Learning on the job

The best thing about starting a new role for me, is that they always remind me I know nothing. Seriously, the more I see the less I know, and yes, I'm stealing that from one Mr. Bono but it's true. Graduate positions and internships have become more competitive than ever, with grades now no more important than real experience outside of the classroom, how can someone differentiate themselves anymore?

Today, employers are more worried about a candidate’s abilities to learn and to adapt than merely whether or not they can recite their textbook by heart. The best way to make yourself stand out, is to ask yourself the right questions about the role you’re applying for and know why that’s the role you want before you ever speak to a recruiter. Below is what I’ve learned from my experiences, I hope it can help you out.

What did my decisions look like?

When an internship in Dogpatch Labs popped up on my screen, more than 2 years ago, I went through these questions when deciding if I should apply. Asking myself 'what skills do I need?' was not a great start, at that time I had 2 weeks of Adwords experience, giving tours of UCD and organising class parties on my CV, were those the skills I needed?

At my interview I noticed signs that maybe I hadn't thought this through. I wasn't being asked questions on my skills in business, instead the focus was on what I learned, how I measured past results and the influencers I followed, who I was learning from? The focus was on interests and why I wanted this job.

This led to the quick conclusion that I'd probably prepared for this incorrectly. I never really asked why I wanted this role, but I had asked myself what I wanted to gain from the experience.

There was two answers to the “what I wanted to gain” question, firstly I wanted a full time job and secondly, I wanted the money a job provides.

The “will I get a full time job?” perspective, is what I thought was a long term aim, I’ve since learned to really define my career goals. I researched Dogpatch, saw it was growing and thought maybe, just maybe I can get my feet under the table and they'll like me. Doesn't every student want that security, no fighting for graduate jobs?

Finally it came to “is it paid?”, like the student I am, I saw there answer was yes and I fell hard for this job. I applied with a focus on all the wrong questions in my head.

I learned a lot while working at Dogpatch but one thing I learned is how wrong I was about internships. I've heard internships described as interviews for a full time role, but if you approach one with that mindset, you're really missing the point of it altogether.

What questions should people be asking?

The first question to ask yourself in applying for a role is "how will this affect my life?". For me that comes down to three things:

  1. What will my day to day life be like?
  2. Where do I fit in at this company?

  3. What can I learn during the internship?

What affects your day to day life most is company culture. When applying for HubSpot, I was struck by the HubSpot Culture Code. Knowing that HubSpot is based around honesty and openness gave me the feeling that I wouldn't be looked upon as an intern. Company culture has a major impact on your health, happiness and whether or not you learn while there, it's inexcusable not to consider it.

It's important to consider where your role fits into the organisation, knowing the value of your contribution is a big motivational factor. When working you should always have enough time to ask questions and explore the various teams, departments and functions of the company. You should be afforded the time and opportunities to work on your own skills, and support in developing your own ideas. 

If you're working 8am - 8pm everyday, with the responsibilities of a full time employee and little to no support, followed by coming home stressed and exhausted, are you really learning or are you just being taken advantage of? Finally, you need to question the support and mentoring you will be offered. Will you work 1:1 with your manager and only learn from them or will you be given the chance to learn how different teams work and what they add to the company?

Both have their upsides but the question you need to ask yourself is which you'd be more comfortable with. It's not easy to weigh up the options but if you work with the wrong mentor it can hamper your development massively. Working with larger companies offers the chance to learn how different teams add value to the company but sometimes in large companies departments become isolated. For learning this is a nightmare!

As an example, a marketer needs to understand the needs of the sales team when handing over leads or understanding the value of the product team's latest addition to the product you're marketing. In today's working world, understanding the function of every department is an invaluable weapon in any employee's arsenal, don't let yourself miss out on it!

What are the take aways?

Consider internships as an opportunity to learn, don't worry about what comes next or hoping for an offer. Employers want to see someone trying to learn, trying to develop their skills and somebody willing to ask questions. Asking the right questions, is far more important than knowing how to do things from the beginning, besides ask the most seasoned CEO, they're asking new questions everyday, that's how they got there in first place.


Disclaimer: This piece is derived from a post I published on LinkedIn in August 2016: What students need to ask about internships