Whether you’re a student looking for IT work experience or a professional looking for a career change, getting an internship at a tech company is a great way to add relevant experience to your resume.
But how do you land that perfect IT internship in such a competitive market?
Getting into the tech industry on the ground floor is hard, but if you leverage your resources and network, it’s a goal that’s well within your reach.
It’s also a great way to narrow your focus and find out what you want out of your career if you’re not 100% certain yet. Margaret O’Leary, an intern at Cloudera, told Systematic, “When choosing where I was going to apply for an internship, it was really important to me that the job included all aspects of the course I was studying.” She wanted this to better understand what she wanted to pursue after graduating and felt like it would help her narrow down her field of interest. “Hopefully by the time my internship ends,” said O’Leary, “I will have made a decision.”
We interviewed IT and Business Technology (BT) team leads and interns to find out what makes a candidate stand out from the crowd, how to increase your chances of landing the internship you want, and what to do once you land that amazing internship.
Here are a few of their tips:
- Use your personal network.
While it’s important to diligently search Google, LinkedIn, and Indeed to find opportunities you’re interested in, don’t underestimate the power of a personal connection. After all, it’s interpersonal skills that will not only help you land the internship, but will also carry you through your career.
If you’re a student, you may think you don’t have much of a personal network to leverage at all. However, finding an internship allows you to start building it, and you’d be surprised who will be willing to help you get your foot in the door.
One way to build these connections is through your university’s recruiting office. They often have corporate contacts and can help make introductions.
For O’Leary, her university played a big role in helping her land an internship. “What really helped me the most was the resources provided by University College Cork,” she said. “They were essential in helping me write my CV to get me through the interview process.”
Another university institution you can tap is the alumni network on LinkedIn. Chad Wright, CIO at Boston Dynamics, suggests to “Use ‘polite persistence’ and send a note to ask if they could tell you about their career. Don’t ask for a job! Just ask for a 15 minute chat to learn about their job and build a relationship.”
If this goes well and you’ve established a good rapport, you can then ask if they’d be willing to look at your resume.
For those who are looking to switch careers, you can leverage your own personal and professional connections on LinkedIn, local employment development centers, tech conferences and events, or veteran services and networks.
Make sure people in your network know you’re looking to make the change to tech. Update your LinkedIn to highlight your transferable skills from your previous industry, including soft skills––collaboration, critical and analytical thinking, data handling, and adaptability are highly desirable in tech.
- Focus on skills that make you stand out from the crowd.
It can feel daunting trying to land an internship with no work experience at a tech company, but fear not: Many candidates have no work experience at all. Most recruiters and team leads know that this is a common situation, and they’re interested in seeing how you can apply the experience you do have to a tech internship, whether it’s academic or from a different industry.
For IT/BT internships, companies tend to look for candidates with technical backgrounds who also understand business needs.
Common skills they want to see from candidates include:
- Critical thinking: This is a highly transferable skill, and something that you can develop from a wide variety of experiences. In your work or studies, have you approached problems in a way that demonstrates an ability to think analytically or question existing systems to come up with a solution? These are experiences you’ll want to highlight.
- SQL (Structured Query Language): Knowing how to speak to databases is important for business technology and IT roles. If you understand SQL, that’s something to call out in your application. If not, it’s worth it to learn before starting an IT/BT internship.
- Programming languages: This is especially important if you’re interested in data analytics. Do some research to find out which kind the company prefers. If you don’t have experience in that language, either demonstrate that you’re learning it or see if you can draw similarities between the ones you do know and the ones the company uses.
These hard skills are important, but regardless of what programming languages and software knowledge you have, it’s important to be quick to learn and adapt. Carson Turner, Associate Business Systems Analyst at Tango Card, learned this from his two internships at Tango Card: “If you have strong problem-solving skills, where you can break things down, identify potential solutions, and ask effective questions, then it doesn’t matter if you are unfamiliar with what you are asked to do, because you have the skills to figure it out.”
- Create a portfolio.
Building a portfolio of your work is crucial for documenting your projects, experience, and skills.
This is where you’d put any academic, professional, or independent work you’ve done. There are many ways you can build a portfolio, and GitHub is a useful platform for it. It’s universally recognizable in the tech world, and one of the easier options to leverage if you’re applying for a remote position.
GitHub is an open source platform for amateur and professional software developers alike. It’s often used to store, manage, track, control, and collaborate on changes to code, but it’s also a good place to compile your projects and share them with recruiters. You can create a profile and bio, share past projects, and invite others to see your work.
GitHub is useful—and building your portfolio there may show your willingness to learn the tools important to the industry—but it’s not your only option. It helps to have a few different portfolio formats depending on different situations. Sometimes showing your portfolio to a hiring manager may simply involve you showing them documents on a tablet at an in-person interview. You can also build a website that showcases your school or independent projects. WordPress, Wix, and Weebly all offer robust options for building a free website for a portfolio.
- Know your value, and highlight your soft skills.
Part of interviewing is learning about what your role will look like, but you should also aim to understand the team’s needs and how you can best support them.
Turner, who had two internships at Tango Card before being hired full-time, emphasized the importance of soft skills. “The skills that I’ve found to be most useful for my role have been the ability to problem solve and communicate effectively,” he said. “These are both soft skills and due to the nature of the Business Technology space, I think they are far more important than any specific hard skills you may learn in college. One reason for this is because it is common to work on things that you are unfamiliar with as this space changes and evolves quickly.”
The team lead is likely trying to figure out how to leverage your skills for the limited time you’ll be with them. They’re often looking for people with can-do attitudes, who aren’t afraid to try new things and jump in to help wherever they’re needed. One of the best ways to bring value as an intern is by watching for ways to help. Be assertive, and when you see an opportunity, don’t be afraid to jump in and offer your support.
It’s also important to be friendly and collaborative. Everyone wants a team member who’s easy to work with and communicates constructively. This can vary based on the social dynamic of different teams, but in general, it’s about being intentional in how you give and receive feedback. As an intern, you’ll likely be receiving more feedback than giving it, but always remaining diplomatic and goal-oriented will carry you a long way with your new colleagues. If you view the people you work with as being on “your side” (that is, the side working toward that goal), then communication will center around how you can best work with each other toward the collective goal.
You’ll likely be asked questions related to these aspects of your work, but it’s important to ask the interviewer questions about your own impact as well.
One of the best questions you can ask a team lead is “how can I best help the team in the short time I’ll have with you?” That shows that you’re thinking strategically and considering how your internship can give everyone involved the biggest bang for the buck.
Jack Donegan, Business Applications Manager at Cloudera who has managed a team of interns, finds this kind of question impressive in the interview process. He said, “At the interview stage for our current program, a candidate asked ‘What will be the end goal of this internship?’ This question caught me off guard as it was quite a mature question given the candidate’s experience. It showed a desire to learn and to have a target in mind for their 6-month placement.”
Knowing how to use specific software and speak specific coding languages are important aspects of an internship in IT, but meshing with the team dynamic is also important––and could help you land other opportunities after your internship has ended.
- Identify common pitfalls and avoid them.
When a team lead or recruiter asks whether you have a certain skill or experience, it can be hard to admit to a gap in knowledge, and some interns will stretch the truth a bit, hoping they can fake it ’til they make it.
Donegan advises against this.
“It is important to remain transparent throughout your internship,” he says. “If you do not share when you are missing a certain piece of knowledge, this may go amiss for the rest of your internship.”
It’s important to ask questions when something isn’t clear. It can feel scary to admit when you don’t know something, but more often than not, the team will understand you’re just starting in your tech career and can help you fill those gaps over the course of your internship.
The path forward
Once you land the perfect internship, take time to celebrate! You deserve it.
In the period between your acceptance and the start of your contract, make sure you take the time to finish up any training you wanted to have done by the beginning of your internship, and also review some of the skills, coding languages, and other tech tools your team uses.
Also make sure to connect on LinkedIn with any team members you met during the interview process to get a head start on building your professional network.
Once you’re onboarded, a good manager will want to make sure you know you’re valued, and give you the resources to succeed. Wright described his approach in 15 years of hiring and managing interns: “My approach is to just treat the intern like part of the team––set goals, make expectations clear, give them runway to work––and it creates a win/win for all of us.”
This is your opportunity to get as much as you can out of the internship. You’re there to fill a need for the company, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot for you to gain as well.
Donegan says one of the best things you can do as an intern is say yes. “An intern will receive a lot of opportunities to get involved in projects, presentations, community work with their company, etc. Take all the opportunities you can get. Even if you don’t like it, you will learn something from the experience.”
Apart from all the skills and credentials you need, a positive outlook is one of the biggest boons to your internship search. O’Leary found that confidence was crucial in the entire process. “One thing I did learn during the process of securing [an internship] is that it is really important to be confident in your ability, and you have to believe that you are the right person for the job!”
Turner’s experience with two internships at Tango Card taught him a lot about how to have a successful internship—and turn it into a full-time offer.
His advice? “Work towards being authentically enthusiastic with your internship and the company,” he said. “Try to go beyond what’s asked of you. This doesn’t have to be anything huge, even just being curious and asking a lot of questions can help you have a successful internship.”
Even when your internship has ended, there are still a few things you can do to get the most out of the experience.
Sending hand-written (yup, you heard me right!) thank-you notes to your supervisor and team is one important gesture that many interns often overlook. It may seem small but can leave a lasting impact and cement the relationships you built with the team.
You’ll also want to update your resume with all the experience you gained from the internship, and keep building on the portfolio you made as part of the interviewing process.
As time goes on, remember to maintain the relationships you made with your old team. Keep them updated on projects you’re working on, and let them know how the internship has helped you, whether it be in school projects, independent work, another job, or other aspects of your burgeoning career in tech.
Now go out and take that first step into the world of tech!