Are Interns a Developer's Worst Nightmare?

Monday Jul 22nd 2013 by Eric Spiegel
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A tale of a developer’s intern from hell reveals how coders can learn from newbies.

“You want me to do what?”

I was having a really good morning. I had two bowls of my favorite sugar coated cereal. My commute didn’t take forever. And best of all, I solved a bug that was driving me crazy the day before.

Better yet, I was excited about finishing my assigned module ahead of schedule and actually not eating dinner at the office every night the rest of the week.

I even decided to go out to lunch, which was a luxury on my newbie salary. I was almost out the door with a few of the other developers when my boss yelled over his cubicle “Can I speak to you for a sec?”

Never a good thing to hear on the way out to lunch.

That’s when he laid it on me.

“I want you to mentor this new kid Peter who will be interning for us this summer.”

And you already read my reaction. I wasn’t happy about it. And I let him know it.

“Why me? I’ve only been here for a year. And I’m swamped with work - you know, lots of deadlines to meet.”

My boss squinted at me with the “Seriously?” look.

“You mean the same deadlines every single developer on the team has? Those deadlines?”

Then he smiled and said, “Look, you have picked up things really fast and I think you’d do really well in this mentorship role. And it’s just for the summer right?”

I may have let out a sigh. “Ok, fine. What do I have to do?”

“Just show him the ropes. Help explain how things work around here. And if he gets stuck on his assignments, point him in the right direction. Oh, one other thing – he starts tomorrow.”

After being razzed at lunch about being the bosses’ pet, I dove back into my code and forgot about “Peter The Intern.”

The next morning, I noticed someone sitting at my desk. In my chair. Typing on my computer.

The intern. He had taken over my cubicle.

I cleared my throat and said, “You must be Peter.”

He swung around in my chair and showed me a wide, toothy grin.

“Hey there! You must be my mentor buddy! You can call me Pete.”

I shot back “You got the mentor part right, but we’ll have to see about the buddy part?

“Right, right – ok chill out dude. Hey, you have a nice PC. Is this the newest with the i386SX? Nice!”

“Uh, yeah, but it’s actually slow… so Pete, did they assign you a place to sit with your OWN computer?”

“Nah, they said there wasn’t any space so I should just hang out with you. Nice to meet you, by the way. Hey, if you are going to the kitchen would you mind getting me a coffee.”

Even though he seemed to think I was his buddy, this relationship was not starting well.

As I walked to the kitchen I heard him yell, “Don’t forget the cream and sugar.”

Not a good start at all.

I spent the day with Pete looking over my shoulder as I showed him around our systems and the work I was doing. The best part of that first day was taking him to lunch – because the company was paying for it.

At lunch I learned Pete was graduating after the fall semester. He talked a lot. I did learn how thankful he was for the internship because the experience could help him land a full time job in a very tough job market.

He wasn’t so terrible a person, just very chatty. Pete also was brimming with confidence.

By the afternoon he was making suggestions to me on how to improve my code. I brushed him off, even though some of his points made sense. I just had a hard time having this kid on his first day giving me advice.

After all, I was the mentor, not him!

Then as we were walking out of the office, I told Pete about my roommate being assigned to a three-month job in the Midwest. He whirled around and said excitedly, “That is perfect.”

Uh oh.

“My sublease fell through. You wouldn’t mind me staying with you this summer, would you? That would be so cool!”

I said I’d think about it. And somehow ended up with an intern as a roomy.

The next few weeks Pete was my shadow. We car pooled, shared a cubicle (although he finally got a computer), and watched bad sitcoms at night. Evening entertainment really was dependent on cable TV before the World Wide Web was available.

Of course, many nights the only entertainment was working late and writing code because the deadlines were coming fast. After one very long night where we worked on some code together, the team held a peer review. These reviews were required before submitting our code to the quality assurance team. I explained to Pete how these reviews worked.

“Sit back and just stay quiet. You might learn something.”

My review was going swimmingly and then I heard Pete coughing – loudly.

“You okay over there?” I asked.

“Yeah, fine. But, I am kind of choking on your code.”

That got a giggle out of the other developers.

Annoyed, I said, “Oh really, Pete, please enlighten us.”

“Well, your algorithms could be much more efficient. I mean come on dude, wouldn’t it make sense to do your calculations in parallel and not sequentially – there’s no dependencies right?”

He was right. And this bugged the heck out of me. Not because he was spot on (or that he called me “dude”). But because he called me out in front of everyone when he could have said something the night before when we were both going over the same exact code.

During that evening’s commute, Pete jabbered on about something unimportant. I was boiling and had to say something.

“Pete, you really ticked me off today by embarrassing me in front of the team.”

“Really? Sorry dude, but wasn’t the point of code reviews to point out ways to improve the code?”

“Yes, but why didn’t you point it out the night before?”

“I don’t know. Guess I was too tired and thought I’d just bring it up in the review.”

So he did hold back and then called me out in front of everyone! I was starting to fume.

“Well that sucks because you are an intern and I am supposed to be your mentor.”

“Okay, Okay. Chill out dude. Didn’t realize you were so sensitive. Point taken.”

“It’s not about me being sensitive. I would have happily taken your advice one-on-one. And stop telling me to chill out and calling me dude!”

Ongoing Saga

Not surprisingly, our relationship was rocky for most of the summer. My girlfriend Jen asked why I was so frosty around Pete. So I told her the story.

She said “Sounds like you both were acting immature.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah, really. You said yourself his points were valid, yet your pride wouldn’t let you accept his ideas because he was an intern.”

“Ok, but wait…”

Jen shushed me.

“Let me finish. On the other hand, Pete lacked the maturity to understand the impact of an intern calling his mentor out in front of peers. You both should just try to learn from it and move on.”

As usual, Jen was right. Something I’d eventually get used to after being married to her for over 20 years.

In the end, Pete and I learned to work better together and we both realized there was a lot we could learn from each other. He was confident, but it wasn’t false confidence – he was ultra-intelligent and could easily see things in code that I struggled with.

For my part, I possessed a little bit more people savvy and could teach him things he couldn’t easily see – like how to work better with other team members and be sensitive to their pride of work.

Later that summer, Pete wrote a very nice email about me to our manager and copied me. He praised my (eventual) patience with him and thanked me for being a great mentor.

So if you are assigned as a mentor - don’t fight it, embrace it! You may learn more than you end up teaching – and end up with a good buddy too.

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