Tech Career Insights: 8 Lessons I Learned as an Intern

8 Lessons I Learned as an Intern

By Elizabeth Oyekunle

Internships can be incredibly exciting for someone who’s entering the tech space. But, if you aren’t prepared to stay grounded and make the most of your time as an intern, your first day as a full-time employee could be a disaster. In this article, I share some of the useful things I learned during my internship which had a huge impact on my first job.

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At my internship, I had it ‘easy’. Punctuality was not enforced, and I didn’t have to work on any projects with tight deadlines. I didn’t have to report to anyone, and no one was more superior than the next person. There was also hardly any red tape or set company culture.

Then, at my first job, the reality of the workplace hit me: I had to deal with difficult people, I was being overworked, and I had no clue how to strike a balance between my work and personal life. Had I known how to make my internship more useful, I would have been able to manage my time more effectively, be more productive with less stress and anxiety, and I would have made better decisions for my career in general.

These are eight lessons that I wish I made use of when I started my internship, that I found can really make a huge difference when you enter first job:

1. Prepare your mind

Transitioning from university into the industry is a big jump: The schedules are different, the learning patterns are different, more is required of you in a short period of time, you don’t get recess or school holidays (so painful), and you can’t skip work like you would skip a class. It’s very important that you condition and train your mind and your body to adjust to this new way of life.

Not adjusting to your new rhythm and new schedule could mean that you get trapped in a cycle of frustration. Being unable to get to work early, complete your tasks on time or catch up with the pace of the work environment can leave you frustrated. I started my career like that, and it was even harder to try to get out of that mindset on top of all the new stress and pressures of working life.

To avoid this cycle and hit the ground running, you need to get a good understanding of what your tasks are, and what your job description is:

  1. Ask your team lead or supervisor for an overview of what you are expected to do.
  2. Familiarise yourself with the things around the office that are new to you, like programmes, language frameworks, or daily Standup meetings!
  3. Give yourself time to get used to these things.

2. Be on time

Employers are generally impressed by punctuality. Being on time doesn’t only relate to what time you get to work, but also how you meet your deadlines and being on time for other obligations, like meetings. Don’t be that person who’s always late - it’s a really difficult reputation to shake off!

Personally, punctuality is not one of my strong points, but I’ve developed a system that I use on a daily basis to ensure that I am punctual for meetings:

  • Set calendar reminders for every meeting or event.
  • Set your reminder to ping you 15 minutes and 5 minutes before your meeting.
  • When the 15 minute reminder goes off, start preparing for the meeting and round up what you are busy with.
  • When the 5 minute reminder goes off, start moving to the meeting venue (if the meeting venue is outside of the office, then you obviously must consider travel time when setting your reminders).

Your punctuality can also be affected when you do not address other areas of your life that can affect your job or internship. This could include:

Transportation restrictions due to budget constraints:

Regardless of whether you drive yourself or rely on public transport to get to work, if you don’t factor travel costs into your budget, your transport could become a blocker for your schedule. If transport stops you from getting to work on time, you risk your entire schedule being pushed back later and later.

What helped me was:

  • Be realistic about how much I’m being paid, and be smart about whether I’ll be able to afford the transport you need in order to be on time.
  • Consider how long it takes me to travel to work, and what effect traffic might have on that, because then I can be proactive and even schedule in buffer time into my day, or leave at certain times to avoid busy-periods on the roads. Maybe I need to stay 30min after work, which would give me an extra 30min to work on something else!

Bad sleep patterns:

If you are not on time for work, you may end up working late to make up the time you missed in the morning. This means that you will get home late, go to sleep late and risk waking up late the next morning.

This can easily become a cycle that is difficult to break as your body will adjust to sleeping and waking up late, and then getting to work late becomes a norm. Your body learns to adapt to new situations: When you do something regularly, your body learns to make it a habit until it becomes natural.

I try to work around bad sleep patterns by training my body to adapt to a different sleep cycle. I trained my body to adapt to a specific sleep cycle where I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 5am to make sure that I get at least 7 hours of sleep in a day. Here is an article about how your body’s sleep clock works.

3. Restructure your 24-hour day

As obvious as it sounds, it helps to be the person who has control over your day. Sticking to a daily schedule can help with that, because knowing what you are doing throughout your day gives you stability, and holds you accountable for what you need to get done. All of these are things were super important at my first job, because it gave me the structure I needed when I was faced with a lot of new things.

That said, bad scheduling can put unnecessary pressure on you. A friend of mine tried to structure his day, and ended up getting stressed because he was struggling to keep up. This happened because he introduced a completely new schedule too suddenly. You should try to introduce a new schedule slowly, and be patient with yourself. It’s okay if things don’t go as planned for the first few weeks; with constant repetition of the schedule, you can adapt to it make it work for you.

To start, make sure you set up a realistic daily schedule. Here is the schedule that I used at my first job, to help me see how much time I was allocating to tasks each day:

  1. Work = 8 hours
  2. Lunch = 30 mins - 1 hour: Personally, I had to take full advantage of my lunch time to give my brain a break - eight hours is a very long time, and the brain does get exhausted after a while. Lunch time is also a great time to network with other colleagues, and with your mentors and supervisors.
  3. Travel time = 1 - 3 hours: I made very sure to factor in traffic to my travel time! Most times, there weren’t a lot of internship options to choose from, so I wasn’t in control of the distance I had to travel. If you have the chance to move closer by staying with friends, colleagues or preferably family you should grab it. Otherwise transportation plans from where you stay should be well laid out. Extra time from here can be allocated to time to rest before jumping into house chores, sleeping, extra research or even socialising.
  4. House chores = 2 hours
  5. Extra research when I got home = 1 - 2 hours: This is vital during your internship, but I will speak more about this later on.
  6. Sleeping and waking up = 6 - 7 hours
  7. Preparation for work = 1 hour

This schedule is something that I adopted recently, and it’s been working well so far. It has helped me:

  • Manage my time better,
  • Know how much time I should be spending on each part of my day, and
  • Make adjustments where I need more time.

Having this schedule also made it easier to know when things weren’t working, and when I was struggling to stick to what I planned to do. This made it easier to reflect on things I maybe needed to cut back on, and prevent doing the same in the future.

4. Find a mentor

At your first job, where you will probably still feel stuck no matter how much you prepare, having a mentor will be a great support. Find someone to guide you and show you how things work in your industry. It’ll not only make your life easier, but that kind of advice is rarely something you can Google.

That said, finding a mentor can be as hard as finding a date. How do you know they are the right person, or how to approach them about being your mentor? Rather than looking for someone who’s ‘perfect’, remember that your mentor’s mistakes are the reason why they will be able to guide you so well. So, don’t be shy to ask what they did wrong, and find someone who’s been through a lot - they’ll be able to help you the most!

Put yourself out there, connect with people at work events, or just around your workplace. Your mentor doesn’t even have to be from your workplace - you can even ask a family member or a friend.

5. Fully utilise your working hours

Unless you’re a machine, it’s impossible to focus on your work for eight hours straight. And, although it’s important to take a break, you need the right kind of break for it to be effective; chatting to colleagues, watching YouTube and browsing social media are not going to give your focus the break it needs.

I used to browse Instagram in my breaks, only to find that I still felt unrested afterwards. Now I’ve learned that its so much better to take 10 mins to myself for every 30 mins of work. If you need help timing yourself, there are apps like Pomotodo that can help you!

You can also divide your day into six hours for working on projects, and two hours for learning and development. You’ll have to discuss this with your supervisor, but even if it can’t be two hours everyday, it could be a few hours on a Friday. Not only will you be breaking up your intense focus time, which gives your concentration a break, but you’ll be showing great initiative.

6. Personal research: Don’t limit yourself to what you learn at work

Keeping yourself up to date with the new trends in the industry means you’ll be able to have a variety of skills to boast about on your way out of your internship and into your first job. Go deeper than your tasks at work, investigate, read the news on what is happening in your industry, and consume as much knowledge as you can. You might find that your company uses legacy technologies; once you leave that company, you’ll be behind everyone else.

I like to use these sources for personal growth:

  • Thoughtworks Radar, to stay informed about which technologies that are gaining traction.
  • Udemy to get trained up on tools and technologies that I need.
  • Codewars or Hackerank to keep my problem solving skills sharp.

As important as this is, it is very hard to find time for it. If you become good at scheduling, this will be much easier to manage. You can also find someone at work who wants to do this with you, so that you have a reason to keep it up.

7. Make sure you stand out

Your job or internship shouldn’t be about impressing people. But I realised during my first job that reviews from my internship and supervisors hold a lot of weight when moving around in the industry, which helped me get a foot in the door in other places I wanted to work.

To make sure you have a good reputation at your internship, volunteer to take on tasks, and show your eagerness to learn new things. Be the one who says: “I am not sure how it works, but I want to learn how.” This will not only show your company that you deserve a good reference later on, but will also develop that attitude into a habit. When you get your first job, you’ll already be comfortable to jump on new projects, new opportunities to learn, and will make your colleagues excited to work with you.

8. Be good at handling difficult people

There are all kinds of personalities everywhere you go; mostly, you can’t avoid them. So, the only thing that you have control over is learning how to deal with them in a skillful way. This is important because how you handle difficult people speaks to your self-confidence, self-esteem and your professionalism.

It is hard to be good at this because you are only human after all, and you can’t be friends with everyone. You will sometimes find that some individuals are not willing to work through conflict with you, but it’s important to remember that everyone at work goes through issues in their personal lives. Maybe they struggle to separate their personal lives from their work, and you are just unfortunate to get caught-up in it. Here are some tips I’ve used to deal with difficult people at work:

Worry about you:

Do what needs to be done, make sure your work is done, and do what is asked of you. That’s it. You aren’t obliged to engage with them more than that. Of course, don’t be rude, but just say hello when you want to, answer questions when they ask, and just be yourself around them.

Hold them accountable:

When dealing with them, make sure everything is documented in an email or some other form of physical communication. This way, if they do take things too far, you can request the help of a supervisor and keep things objectively fair. You’ll have physical evidence that your superior can use to make a judgement and help you reach a resolution.

Even though you can prepare as much as you want, when things go wrong or become very hard, remember that you are young and allowed to make mistakes. Enjoy yourself and don’t let anything rob you of your experience. Your emotional wellbeing is very important for your productivity. Stay positive and be grateful for the opportunity you have been given.

Keep in mind that an internship is something that a lot of people don’t get the chance to do. You worked hard to get there, and although you have earned it, you have an obligation to make it as productive as you can. Use the support networks you have access to, and acknowledge that you might have to fall down a few times before you get it right.

If you can do this well at your internship, you will put yourself one step ahead of the rest. You’ll enter your first job with an attitude that other people might not have, and you’ll have learned from mistakes while you had the safety to make them.

Above-all, remember to enjoy your internship! It’s a great opportunity to learn new skills, and learn more about yourself. And you never know: The people you meet during an internship could be your supervisors one day!


Elizabeth has been a software developer for the past four years. She is originally from Lagos, Nigeria and immigrated with her parents to South Africa in 2008. Elizabeth studied Information Technology with a specialisation in Technical Applications at the Tshwane University of Technology. She is currently studying towards her BTech degree. To see more of what she does, follow her on Twitter!

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