What I learned from working with interns
It’s been almost three years since I joined the SAP Internship Experience Project team as the program’s Brand Manager.
When I joined the team, the internship program had just expanded from the U.S., India and Prague to Vancouver, Canada. In the following two years, the program continued to expand into Ireland and Brazil, almost tripling in size with more than 1000 interns worldwide.
Some of my personal highlights during these years were growing our social media presence (go follow @SAPiXp on Instagram), implementing a complete brand makeover to match SAP corporate brand, producing more than 50 blogs about intern journeys and the program’s many achievements, and learning how to find my groove amidst a giant organization.
However, most notable of my highlights was the wisdom I picked up from the interns I had the privilege to know. In light of my last day on the internship program team approaching, I wanted to share some of the wisdom I’ve gathered from meeting with our interns throughout the years.
We are all interconnected.
The business world is much like the natural world, we each contribute to a web of channels and transactions that are intricately linked to one another. Our interns often come in with a mindset that they are at the bottom of the food chain. And who can blame them?
The old-school internship model shows that interns take on scrap work, they deliver coffee and prove their worth by taking on subordinate tasks. Our interns are often shocked when their manager has a very specific project laid out for them, one that typically requires working cross-functionally, doing research, and producing or proposing a solution. Seriously? They likely figured our university recruiters were just saying things to get them excited about the corporate world.
When I sit down to chat with our interns, they express their wish to obtain a full-time opportunity at our company. I give them advice that’s along the lines of – “go talk to people, network, ask hard questions, then follow up with them on who else you should meet with, something will come out of it.” They typically look back at me nodding discontentedly, like they just wish I could hand them a job offer on a shiny silver platter.
I was in their seats 8 years ago in my first internship, I can remember what it felt like to be in a state of unknown. Yet recently as I’ve looked to find what the next chapter in my career might look like, I’ve felt a kinship with our interns in this deep unknown. I’ve tuned into their questions and thought process to give myself some sage advice.
If your career is your education, the workplace is your playground.
What stumps me most is that as we grow deeper into our careers, it becomes more and more difficult to make the effort to network, to look beyond, to reach outside into the unknown. The more we root down, the more comfortable we become.
The lesson here is that the unknown is perpetual territory. Unlike our internship program, our career trajectories have no end date. Each of us is faced with multitude of complicated decisions throughout our careers, no matter the length of our titles, our age, or years of experience. Our CEO has more in common with our interns than not.
Opportunities will always exist, but you’re going to have to make an effort to spot them. (Thank you, Roman philosopher Seneca for saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” your words have remained true since 65 AD.)
Our interns teach us to be unafraid to go outside the so-called comfort zone. It might be cliché to hear this, but it truly takes small daily efforts to evolve and learn. I always pictured my career to look like an uphill climb. Slowly reaching a peak with a crisp 360-degree view of full perspective and knowledge. But what I’ve realized is that there isn’t really a peak to reach. There’s no destination, only ledges that let us see things a bit more clearly along the way. We gain perspective when we evolve, we evolve when we try something new.
The SAP Internship Experience Project’s mission is “to provide interns the space to find their purpose.” This concept of “space for self-discovery” doesn’t just appear in the business world out of thin air, it takes a team of passionate and dedicated professionals to put it into fruition. Our university program and recruiting teams truly believe that our interns’ success is our business’s success. Thus, this space is essential.
Unlike the internship program, in the “full-time employment” world, we don’t have a dedicated team looking after us to ensure we have the space to find our purpose. It’s up to us to make this space for ourselves. Regardless of where you are in your career, it’s OK to carve out space for self-discovery, space to make a U-turn, to breath in the unknown. Take the road less traveled by (thanks, Robert Frost), give up the sh*t that weighs you down (thanks, Toni Morrison), and approach someone new on the playground (thanks, SAP interns).
Most importantly, don’t forget to make time for those who are just starting out. You never know when you’ll be in a similar predicament.
Some of the SAP Internship Experience Project team members and I at our Silicon Valley SAP Internship Experience Day.