Helpful hints about what Silicon Valley tech companies look for in their interns and the schools they come from. 

Having just obtained my diploma in computing from EPFL, in Switzerland, I came to the San Francisco Bay Area on behalf of my school to line up company partners for our master’s student internship program.

Here’s a few things I learned about what Silicon Valley tech companies look for in their interns and the schools they come from:

For prospective interns

1. Communicate Clearly
1. Communicate Clearly

You must be able to communicate effectively and directly. It boils down to introduction, content, conclusion: “This is what I’m going to talk about,” “Here’s what I want to tell you,” “That’s what we just talked about.”  Welcome to the USA.

2. Show and Tell
2. Show and Tell

During an interview, you’ll be given a problem and have to work through it right away. No Google break, no overnight reflection, no calling a friend. Be ready to lay out code on a white board or shared text editor and explain the steps you would take to work towards a solution. But don’t be hasty. Make sure you and the recruiter have the same understanding of the problem before diving in.

1. Communicate Clearly
1. Communicate Clearly

You must be able to communicate effectively and directly. It boils down to introduction, content, conclusion: “This is what I’m going to talk about,” “Here’s what I want to tell you,” “That’s what we just talked about.” Welcome to the USA.

3. Track Record
3. Track Record

If you’ve worked on something public, mention it and link to it in your CV. It doesn’t have to be the latest cool app. Personal projects, improvements, or patches to existing efforts will demonstrate your abilities and willingness to put your work out there. Plus, this gives you a head start in the interview—you’ve already demonstrated your skills.

2. Show and Tell
2. Show and Tell

During an interview, you’ll be given a problem and have to work through it right away. No Google break, no overnight reflection, no calling a friend. Be ready to lay out code on a white board or shared text editor and explain the steps you would take to work towards a solution. But don’t be hasty. Make sure you and the recruiter have the same understanding of the problem before diving in.

4. Competition and Motivation
4. Competition and Motivation

You will have many competitors from all over the world. Don’t be deceived by the fact that only four of your classmates applied: hundreds of brilliant minds from excellent schools will be competing against you, too. In addition to showing that you can do the job, also show that you want to.

3. Track Record
3. Track Record

If you’ve worked on something public, mention it and link to it in your CV. It doesn’t have to be the latest cool app. Personal projects, improvements, or patches to existing efforts will demonstrate your abilities and willingness to put your work out there. Plus, this gives you a head start in the interview—you’ve already demonstrated your skills.

5. Be Curious
5. Be Curious

There are hundreds of companies out there that don’t have the size to run their own internship program or promote themselves overseas that are doing really cool stuff. Be on the lookout, polish your professional social accounts, contact people directly. You’ll be surprised by the number of answers you get. And companies will be delighted that you came out to find them.

4. Competition and Motivation
4. Competition and Motivation

You will have many competitors from all over the world. Don’t be deceived by the fact that only four of your classmates applied: hundreds of brilliant minds from excellent schools will be competing against you, too. In addition to showing that you can do the job, also show that you want to.

5. Be Curious
5. Be Curious

There are hundreds of companies out there that don’t have the size to run their own internship program or promote themselves overseas that are doing really cool stuff. Be on the lookout, polish your professional social accounts, contact people directly. You’ll be surprised by the number of answers you get. And companies will be delighted that you came out to find them.

There are some factors that students can’t control when it comes to internships, mostly how their school interacts with the industry, which can make a huge difference.

I can’t say how may times I ran into this dialog when I contacted tech companies in the Silicon Valley about interns from EPFL’s School of Computing: “Oh, you want us to join your internship program? Sure, send us a few profiles we could be interested in.”

We don’t necessarily have these lists at our disposal from the onset at EPFL, but instead contact students we know are competent and ask them if they would be interested on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps we will rethink this.

Tips for schools

1. Easy Access
1. Easy Access

US and Canadian schools spontaneously send hundreds of potential intern CV’s, grade sheets, and evaluations to companies for them to choose from. Take this into account when asking for extra effort on the company’s side. Many won’t be willing to go the extra mile for your university’s program. A nicely formatted webpage about your school and your internship program will foster interest and save everybody time.

2. Flexible Timelines
2. Flexible Timelines

Companies have their own timeframe for dealing with internships, and it might not match your school’s. Don’t be afraid to work on tight deadlines—the bulk of my discussions happened much later than I was used to. In November, when I asked companies about internships, they said, “You want a proposal by February? Sure, let’s get back in touch next year.” Interns aren’t exactly crucial and they are not a priority, especially for small businesses in quickly evolving fields.

1. Easy Access
1. Easy Access

US and Canadian schools spontaneously send hundreds of potential intern CV’s, grade sheets, and evaluations to companies for them to choose from. Take this into account when asking for extra effort on the company’s side. Many won’t be willing to go the extra mile for your university’s program. A nicely formatted webpage about your school and your internship program will foster interest and save everybody time.

3. React Fast
3. React Fast

Once the deadlines loom, you need to act fast. In my case, I obtained all of the proposals for internship participation in the last two weeks before our students began to apply. In that window, answering quickly was of key importance lest the companies lose interest. Being in the same time zone helps. I worked from swissnex San Francisco, which was highly beneficial and also kick-started my network.

2. Flexible Timelines
2. Flexible Timelines

Companies have their own timeframe for dealing with internships, and it might not match your school’s. Don’t be afraid to work on tight deadlines—the bulk of my discussions happened much later than I was used to. In November, when I asked companies about internships, they said, “You want a proposal by February? Sure, let’s get back in touch next year.” Interns aren’t exactly crucial and they are not a priority, especially for small businesses in quickly evolving fields.

3. React Fast
3. React Fast

Once the deadlines loom, you need to act fast. In my case, I obtained all of the proposals for internship participation in the last two weeks before our students began to apply. In that window, answering quickly was of key importance lest the companies lose interest. Being in the same time zone helps. I worked from swissnex San Francisco, which was highly beneficial and also kick-started my network.

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