An internship for a lead dev position? Not fair!

As a web entrepreneur, I’ve been looking closely at the Startup Weekend events - I’ve been a participant myself - and I’ve kept following some successful projects. Among them is Jimmy Fairly, which won the Startup Weekend Toulouse in November 2010. It has an interesting business model (including the classic “remove intermediates”), had raised 200k€ in just 3 weeks (about 250 k$) and managed to create great brand in just a few months. Jimmy Fairly even opened a store in Paris a few months ago. I was very surprised when I came into this ad, posted on a well known job board for startups in France,

Lead Dev Ad

They’re looking for a lead developer, but for an internship (stage, in french). For those unfamiliar with that job title, it usually involves high level software designing (sometimes referred as software architecture) or team leading. Something you would normally not give to a junior with practically no experience.

Job ad Excerpt

Here’s an excerpt of the ad, translated into English.

You will have an important role within the technical team, responsible for coordinating all development projects closely with other company's officers.
Required skills:

  • Mastering of Object oriented PHP, HTML5 and CSS
  • Mastering of a PHP Framework
  • First Experience as lead developer
  • Notions of system administration would be a plus

I thought at first that the job was badly categorized, but it’s probably not. The company published several other positions on the job board, and of all 25 positions, 24 (or 23, it depends how you read it) were for internships while most of job titles make me think about a full fledged job : Web developer, Product manager, Office manager, Community manager.

I don’t know the specifics about Jimmy Fairly - it may not be like it seems or like I get it - but how come apparently serious and solid companies would propose an internship for an experienced profile, with great responsibilities or would have more interns than employees ?

Probably because it is a cheap way to get the job done, and with all young people looking to work at the end of their studies or after them, it’s easy and fast. But morally questionable.

The job board where I found the ad contains a lot of others that should be (IMHO) a real job offer. The most puzzling one being “Looking for a CEO right-hand man / project manager”, asking the candidate to help defining the company strategy and follow subcontractors.

According discussions with former trainees that have been in a similar situations, managers justified their actions because of economic constraints or that students were not really against this type of work, only slackers were. Bullshit !

An unfortunate habit

More and more companies are relying on internship for positions that should be normally for employees.

To some managers, trainees are only an inexpensive, skilled, motivated workforce. A significant portion of them is desperate about getting an internship, since it is often required to finish their studies. Furthermore, a lot of job offers for junior require a first experience in the field. In France (I could not say for other countries, but I guess it’s the same), they do not have the same rights as traditional employees - in terms of hours of work, vacations, profit sharing, job termination notice or indemnities - it is easy to take advantage of the situation.

Sure, it’s cheap and a clueless manager/CFO may congratulate you for finding a pair of hands while helping lowering costs, but it is a very short-term view that does not include the perspective of management skills or the durability of the company. To me, it is also immoral : if the company needs someone to do the classic work of an employee, under similar conditions (time, cost, quality), then it needs to be a real employee ! Plus, the company is risking to be sued for unreported employment or unfair competition.

I can’t trust a company (read: not a startup in its first months or that never raised funds) that gives a critical position as an internship or has more interns than employees. And probably neither should customers, job candidates or investors.

What do successful companies ?

Truth is that we do need trainees because their presence is a win-win for both students and companies.

Students need opportunities to confront real problems with real customer cases, but it’s not a justification to abuse the system and deny the student a proper supervision or training. They’re learning, experimenting, challenging, getting feedback and support from seniors. They’re not meant to be producing professional quality grade material on their own : they still need guidance.

The company will have access to highly qualified profiles with potential support of the teaching team, access to research programs or student/ex-students networks. At the end of the internship, the trainee will know specifics of projects and the company ways, making him a good candidate for employment. An internship is also an excellent time to fail and learn from errors either for the student or for the company.

If Google, Yahoo and other big companies take care of their employees and their students, it is because they understand that their collaborations is a great source of improvement.

There are positions at Google called “People Development” (let’s say Human Resources) which moto is

Find them, Grow them, Keep them

They refer themselves as People Ops - a reference to Devops, a movement aimed at making software, operational and QA teams collaborate on business objectives and value production - and are all about creating an environment to promote passion, where the right people would be able to innovate, progress, and succeed. In this regard, they’ve built bridges between their teams and universities to maximize interactions between Googlers and students.

As stated in Interns making an Impact: Time Blakely,

Our interns explore new ideas, accelerate the launch of new product features, and are big contributors to Google. Technical interns are embedded in every major engineering team where their impact is unconstrained by titles.

Bottom line

If you’re doing it cheaply, chances are that you’ll end up with something cheap (as in poor quality).

If you’re serious about your product or company, be serious about your team.

Update 25 November 2012

I don’t know precisely when it happened but the intership position is filled.

Lead Dev Trainee is found

See also