How are tech internships changing?
DMV leaders offer a look at how they’re building internships, and how programs help build the overall talent pipeline.
November 29, 2021
Looking around the office, it’s not always easy to learn the story of how everyone landed their role at a company. But plenty of the existing VPs, senior engineers and fellow management-level employees all started off with the same role back when they were shiny students eager to gain some experience: the humble internship.
Internships, the pre-entry-level gigs designed for high school and college students to learn the ropes, are a starting point for many area technologists, and a way for employers to bring in new talent. For students, landing an internship offers a way to get one step closer to working at a dream job or company. In fact, according to CompareCamp, 70% of companies offer interns a full-time job later on.
But as a field notorious for gatekeeping of BIPOC applicants and abuse of its cheap labor, it’s a part of the tech world that needs a facelift, and these local players are trying to do it. Interns at Capital One, Online Optimism and Genesys Works aren’t spending their time grabbing coffee and picking up dry cleaning. Nowadays, tech internships in the DMV are building job skills for students, offering a necessary supplemental income and even pumping talent into the local pipeline.
A look inside
One of the largest employers in the region, fintech and banking giant Capital One took on 700 interns in 2021 for its program. And, according to Senior Vice President of Engineering for Data and Machine Learning Mike Eason, a good number were added into the company for full-time roles. In its Software Engineer in the Technology internship, a paid, 10-week program, interns work in Agile, cloud computing, cybersecurity, data, machine learning and mobile and software engineering.
With the strong potential for post-college jobs, though, and a booming, in-demand industry, Eason said that push among students to land tech internships is more aggressive than ever. Despite the company’s local roots, Capital One interns have to compete with thousands of students all across the country to land a spot, given its locations nationwide.
But while some look for the potential job security of a corporation, others pursue opportunities with smaller firms and the impact on a team that comes with it. Digital marketing firm Online Optimism, which opened a DC office earlier this year, offers a $15-per-hour paid internship. Its interns, which it calls specialists, are primarily college seniors who work on projects at the company that they can later add to their portfolios.
Juan Pablo Madrid, design director at the company, helped build out and design the specialist program back when he first started in 2016.
“We try to make specialists feel really as a part of their departments. They’re not just doing busy work, and getting coffee, doing the classic intern work,” Madrid said. “You’re working directly on client accounts with your supervisors. We give them to meet on their term, we do check-ins with them, so they pretty much feel a part of the company and will strive to improve.”
Others orgs combine skills certification with internships. Genesys Works, a national organization with a National Capital location, is a professional skills training course and internship for high schoolers from underserved communities. In the summer before the school year, high schoolers take an eight-week, 160-hour training course to get certified in IT, business operations and professional development before taking on a one-year, paid, high-level tech internship.
Selvon Waldron, Genesys Works’ executive director in the DMV region, said the idea is to teach students career skills and offer a high-paying job as they move through high school and college. Many even go on to continue interning at their companies throughout higher ed before landing a full-time role afterward.
Genesys Works accepts students from seven schools in DC and 12 in Northern Virginia, including the new additions of Cardozo High School and Phelps High School, which just signed MOUs with the org. In the past, it’s hosted 40 students each year but plans to up the number to 60 in 2022’s cycle. In total, it’s served about 200 students in the National Captial Region.
“A lot of times, these communities have been excluded because of the lack of connections and access that their families don’t have,” Waldron said. “Our program tries to build in that for them. We’re doing introductions with C-suite executives and what we want is executives to mentor them, give them access and support them throughout their years. It really results in higher life outcomes.”
Building the pipeline
While students likely view internships as the chance to get hands-on experience and a leg up in job seeking, plus some extra cash, employers can look at internships as the chance to grow the overall pipeline. Taking on high school students, like Genesys does, can pique interest early, and college interns can catch up with the flow of an organization long before getting hired.
Though Capital One does have a lot of post-internship openings, Eason said that the company’s internship program specifically has interns tackling projects head-on alongside fellow team members before they’re hired full-time. Alongside its internship, the conglomerate also offers a software training program, Capital One Development Academy, for non-computer science majors and a learning platform called Tech College.
“There’s no better way to prepare for any professional career than by digging in and experiencing collaboration and problem-solving first-hand,” Eason said. “Whether they continue with a career at Capital One or follow a different path, the program provides first-hand work experience, learning and development opportunities, and networking and connection skills that will help them excel in their careers.”
Some employers also focus on providing buildable skills for outside roles. Since Online Optimism can’t add every specialist to its team (although they are the first pool of applicants leadership looks at in hiring), Madrid said it focuses on trying to build a strong portfolio and job training that they can take onto their next role.
“Our end goal is to give them enough material that they can put in their portfolios and assist them with any sort of resume optimization or anything they need to take the next step in their career,” Madrid said. “We try to think of it as the last internship you need to jump into an actual full-time job.”
Beyond gaining job skills, a tech internship can be crucial for shaping households and communities. According to Waldron, 28% of its students made more money in a part-time internship than their entire household, crucial especially in 2020. Plus, about 70% of its target students, Waldron said, also graduate college within six years of enrolling in the program, compared to the less than 30% rate in their peer group.
Genesys’ programs have been so successful, Waldron said, that he thinks of it as a pipeline of diverse, qualified talent for the region’s job sector — and employers are agreeing. According to Waldron, the Genesys students can earn $200,000 or more over their lifetime because of this early career start.
“People are now understanding the importance of diversity and importance of that age group, 16 to 25, early career,” Waldron said. “The earlier you start your career, the better your long-term life outcomes are.”
With new approaches to growing the tech talent pipeline appearing daily, internships are only one of a number of options for technologist hopefuls.
After completing their one-year internship program, Genesys students can continue working with the program to stay on track in college and gain more workforce skills. But the interns aren’t the only ones learning. Waldron also completes constant meetings with students and the companies, on top of the bias and diversity trainings for employers, to make sure the interns feel like they’re in a safe space where leaders want them to succeed.
“We provide workshops on bias to our supervisors, as well, because we want the students, the interns, that when they place, that they feel safe, they feel empowered to work hard and they feel empowered to stay for the full year,” Waldron said. “It’s not to either of our benefits that a high school student doesn’t stay the full year.”
According to Madrid, with the rise of nontraditional applicants and outside job training like bootcamps and apprenticeships, internships aren’t always the first choice of those trying to break into the industry. But, while he noted there’s still a lot of industry gatekeeping among who is getting picked for internships, he thinks they’ll always be relevant, especially considering they offer the most hands-on experience.
“There are so many courses bootcamps nowadays that train you on how to how to do some of these things that I think that in the future maybe will be a little less necessary,” Madrid said. “ I think the one caveat with some of these bootcamps is that it is a lot of experience, but it’s not a lot of real-world experience, and I think that’s where internships play a part.”
On top of that offering, Waldron thinks that internships have the power to set the tone for hiring at a company — or even the whole industry.
“We’re not intentionally changing policy. We’re not saying change legislation to make companies more diverse. We’re a pipeline model,” Waldron said. “So as a pipeline model, we are saying: diversify the pipeline, and then over time you will have policy changes happening.”