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Building an internship program at an innovative company

July 24, 2018 by Anna Peters

What does an innovative company do to recruit and retain interns? I had the pleasure of speaking with Mario Portugal, Head of Recruitment at Beyond Limits, a leading developer of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) solutions. They built some strategic elements into their internship program that help them recruit the right talent and retain that talent into the future, all while allowing other employees to benefit from what the intern team has to offer.

Developing interns into leaders

Beyond Limits, says Portugal, wants to build an awareness of AI beyond the stereotypes. “Sometimes people think the robots are going to come and they’re going to take over and slave all of humanity. And we’re going to have to move underground to survive. We’re trying to move away from that and really show people how we’re using our technology to really create effective and efficient ways to work.” That sort of environment pushes their interns to think differently. And that exposure alone to an innovative space can prime interns for being innovative leaders.

In addition, Portugal says they focus on developing interns into leaders by focusing on their emotional intelligence. “They have the technical capabilities. We’ve given them projects where they’ve already shown us that they’re technical capable.”

Perhaps most impressive, however, is that the interns receive executive coaching—on day two. The coach did a workshop and they built a project charter. “They started talking about roles that everyone was going to do, so everyone knew that it was going to be a team effort.” The feedback Portugal heard was that the experience was “incredible.” Interestingly, the most positive feedback came from those on the technical side: the software engineers and data scientists. Those interns who came through an MBA program had already been exposed to that sort of coaching, but “on the engineering side, they were like, we have never experienced this in any classes.”

“The mission of the program is to develop leaders,” says Portugal. “There’s no way we can achieve this without giving them this extra step. Everybody needs to be a leader. It’s not about one person and the results of any one person. It’s about the entire team and what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Professional development is a big part of the program. For example, their lead hiring software engineer manager does “an overview of technical interviewing and how to be successful in your interview,” says Portugal. Another workshop was about how to make a successful presentation.

Interns add real value right now, not just potential talent to be developed

Many organizations spot entry-level talent and funnel that into their pipeline to grow their future leaders. At an innovative company like Beyond Limits, however, their interns add immediate value precisely because they are still at the university level. Portugal says they rely on having “folks that are embedded in universities because they have the latest knowledge. They’re studying the latest practices. They’re not afraid to try things because that’s what they do at school, right?” Bringing in interns who still wear the student hat helps the company “stay at the leading edge of innovation.” By embedding them into the workplace, other employees benefit and learn too.

“As you bring new folks in and they bring in these new ideas, as long as the environment is welcoming to those ideas, you can grow from those.”

The internship experience is entirely project based. “As we were growing the internship program and developing the strategy, we wanted to make sure that they had a meaningful experience, and that they weren’t just coming here to do the tasks that nobody else wants to do,” says Portugal. Project work made sense, first because of the current project workload that their teams were carrying, and also because without a project focus, “we weren’t necessarily confident that all of them would get the attention that they needed, really get exposed and have that meaningful experience that we wanted them to walk away from.”

Interns get to work on “real problems,” says Portugal. They get very engaged because their work is not just an exercise. “They have project sponsors that work with them and check in with them on a weekly basis to say, are there any roadblocks? Are there challenges that you guys are facing?”

Spotting the right innovative talent among intern candidates

Beyond Limits recruiters focus on candidates’ involvement in clubs, groups or other extra-curriculars. “One of the things I love about student organizations is that they’re student run and no one’s getting paid to do it. They don’t earn extra income, they don’t get additional financial aid, so if you see someone who is involved and plugged into the university, especially if they’re taking on leadership positions like that, that’s someone who knows how to work well with others.” Portugal picks out candidates who show soft skills such as collaboration.

Also read: A data driven university selection approach: You can too!

Emotional intelligence is also critical. “Technical skills are important. Don’t get me wrong,” says Portugal. “The interview team and the hiring team are definitely going to assess for those technical skills. But at the end of the day it is really important that, in order for someone to be successful here, that they can actually work within the team and they can collaborate.”

They look for candidates with humility, too, and the ability to push aside their ego, despite their impressive technical credentials. They want people who are driven to be valuable team members, because, says Portugal, “the only way we’re successful is when we all can come together, put our differences aside, or even sometimes bring our differences to the table because that’s what allows us to achieve greater goals when we’re able to work together.”

Because the internship program is project based, Beyond Limits looks specifically for students with diverse skill sets. Portugal acknowledged that their condensed timeline for launching the program made it difficult to spend the time needed on specific diversity recruitment. Moving forward, however, as they build their campus recruitment efforts, he says they plan to partner with student organizations that will allow them to get to know diverse talent.

Related: Diversity recruitment tips and tactics [panel discussion]

“At the end of the day, we need to make sure that we’re providing our hiring leaders with a diverse candidate pool because they will never be able to make diverse hires unless we’re making that a priority. And the way that we do that, as we’re sourcing for talent and as we’re going out into the market, is making sure that we’re using different resources. That we’re not just going one place.” Even if they could recruit enough qualified talent from one school, Portugal says that would give you “people who are all taught the same thing, who were all taught to approach problems very similarly. And I guarantee you nine times out of 10, if you put something in front of them, they’re all going to think about it very similarly because that’s what they were taught.”

Collaboration is key to success as an intern

An interesting thing happened when Beyond Limits split their interns into two teams. “They have decided to combine themselves into one team because they were encountering similar issues, so that they can solve some of those problems together. Which I thought was great,” says Portugal. They realized they needed “the power of each other in order to solve these [problems].” Allowing them to restructure in this way unlocked the power of their diversity. “It’s bringing people together from different backgrounds that have different ways of looking at things because of their experiences, because of where they come from, and allowing them to come up with solutions that the team before would not be able to come up with on their own.”

To encourage collaboration and innovation, Beyond Limits has a very open workspace, and the majority of their wall space, says Portugal, is writable. “So when you walk into our office, you’ll see walls that have all kinds of writing on them.”

Reverse mentoring program

Like many internship programs, Beyond Limits folded an element of mentorship into the experience. Portugal says he gets more positive feedback from the mentors than the interns. “Reverse mentorship is happening,” and he says it’s both intentional and accidental. They are international about understanding what each intern and each mentor is looking for and wants to achieve, and the matches that benefit the most indeed tend to be “cases where we’ve really spent the time to pair folks up correctly.” Mentors are learning both hard and soft skills from their mentees. “They’ve learned some technical things that they hadn’t known before because again, some things that are being taught right now are not even in the workplace yet.” But they’re also developing leadership skills. “One of them came up to me and said, you know, at first I was a little worried about this pairing […] but at the end of the day what I’ve learned is that I’m becoming a really good listener, and it’s something that I don’t know I was ever really good at it.”

Conversion of interns into full-time

Portugal’s goal is to convert 100% of their interns. “I would love to convert every one of them! I’ve been a part of organizations who have had internship programs with no conversion plan and I think it’s so sad.” Aside from providing an amazing and engaging experience to their intern cohort, “at the end of the day you also want to have growth plans for people.” To compete for talent in AI, Portugal strives to communicate to their interns that there is a place for them at Beyond Limits. Their talent acquisition strategy is not just to recruit and attract talent, but to retain it as well.

Beyond Limits plans to continue engaging their interns when they return to school. “We’re actually going to have brand ambassadors through these interns,” says Portugal, “who can talk about the experience that they had. In my experience in talking to students, there is no one who could sell better than their peers.”