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Why the (Internship) Show Must Go On Even in a Pandemic

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In April, a few weeks before the 2020 class of Argo AI interns were set to report to their first day of work, we were faced with a dilemma: How do we maintain the integrity of our internship experience when we don’t know when we’ll be able to return to the office?

It would have been easier to cancel our internship program. But while other companies were pushing back the start dates for interns, or nixing their internships altogether, cancelling our program was never an option. With our offer letters, we made a commitment to over 30 students from all over the world and we felt, as a company, that it was our obligation to do everything in our power to keep that promise.

I’ve spent more than 10 years working with internship programs and my motto is to treat each and every intern as if they will be your future boss, which is a sentiment shared across our recruiting team. We’re proud champions of education, and believe strongly in creating meaningful, hands-on experiences for interns to learn from our talented employee base. Furthermore, Argo’s internship program has legitimately become a crucial hiring pipeline for diverse, bright talent. In the first two years of the program, we’ve hosted 66 interns and hired 50% of the eligible candidates as full-time employees.

At Argo, we believe that history is made by those who never give up. It’s one of our core values and we not only preach it, but we practice it every day. Selling the 2020 program short with a scaled-down effort would not only disappoint the incoming interns, it would go against Argo’s mission, purpose and values.

So, we got creative, pivoting the 2020 intern program to operate remotely. Over the course of a few coffee-fueled days, we recast everything. In the switch to a virtual program, we retained all of our U.S.-based interns to start this month, while our interns who are abroad are all rescheduled for later start dates. We also heard from several candidates that lost their internships with other companies, and were able to hire as many as we could to our program.

We redesigned traditional camaraderie-building experiences such as coffee chats and lunch-and-learns into virtual experiences that can happen over Zoom. We made plans for monthly events such as career development seminars and virtual Argo scavenger hunts, along with themed happy hours.

We engaged our former interns — now full time employees — to help us build help guides such as the “Declassified Intern Survival Guide” that offer resources on in-house coding standards, information about code reviews, and tools for navigating Argo’s colossal codebase.

Once the program begins, we’ll offer office hours via videoconference, one-on-one sessions with former interns who are now employees, and regular tips for success on a special intern-only Slack channel. We’ll also ask them to contribute pictures and comments on the company-wide Slack channels, so all Argo employees can get to know the newest members of our team. We will organize an onboarding buddy system, led by our intern alumni, to help each new intern feel comfortable as they navigate their new roles.

When the program ends in September, we’ll look forward to watching all interns give a 10-minute presentation — open to the entire company of 800 employees — of what they learned during their time with us.

The move has meant everything to incoming interns, some of whom admitted that they feared the summer program would be canceled. Everardo Gonzalez, a junior at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said he’s been looking forward to the internship all year, and was relieved to receive word that the program would proceed.

“I’ve been excited to have the opportunity to work on robotics on a large scale,” he says. “It’s one thing to do school from home but it will be interesting to do engineering from home, too.”

Shubhendra Chauhan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, shared with me that he feels Argo’s commitment to the internship program speaks volumes about its overall culture. “This shows how much Argo AI values interns, and I can only imagine how much Argo AI values its employees,” Shubhendra says. “Working remotely [might] make access to physical sensors such as lidar, radar, or cameras difficult, but I still feel it is going to be an amazing experience.”

Former interns who are now full-time Argo AI employees said they hope the virtualized experience will be every bit as fulfilling as the in-real-life experiences they had — just in different ways. Jacob Manning, a 2018 intern from the University of Pittsburgh who now works as a software engineer on the Onboard Libraries team, said he looks forward to this year’s interns writing code, a concentration that remains one of the most fulfilling aspects of his work.

“The ability to see your code work in the real world is so interesting,” Jacob says. “Every time you see one of our cars out and about, it’s using my code to drive itself. That’s a super-unique thing you don’t get at a lot of tech companies.”

Swag given to interns

One aspect of the annual Argo summer internship program that won’t change at all: Argoware. All our interns love their Argo-branded merchandise, and we’ll make sure all incoming interns receive ample gear before the program begins.

Ensuring that the Argo interns are able to experience our unique culture is something that is extremely important to us. Our culture and our people are what sets us apart and we’re aiming to give our 2020 interns everything we can give them; to share with them, to the best of our abilities, what it’s like to work at Argo; and to instill a desire for them to come back and join us full-time.

And personally, though challenging, this year’s program is poised to be the one I’m most proud of yet.

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