How to run a successful virtual internship program
ASU Professor of Practice Kim Jones talks to the Cybersecurity Education Consortium, offering tips on how to implement a successful internship program virtually
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our everyday routines and has left many industries unsure about the most effective way to move forward with their summer internship programs. They are struggling with basic questions around how to make virtual internship experiences as authentic as a traditional face-to-face experience.
Kim Jones, professor of practice in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU and director of security operations at Intuit, shares how Intuit successfully transitioned their summer internship program into a virtual experience. Jones was previously the director of ASU’s Cybersecurity Education Consortium. The initiative is a unit of the Global Security Intitiative and focuses on providing an entry point for industry partners to connect with ASU students as well as building a pipeline of talent from K–12 to the university. We spoke to Jones to discuss his recommendations on implementing a virtual internship from a practical perspective.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Can you describe your internship program and how you go about recruiting?
Answer: Each year, Intuit hires several hundred interns that arrive in two phases over the summer. Our first group of interns arrive just after Memorial Day. Our second group of interns is due to arrive in about three weeks. These internship experiences are roughly eight weeks long.
If we were doing this in a non-COVID-19 period, all of those individuals would be flown at our expense to one of our major locations at either our Mountain View (California) headquarters or our campus in San Diego, California. Interns are immediately embedded within their respective teams, and they do real work. They do specific tasks, specific projects, and are given specific goals and objectives to accomplish. An intern program is something that is well thought out, has specific objectives, and has specific learning criteria. It should be reasonably competitive because you want an intern that is someone who, if they do well, you would want to hire.
Q: Can you share how, as a professor of practice, you've transitioned this internship opportunity to a digital format?
A: As we talk about moving our program online, it’s important to note that our internship program is a thought-out program that is considered phase zero of our recruiting. If we do this correctly, as part of our selection process, these interns will be people who we want to invite back the following year to intern and eventually extend an offer to, as they look to graduating.
Because the program is highly structured to begin with, all we did was take core elements and move them to a virtual format. This included considering how we validate and verify that work's getting done, how we onboard people remotely, how we communicate with one another, and how we create a sense of community. All of those are things that Intuit had to think about in March, when we closed down all our offices and went 100% remote.
All of our interns normally get a sponsor within the environment, so our intern sponsors now are connecting with our interns remotely. The sponsors have established some level of weekly check-in, including some level of social interaction that we do online through video conferencing to ensure interns feel connected. Additionally, all of our interns get exposure to senior leadership. Normally, this is a meeting in the security group with the chief information security officer (CISO). Our CISO held a virtual happy hour with the interns and senior leaders the week after they arrived, so that they could see his face, they could see our faces, and we could connect in a nice casual conversation with them.
Q: How do technology needs impact your internship program?
A: We plan equipment, we plan head count, and we plan projects and slots. And with 90% of our workforce on laptops, it's a matter of handing you your laptop in California or mailing it. Additionally, we had invested in the cloud many years ago — 90% of our capability is online in the cloud.
Q: How do you ensure that students still have an authentic experience virtually?
A: I have two interns on my team that happen to be from ASU. I know that their sponsors reach out to them daily, or at least weekly, to answer questions and address concerns. They are also included in our virtual team meetings, so that they're not left out there alone. Additionally, we have an intern Slack channel, so the interns have the ability to connect with one another. It is important to create that sense of community.
Q: Do you see benefits that would make you consider moving internships online after the pandemic?
A: The stigma of remote work has been drastically reduced with our experience impacted by COVID-19. My ability to employ good, hardworking people as permanent employees, not in California or traveling to California regularly, exists now in a fashion it didn't exist three or four months ago. In this new environment, there are opportunities, such as a co-op work study, that can be explored.
We have a requirement in our degree that our students complete a work study or experiential learning opportunity. Students could fulfill this now, sitting here in Arizona, supporting the efforts in California. It opens up tremendous opportunities.
What I really like thinking about as a professor of practice is opportunities that could exist for nontraditional students, such as a single parent getting back into the workforce or trying to transition to a career in cyber. These are opportunities that businesses are just beginning to wrap their hands around.
Q: What would be your advice to other companies that are looking at transitioning their internship programs to virtual experiences?
A: People are still hiring right now. Cybersecurity is an industry that has a massive deficit, so if a company doesn’t continue to hire, they have taken the opportunity to employ that Dean's List Fulbright scholar student, who has an interest in cyber and was interested in their company and just told them that there's no place for them.
If 50%, — and I'm making this number up — if 50% of the internship programs out there in cybersecurity have been canceled, then 50% of the future cyber workers out there now are having a very dissatisfying experience with our profession, and with the companies in question. Worse, if the impacted students were relying on internship income to fund and support their ability to continue in school, then we have placed a portion of that student population in jeopardy.
These are the messages that we send when we look at interns as temporary, low-end help to do menial tasks. Rather, take a step back and take a programmatic look at them from a recruitment standpoint, from a mutual benefit standpoint, from an education standpoint.
ASU’s Career and Professional Development Services provides tools and insight for industries that can help them make the leap to virtual internship experiences. Kourtney Walker, associate director of career services, shares some tips to consider:
- Consider what projects are needed to provide an authentic experience. Don’t be afraid to shorten the duration of the experience or take a fewer numbers of interns. The priority is making sure that you customize the experience and ensure students have the necessary tools to be successful.
- Identify what students need to be successful and intentionally customize their experience.
- Remember that it is easier to continue your internship program on a smaller scale finding new, innovative ways to engage students than to have to rebuild your program. Ultimately, internships feed candidates into your talent pool.
For other tips on virtual internship experiences, visit ASU’s Virtual Internship Guide.
Written by Trista Zobitz.
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