food, unlimited drinks, a large monitor, and a healthy development abstraction that allows for digging deep into the code.

The part about the development abstraction is one of those interesting things that makes software engineering jobs awesome when it’s present. It’s why people love working at Google (other than the perks), and it’s why Ben Kamens loved working at Fog Creek Software (and why he made sure Khan Academy kept it up.) Joel Spolsky describes it best, and I highly recommend reading it.

A fun and quirky culture

We have weekly board game nights. We did an intern scavenger hunt. We just celebrated Tau day. It’s a fun place to be.

Khan Academy also does a few things that are less common in other companies, including:

Explicit (and implicit) mentorship

As Ben wrote about here, all interns are explicitly given a specific mentor on their first day of work. Thus, I have someone who has willingly made himself available to answer my questions at all times. I don’t know how I would have survived without this in the beginning of my internship, navigating a foreign codebase and learning how everything worked. But even now, it’s awesome to have someone I can go to for help when I’m stuck for sufficiently long on something. My mentor and I also have weekly one-on-one walks that are tremendously useful for hashing out any issues stuck in the back of our minds.

And that’s just the explicit part. I’ve had so many conversations with various full-timers who are some of the smartest people that I’ve met. I’m trying to soak in as much wisdom as I can before I’m kicked out in August. Sad as it is, I don’t learn nearly this much in school.

Involving interns in the conversation

At Khan, we have weekly team meetings led by Sal. We have regular “Big Ideas” meetings, where we discuss various philosophical questions, related and unrelated to the company. We have amazing guest speakers, advising us on how to focus the organization’s efforts.

And along with such events come conversations–chances for team members to share their thoughts on where Khan Academy is headed, where it needs to go, what our users care about, and what, in general, we are doing right or wrong. From what I’ve seen, interns don’t hesitate to chime in, and their thoughts are heard as loudly as anyone else’s.

A name we’re proud to wear

The fact that I’m writing all these blog posts about Khan Academy says something. I’m not the only one…several team members blog, and interns have done awesome reflections on their work at Khan.

I think a huge part of it is that we are proud to be at Khan Academy. It’s a noble mission that’s truly changing the world. And it’s a brand name that people recognize, which is undoubtedly a plus when you consider that an internship is an investment in your future.

And the changing the world part…it’s no joke. Even if you ignore everything else, and you put in the same room a bunch of people who care deeply about a single mission, you’ll still have something pretty darn good.

An expectation of excellence

The points above are undoubtedly great perks. But why would a company invest so much into these details? 

Well, it helps with the recruiting, clearly. But what it further means is that joining this organization comes with a high expectation of excellence. Khan Academy’s goal is to hire the best employees and interns…and then give them the freedom and support to perform. These things won’t turn the average performer into a great one, but it will make sure the great performer does his or her best work.

Also, these things don’t just magically show up in organizations. At the end of the day, someone has to care enough to make them happpen. That’s where people like Ben come in; he really believes in using his role as our lead developer to cultivate an environment where others can thrive. And Jessica Yuen was instrumental in establishing Khan’s culture and running the intern program for the past couple years. Kayla Bills, who’s since taken over, is doing an awesome job so far this year.

As I’m seeing now, building such a culture is craft in its own and it takes people like these who really care enough to get the details right.