Questions to ask prospective employers as an intern

The talented student Tom de Wit is looking for an internship and wanted to figure out what kinds of questions he should be asking his prospective employees. (You should totally hire him, by the way).

I was asked to give some feedback on these, and this will follow below. It’s a comprehensive set of questions, so be wary that if these take place in an interview setting, it’s likely you’ll have been told a lot of this information before or during the interview itself. Bring a notebook. Before the interview, jot down the crucial information you know about the position and company, and during the interview, write down any useful information you pick up before you’re asked whether you have any questions. (This is generally good advice in any interview setting).

Do you know anyone who you’ve ever thought “Man, I thought they were competent, but then it turned out they had a notebook so I had to write them off?” No. Taking notes says “I’m attentive and detail-oriented and I care about what you say.”

If any of them remain unanswered at this stage, fire away! Most of these are great, and a lot are not specific to placements and interns.

Do you regularly hire interns?
Smart question. If the company has experience in dealing with interns, they’re likely to have a series of processes in place that caters especially to interns, who will likely need a lot of support and guidance.

Don’t let that stop you, though. Mark and I were the first placement students at Simpleweb and we had a fantastic experience. If they haven’t hired interns before but are considering you as one, there’s probably a reason for that, and there’s a great chance you’ll have a fruitful partnership.

What do you expect from interns?
Again, this is very useful to find out. Are you mostly going to be making hot beverages and cleaning the kitchen, or are you going to be pushing code to live servers in your first week? You may not be comfortable with either of these depending on your situation and experience. Something to look out for is flexibility for you to start slowly and gradually get involved as you go. Simpleweb let me start writing code on the first day, but doing non-critical things to let you take things slowly and get plenty of peer support.
What skills do interns have to possess?
You should probably find out this before you’re at the interview stage, but it’s not a bad idea to reaffirm this if there are multiple intern positions open or if you were directly approached by a company who didn’t explicitly have a position open.
Are you able to provide an assignment to interns when school/college requires this?
If your place of study requires the work placement to provide you with particular assignments or challenges, this is crucial. If they’re unwilling to cooperate, in a worse case scenario, you may fail or have to re-take the placement/internship part of your studies. Needless to say, not ideal.
Do interns work on public projects?
Having something public to show at the end of your internship is a fantastic way to show your place of study and future employers that you spent your time there in a very productive manner. Also consider the type of work the company normally does—all of your projects may be under non-disclosure agreements. This may mean you won’t be able to share anything, but this would also be the case for all their employers, not just the interns.
Can you offer a 5 month internship?
No-brainer. Make sure the length of the internship is compatible with how long you’re available for.
Can you help/assist with housing?
I really wouldn’t keep my hopes up for this one, unless they have approached you directly and they’re a long way away from where you normally live. It may be seen as a bit arrogant or demanding, given the short lengths of most internships and placements. Some big companies may let you do it, though, so gauge it on a case-by-case basis.
When an internee successfully finished his/her internship, do you think about offering them a position within your agency?
Yes. Definitely always ask this unless they haven’t made this clear already. Internships are a great way to secure a permanent job at the same company. Some students from my course ended up with a permanent position at their placement company right after they finished their studies, which is a fantastic way to relieve that frantic “oh my god am I going to find a job after university”-panic that typically sets in during your final exams. Which, incidentally, is also when you could not do with any further stress. Trust me, I speak from experience.
What was your best experience with interns?
This obviously will depend on whether they company has hired interns before and how involved they have been. If you know they’ve done this, it’s a good question to ask to gauge the expectations they may have of you if you get the position.
  • What tools do you use to get the job done?
  • What are your processes within your agency?
  • What is your workflow and why?
  • How are your teams structured? How is your team structured?
  • What kind of projects are you working on?
  • What is the best project/product you’ve shipped and why?
These are generally good interview questions, and not specific to interns. You will find out a lot of valuable information about the company this way. If they don’t use version control and if they deploy all their code straight to live using FTP, you may want to tread carefully. Similarly, if they have solid and sensible structures and processes in place, you’ll find out about it by asking these questions.

These were all the questions Tom had compiled, and for the most part, they are all excellent. However, I would add another question to this list, and it's about that ever-difficult subject: Compensation. Don’t necessarily bring this up during the interview (if you can do it over email, it will likely be to your advantage), but do bring it up. Don’t accept a job offer and find out about your compensation (or lack thereof) when you’re offered a contract to sign.

Personally, I’d refuse to work for free if the position lasts for anything more than a week or two. If you’re bankrolled by your place of study or your relatives, you may be able to afford working for free, but does that mean you should? I fundamentally disagree with not compensating people for their labour; and as programmers, designers, and web workers are in very high demand right now, you should definitely push for at least a minimum wage, or higher, depending on your experience.

Nichole had a two month internship where she was paid about the minimum wage and at the point she accepted it, she had less than nine months experience in the field in total. At the time of my placement, I was paid a few thousand pounds above the annual minimum wage, with two years of university and some extra experience behind me (and I could’ve probably gotten more, considering how they accepted it immediately and didn’t try to give me a counter-offer!).

If you’re halfway competent, you are worth something, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Talking about money is hard, especially in societies where nobody wants to talk about money. I found there’s more openness about this in Norway than in the UK and US, where discussing your salary even with friends is taboo. The post I linked earlier is an incredibly valuable resource for this, just peg the numbers and expectations down a bit as you are, after all, new in the field.

If the position has a fixed salary, which is likely if they’re in the public sector or offer the scheme through your place of study or a public sector programme, then be aware of this, as it could be entirely non-negotiable and out of the hands of your hiring manager. If it’s not, chances are you’ll have some wiggle room.

Moral of the story: Don’t do an internship or placement mainly for the money, but absolutely do learn to handle money as a professional.

To sum it up

Be inquisitive, attentive, carry a notebook, and show some enthusiasm, and you'll be far ahead of your peers interviewing for the same position. Information is valuable.