The Pivot: How We Re-Invented Our Summer 2020 Internship Program

December 04, 2020 | Posted in:


Posted by Jen Hughes

Our internship program at Systems Engineering has always played a significant role in building a vibrant tech workforce community in New England. Through the years, our relationships with standout educational institutions, such as USM, Colby, UMO, and UNH, have provided the opportunity to meet exceptional students across New England who have a deep desire to build their skills in the IT Industry. 

This year, we contemplated how to move forward with our long-standing summer internship in the face of the pandemic. We wanted to ensure our program would adhere to social distancing guidelines, adapt around our new virtual office environment, and create a meaningful work experience for our incoming interns.
Before the pandemic, we were hard at work creating six full-time summer positions. The plan included five different departments – Engineering, Project Management, Sales, Product Development, and Finance. Throughout January and February, we had received over 150 applications. Come March, the pandemic news broke along with all the new restrictions. Many local companies began dropping their summer internship programs, and students saw multiple offers fall through. It was clear there would be a shortage of opportunities for students to build their skills and gain real-world work experience. We knew that it was more important than ever to create a rewarding summer internship experience for students looking to grow their skills in the IT industry.

This past summer, we decided to pivot to a 100% virtual internship program. Providing a remote internship experience required operational planning, high-touch management, and mentorship to ensure our interns stayed tethered to our workplace culture. We needed to have clearly outlined projects and deliverables so students could add value to our business and build valuable skills. Here is a look at some of the methods and outcomes of our first-ever virtual internship program.

What Worked

The Welcome: We created a structured and robust orientation and onboarding experience to ensure the interns understood our business and how their role contributes to the greater good. Every intern participates and goes through the same new hire onboarding as our employees.

The Tools: Equipping the interns with the best technology and collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx, was crucial to be successful, connected, and productive in their positions. We ensured they had both a secure and comfortable remote work environment throughout the program.

“Overall, this internship was better than I could've imagined. Even in a virtual environment, SE was able to provide the tools and support needed to succeed and achieve my goals.” – Summer Intern

What Was Challenging

Missing Water Cooler Moments: In any remote work environment, the opportunities to build organic relationships and have ‘water cooler’ conversations become limited. We recreated those opportunities through virtual coffee meetups and Friday happy hours. We also facilitated informational interviews, job shadows, and learning sessions by other senior leaders, using LinkedIn for career development.

Not Quite the Real Thing: Shifting to a virtual model, especially in our Engineering department, was uniquely challenging. Due to pandemic restrictions, there were extremely limited on-site engagements available to work with specific technologies. The typical hands-on skill-building opportunities were not available. Even though a remote job shadow engagement is helpful, they don’t give students the full learning experience that a hands-on or in-person opportunity would.

“The biggest challenge with a virtual internship is the inability to interact with people in person. There is no saying hello to someone passing in the hall, or other unscheduled interactions. That has made it difficult to experience the culture at Systems Engineering.” -Manager

What We Learned

As we head into another internship planning season, the feedback we received from our interns, managers, and mentors will be informing how we continue to grow our program. Some notable feedback included formalizing the mentorship aspect, creating a more robust curriculum for interns to connect and work with each other, and getting creative about how interns can maximize downtime. These are just a few of the things we’re working on for the 2021 internship program.

"The opportunity to work in a professional technical setting and gain that experience is priceless. The skills I learned with the Infrastructure team will help me greatly in my studies and future career goals because it gave me an understanding of how computers communicate. While it is not something Computer Science usually focuses on, it will give me a leg up because my understanding will allow me to develop software with the communication layers in mind." -Engineering Intern

What Was Gained

Our internship program continues to serve as a pipeline for great IT talent. From our 2020 summer intern cohort, two of our participants have continued on to permanent roles with Systems Engineering. One 2019 summer intern joined us for a full-time position as well. Research consistently supports the positive impact experiential learning and internships play in the career outcomes of college graduates. We have seen that even in a virtual environment, interns grow valuable skills that inform their career development and career choices, and Systems Engineering is proud to be part of that journey.

“It has been a great experience to work in such a fun, inviting environment. I had not seen an office that works well and has fun together before at the level SE does. The experience has helped me to gain a new understanding of technology and IT, which I did not have before.” -Summer Intern

Are you interested in learning more about our internship program?
Systems Engineering offers paid summer internship opportunities to gain real-world experience in the IT industry in various roles. Please visit our Internships page for more information.

170x170 JHughesJen Hughes is the Employee Success Manager at Systems Engineering. She focuses on recruitment, employee growth & professional development. Jen also supports a variety of workplace culture initiatives including employee ownership, health & well-being, and community engagement.