We’re approaching the summer season, and for The Markup that means it’s the most wonderful time of the year—time to hire interns!
We strive to make our internships engaging, rewarding, and valuable. It’s a commitment; like everything we do at The Markup, our hiring process is rigorous, methodical, and obsessed with fairness. That takes time. Likewise, our approach to supporting and mentoring students is hands-on for all involved. It is something we feel strongly about in service to our mission, the journalistic community, and of course, the budding professionals we have the privilege of working with.
As director of product at The Markup, I’m in my third year of interviewing promising early-career hopefuls to work on technical projects with our Product and Technology team. Hiring interns for the complex environment of a nonprofit startup investigative newsroom that runs a privacy-focused website with no cookies has taught me many lessons that I think others could find useful.
“Show your work” is a core tenet of The Markup’s operating principles. In that spirit, we’ve decided to provide a peek into how we run our internship program, with a focus on key concepts that reflect our culture and our goals.
We use remote work to our (and interns’) advantage
The Markup published its first article right before the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, we had a physical office and a team mostly based in the New York City area. The world changed, and now The Markup is a remote-first organization. Although we miss the perks of being in the same space together, we’ve greatly benefited from the expanded recruiting options that remote work affords. My own team is split between the East Coast and West Coast, where I’m located. This does involve some early mornings, but it’s worked fantastically well so far, and we’ve found our interns have thrived in this arrangement.
While it’s certainly true that some college students are looking for in-person opportunities after starting their higher learning careers during a pandemic, in my experience many more are eager to be remote. For the interns, remote work gives them more options for their job searches. For The Markup, we can select from a much wider pool of applicants with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Remote work also helps to level the playing field and give applicants outside of major urban areas a chance to join us.
We look at every internship application
We don’t use algorithmic techniques to filter intern applicants. We do it old-school—every application gets reviewed by human eyeballs. That’s not easy to do with our internship job posts regularly garnering more than a thousand applications, but we think it’s critically important to do it this way. We believe in giving everyone a chance to shine, regardless of their background. That means allowing for candidates that might come from unexpected places, or who have worked in fields we weren’t thinking of.
There have been countless times when my eyes were watering after reading hundreds of résumés, and then I encountered someone with a fascinating list of experiences in their résumé or a sparkling cover letter that tells a compelling story about why this person thinks they’re a perfect fit for us (although we don’t require cover letters!). If we used algorithmic filters, I have no doubt we would’ve missed out on some opportunities to engage with people who expanded our notions of what a successful candidate looks like.
This manual process is, of course, time-consuming. Some people build their spring schedules around vacations, but my spring calendar revolves around internships: Sometime around St. Patrick’s Day, I begin building in time for the many interviews to come in April and May. Then, as soon as the job posts are up, the applications flood in and we dive in to reviewing them all. A little bit of committed planning goes a long way toward making sure every applicant gets a fair shot.
We interview interns the way we would want to be interviewed
We’re not just interviewing them; they’re interviewing us. We leave plenty of time for applicants to ask us questions in our interviews, and their inquiries cover a wide range of topics. Some ask us about how we approach mentorship, others ask about our team structure—and for engineering roles we’ve had a few enterprising applicants look at our Open Source code and ask us specific questions about the implementation and rationale behind technical choices. Many candidates have other options for how they’ll spend their summers, and we do our best to represent ourselves as good teammates who foster a safe and productive environment for working and learning.
We don’t ask our interns to figure out how many golf balls fit in a school bus or to write code for some esoteric data structure we don’t even use. We approach our interviews as conversations based on questions that directly apply to the role we’re hiring for. Our goal in every interview is to understand how a candidate tackles both technical and teamwork problems that we know are directly relevant to the work we have available.
We value our interns as impactful contributors
There’s one special question I ask in the early stages of intern interviews: “What kind of work do you hate?” It’s an unorthodox inquiry, but it helps me understand where the applicant is coming from and whether the work we have is the best fit for their goals. It also helps me understand what interns are often being asked to do at other companies. Time and time again the answers I receive involve what our candidates often call “meaningless work.” Data entry is a common one. “Grunt work that nobody else wants to do” is another. I’ve heard many passionate stories from applicants who were generous enough to share past unpleasant internship experiences, and I feel their pain.
At The Markup we actively avoid adding to this problem. We give our interns important work that has an impact on our organization. (If you’ve clicked-to-zoom on an image on our website over the last year, for example, you’ve interacted with code an intern wrote.) We also use intern-built tools internally. Interns from previous cohorts have set up analytics dashboards and measurement tools that are so good, we’re still using them.
We pay our interns a fair wage
We pay interns $24 an hour, which is about 15 percent above the national average of $20.82 for paid internships in the U.S., according to the most recent available data. We pride ourselves on adding positive experiences to our interns’ growth as tech professionals, and we can’t do that if we’re instilling in them an expectation that their contributions don’t have value.
Having well-paid internships is the right thing to do for our needs as well. Internship job posts with competitive compensation attract top talent and broaden the pool of applicants. Many students have bills to pay and must do the cost-benefit analysis of internships. We want to be as inclusive as possible, and that means we have to be attractive to applicants regardless of their financial means.
We integrate interns into our team
Once the long and thorough process of hiring is done and we’ve onboarded a new cohort of interns, we strive to make them feel welcome. It’s vitally important for the success of the program that interns feel like full team members. I have weekly one-on-one meetings with them, they participate in team rituals, join sprint meetings, attend all-hands meetings, and are included in most usual company processes.
While our internships do aim to strengthen specific technical skills, it’s just as important for us to give our interns real-world experience with the interpersonal skills needed to thrive in professional environments, and we can’t truly do that if they’re not fully integrated into The Markup.
We learn from our interns
Many of our interns are younger than most of our staff, so they teach us about the world a younger generation faces every day, the multitudinous fears they have for the future, and the hopes that keep them optimistic.
The Markup’s core goals aim to nudge society toward better, more responsible use of technology. But we can’t do that without learning from the people who will lead us into the future. One of the most valuable lessons I take away from intern interviews is the impact our work is having. Many of our applicants are already familiar with our work by the time of my first interview with them. They’ve read our articles, used one of our tools, or looked at some of our code. A lot of young people I talk to tell me how scary our findings are. But they also do something that gives me hope—they take action. They tell their friends and family to stop (or start) doing certain things in order to protect their data privacy. They install ad blockers. They use our work for research and lessons in their classes.
Our intern candidates teach me where we’re having the desired impact as well as give us pointers on where we might be able to do better. It’s a mutually beneficial journey of learning with lasting effects, and that’s what The Markup is all about.
Internship applications for 2023 closed on April 29, but if you’re interested in applying for our internships next year, sign up for our jobs newsletter and keep on the lookout for announcements!