Your friends at Viget present Flourish, a Viget News & Culture Blog

Building Pearl in Two Days

Last Saturday evening, our team of five sat in the waning light of our Durham office, typing away as Justice streamed from Billy’s speakers. Across the table, alongside our laptops: the remains of lunch, some coffee paraphernalia, and a couple plates of donuts. We were putting the finishing touches on Pearl, a product we were building as part of Viget’s latest Pointless Weekend. For the uninitiated, Pointless Weekend is a hackathon of sorts: each office gets two days to conceive, design, build, and launch a product. We were in the last hour, and focus was intense.

Two days isn’t a lot of time to build something, especially if you don’t know at the outset what you’ll actually build. Here’s the story of why we chose to build Pearl, how we did it, and what we learned.

How To Find Interns—and the Trello Board To Get You Started

One of the most important parts of running an internship program is spreading the word among potential applicants. But if you’re just starting an internship program, it can be hard to know which applicant sources to prioritize. For the past few years, we’ve been trying different sources, comparing the results (by tracking the data), and slowly building a list of our preferred sources. Here’s where we find our intern applicants:

1. Through Company Culture and Full-Timers

Our best applicants find us via what I call “Viget stuff.” “Viget stuff” includes anything and everything produced by our full-time staff. It spans our work and our company culture—things like blog posts, staff attending and speaking at conferences, staff participating in local Meetups and other professional groups, and, of course, the work we launch all year round. The best applicants aren’t looking at listings—they’re scoping out the industry as a whole, checking out companies and their cultures, and trying to connect with the makers they admire (not recruiters). That holds true for top internship applicants as well as for top full-time applicants.

You could argue that “company culture” shouldn’t be on this list because it’s not a quick and easy source for kicking off your recruiting season. But I’d argue that it belongs at the very top of any source list. A few actionable items to help foster that type of culture are:

  • encourage full-timers to attend and speak at their alma maters and any networking events that might attract students
  • alert full-timers that recruiting season has begun and ask for referrals
  • coordinate with your marketing team to tweet/post/etc via your company's social channels
  • talk to full-timers who may be able to post your internship listings to professional organizations (usually for free if they’re members)
  • foster a culture of learning and sharing (example: offer a conference stipend) so that ambitious students become aware of your staff as leaders in their fields
  • produce your own internship and recruiting-related "stuff" that you can share with potential applicants (students love blog posts that offer advice)

2. Intern Alumni

Viget has always had interns, and Summer 2015 will mark our fourth year running a ten-week summer program. That means we’ve been able to foster an alumni network over the years. We currently have 35 intern alumni in our network. We stay in touch with them throughout the year, invidually and through a Google Group. Every fall, we make a point of sharing our internship roles for the following summer. That’s because no one is a stronger advocate for our program than those who have experienced it, and many of our strongest applicants have come to us by way of intern alumni. Intern alumni are able to:

  • connect you to current or former classmates who may be good interns
  • connect you to current or former professors who may share your info with talented students
  • spread the word about your program casually among friends and peers
  • connect you to relevant student groups (oftentimes hard to access directly via university and college websites)

If you’re just starting an internship program, you may not have intern alumni to connect with. But I’m putting this source high on this list anyway, as a way of indicating that, ultimately, this is one of your most promising sources. Your goal should be to foster this network and turn to it once recruiting season arrives.

3. Previous Applicants

Every year, we hear from promising applicants who don’t quite make the cut. Oftentimes, they’re still too early in their college careers to have developed the stronger skills of upperclassmen, but we nonetheless see a lot of potential. I make a note of such applicants, and they’re among the first people I reach out to during the following recruiting season. They may have Viget in mind but they haven’t gotten to the point of reapplying yet. All they need is a reminder or a little encouragement, so I send a friendly email inviting them to reapply. In many cases, I have that top re-applicant in my pipeline within a few days.

4. InternMatch/LookSharp—and/or/with your own online presence

For the past three summers, the majority of our applicants have come to us via InternMatch, now called LookSharp—and, every summer, at least one of them has made the cut and joined our program. There are a few other internship sites out there, but LookSharp is by far the most popular and effective for both students and employers. It’s worth giving a try, especially since your first ten internship postings are free.

What has impressed me over the years about InternMatch/LookSharp is their understanding that more and more interns are conducting their internship searches online, as opposed to via conventional college career fairs and counselors. That may seem obvious to members of the tech industry, but it’s a phenomenon that colleges and other industries have been slow to notice. Besides InternMatch/LookSharp, most students find us simply by running their own google searches. We’re proud to have our own internship page turning up in all those google searches, but not every company has the resources to create their own internship web presence. If that’s the case for you, then InternMatch/LookSharp offers a simple way to set up a branded company profile through their site.

5. Professors

Many professors are interested in hearing from companies about great job or internship opportunities, especially if former students work there. When a professor sends a student my way, I know he or she has already performed a first-order “screening” by judging that student’s work throughout at least one semester. If a professor agrees to share a listing more widely via email, I know that students are more likely to pay attention than if that same email comes via a university admin from the career services center.

All that said, it’s critical to approach professors with care and consideration. Like most of us, they don’t want to be spammed by strangers; often, they’re also committed to protecting their students from the influences of outside companies and don’t want to be involved in promotion efforts. It’s important to choose professors whose teaching and other activities suggest they might be receptive. Ideally, you’ll have a former student put you in touch. Here are a couple ways to start building relationships with professors:

  • Ask your current staff to connect you to their favorite former professors, especially your co-workers who are still just a few years out of school
  • Peruse the faculty listings on university department websites and send an email to those professors who teach the most relevant courses and seem involved in student activities, clubs, or professional development.
  • These emails need to be brief, thoughtfully-researched, and well-written. It’s worth the time and effort to connect with one or two of the right professors. Don’t attempt to connect with many through a generic template.

6. College Portals/Sites

Each university maintains its own internal job/internship board for employers to post internship and job listings. These sites are run by campus career centers and, although they seem outdated by our industry’s standards, many students still turn to them. Each year, one of our interns finds us via their college job site or portal. A few tips:

  • Identify which colleges/universities to target. Should you target local and regional schools? Schools with top programs in relevant fields? We tend to target a combination of these two.
  • Be highly selective. Because these sites are painful to navigate, they become an unexpected time drain.
  • University Career Action Network is a portal that allows you to post to twenty schools all at once. Use it.

7. Events

College career fairs have long served as the cornerstone of the conventional internship recruiting strategy. But a recent survey of 9,000 students by InternMatch showed that only 3.2% of them found 2014 internships via a career fair.  Career fairs are expensive, a ton of work, and dominated by large corporations; they’re not usually the best choice for small to mid-size companies. I’ve found a career fair may still be worth considering if:

  • it’s local to one of our office locations
  • a relevant co-worker, ideally an alum of the target school, is available to join me at the fair. Never go alone as a recruiter—students prefer to talk to a couple different reps (and, also, you will lose your voice).
  • it’s relatively small and targeting a very specific subset of the student population

As college career fairs fade in relevance to our industry, tech-led events have cropped up as alternatives. Under The Big Top is a “reverse job fair” local to our Durham office that invites a handful of companies to present to job seekers, rather than vice versa. Uncubed is another example, holding tech job fairs in major cities around the country. While such events are geared towards full-time roles, it’s worth keeping tabs on these events with an eye to internship recruiting as well.

BONUS: The Trello Board To Get You Started

There you have it—seven ways to source top internship applicants, some short-term and some more long-term. You may be thinking: how will I keep all this info straight? Keeping track of your sources is certainly a challenge, especially as you build up new contacts over time. So I’ve set up this public Trello board template to get you started. As you’ll see, I use a checklist on each card to list and track whom I’ll contact, where I’ll post, and other to-dos. Just copy the board, rename it to reflect the internship role you’re working on, and edit it to suit your specific needs.

Enjoy and good luck! If you have any other sources you’d add to this list, let me know in the comments below. 

What’s the Point of Pointless Weekend?

If you follow Viget, you know we describe our innovation lab, dubbed Pointless Corp., as neither pointless nor a corporation.  Pointless Corp. provides a structure for us to work on our own projects, typically over months or even years. 

Occasionally, we like to move a little faster.  Pointless Weekend is our version of the 48-hour hackathon.  We pick, plan, design, build, and launch an app in two days beginning Thursday evening, ending Saturday evening.  Sometimes those quick projects turn into our longer-lasting Pointless products, as was the case with Baby Bookie and Shorter Order (formerly known as Lunnnch) -- both outputs from previous Pointless Weekends.

Save Mo’ Money!

As we head into the end of the fourth quarter, I’m starting to look at data and trends during 2014 -- especially as they relate to savings opportunities we have here at Viget.  In addition to our 401(k) plans (we have both a Roth and a Traditional plan), we have a Health Savings Account available to those who participate in our high-deductible health plan (HDHP).  For these plans, Viget provides incentives to encourage participation:

  • Viget matches up to 4% of all 401(k) contributions.
  • Viget matches the HDHP annual deductible for employees ($1,500 for singles and $3,000 for families).

There are opportunities, however, for employees to benefit from additional savings in each area -- up to the respective annual IRS cap.  Let’s take a look at the data and see if they are.

Retirement Plan Snapshot

We have 65 eligible 401(k) plan participants here at Viget -- and a 98% participation rate, which is fantastic.  As noted above, Viget does provide a company match up to 4% (one has to participate at a rate of 5% to get the full match) for participation in either of our two retirement plans.  Consistent with national trends, thirty-six percent (36%) of our staff participate in the Roth plan. The majority (64%) participate in our Traditional plan, which provides for tax-free deductions at time of deposit. But, how many are saving more than the minimum required for the full match?  How many are saving toward the IRS cap of $17,500 (or $23,000 for those over 50)?

Viget’s Front-End Developer Internship: A Look at Gender, Numbers, and Culture

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, although women make up over 50% the American workforce, they occupy only about 25% of computing and technology jobs.

If you work in the tech industry, these numbers are no surprise. But you’re also probably aware of countless initiatives to correct the gender imbalance. Recently, Facebook and Apple made headlines by adding egg-freezing to their already long lists of perks meant to keep women in the tech workforce (debate ensued). In recent years, organizations like Women Who Code and Girl Develop It have been teaching women to code. At home, more parents are making new efforts, one way or another, to encourage their daughters to pursue computer science.

But the question remains: is anything changing? As Viget’s internship program coordinator, I’ve had the impression that we’ve seen more female Front-End Developer applicants in the past year or so. I decided to look at our internship recruiting data to see if my impression was correct. The data then prompted me to ask some of the women in our web developer network for their thoughts on working in tech. My most significant takeaway: while the numbers are critical, it’s important to analyze them in the context of culture.

Let’s look at the numbers. Over the past three years, the total number of women applying across all internship roles has steadily increased, although the percentage rate is inconsistent:

*Here’s more information about trends in our total application volume.

For the Front-End Developer Internship, in particular, 2013 was our best year in terms of the volume of women applying.

That volume fell from almost half of all FED applicants to about a quarter of all FED applicants in 2014, and we’re not sure why. But it’s also worth noting that, in 2013 and 2014, our combined total of four Front-End Developer interns were women, including Una Kravets (now working as a Front-End Developer at IBM Design) and Helen Holmes (who leads DC’s chapter of Women Who Code and works as a Front-End Developer at Capital One Digital). We’re thrilled to have them as part of our growing community of intern alums and eager to help them build their careers over time. We’re also proud that, earlier this year, we hired our first full-time female Front-End Developer, Megan Zlock.

When I shared our numbers with this group of women, I discovered mixed feelings among them about the causes of gender disparity in tech, as well as about potential solutions. “I do see more women at events,” says Megan Zlock, “but it seems that a lot of the women I’m meeting are just getting into web development.” She expressed concern that some of the women-focused coding initiatives that have become popular in recent years can be “misleading” about the amount of time and work it truly takes to become a professional programmer, especially for those women struggling to make a career shift several years out of college. Megan sees more promise in the fact that, increasingly, graphic design programs (which typically draw more young women than computer science programs) are teaching coding skills at the college level. “Most of the female interns and new applicants I meet are designers,” Megan says, “They get to build what they design, so it helps them get their foot in the door. That’s kind of how I started too.”

And yet, as colleges and many companies look for ways to help adult women get interested in and succeed in tech, they face a problem that starts much earlier, among young children. “There does seem to be a fundamental problem that any women who are trying to get into tech now start with a disadvantage, “ says Megan, “We didn’t grow up with code or being interested in code the way many of the boys in our field did.  When I first started after college, I definitely felt like I was playing catch-up to a lot of people who started building web pages at age thirteen.”

One way that companies, including Viget, try to help is by partnering with local elementary schools. Megan recently joined Viget Project Managers Amanda Ruehlen and Grace Canfield at an elementary school to teach an all-girls STEM club about careers in tech. “I was really excited to see them trying out Scratch,” says Megan, “It’s an educational tool made by MIT, which introduces the logic concepts behind coding. They had a lot of fun adding their own voices and using the characters built into the tool to make their own little animations and scenes."

Such efforts expose young girls to the possibilities of tech careers, while also giving professional women in tech added motivation to keep at it. And, as one of our former FED interns reminded me, keeping at it is especially daunting. “One of the biggest barriers to women in tech,” says Una Kravets, “is that they feel like there is nobody to turn to or ask questions from in this big male-driven tech world, without being judged as inferior.” To Helen Holmes, the most promising place for change is within individual organizations’ cultures: “Companies, conferences, people making the conscious effort to formulate steps they want to take to improve work culture and leaving those steps open to review by anyone internally. Lots of places have codes of conduct but it's not enough if you can't practice what you preach.”   

Unsurprisingly, what was meant to be a quick glimpse at our recruiting data has become a conversation about culture, education, and gender norms. On the culture front, I’m proud that Una offered two thoughts on what she thinks Viget’s internship program gets right: the fact that each intern gets an Advisor, “meaning I always had someone to turn to with any problems or questions”; and our company-wide culture of learning and teaching, which “decreases the barriers to asking questions, making someone feel less self-conscious about potentially asking a ‘stupid question.’ ” Interestingly, what Una describes as an especially woman-friendly environment is just the type of learning environment that all of us at Viget strive to provide for each other, regardless of gender.

As I worked on this post, I kept hearing a note of caution from our intern alums and current FEDs alike: let’s not offer false optimism. I agree. Right now, Viget has one full-time female front-end developer on a team of eleven. There are no quick fixes for the gender disparity—whether we’re talking about a single company, the tech industry, or our culture in the largest sense—and mere jingoism doesn’t help. Here at Viget, we’re committed to making progress by participating locally in efforts that help educate girls and women about tech, as well as by fostering a learning culture that enables all of us to thrive, including women. We’re eager to see who our next crop of FED interns will be. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll hear from more women in the coming years (and, as always, we’ll be tracking the numbers). But, ultimately, we’d love to hear from all aspiring web developers, regardless of gender. We’re now accepting applications for our Summer 2015 FED Internship, and we hope you’ll apply.