How to Apply for an Internship at MailChannels
We’ve recently started an internship (or “co-op” here in Canada) program at MailChannels. Every four months, a new student joins us on the MailChannels development team. That means that every four months, we review hundreds of applications to select fewer than ten people to advance to the interview stage. This blog post briefly describes some of our goals for this program, and provides a few recommendations for people applying to the program. If you’re interested in applying for an internship at MailChannels, we hope this post will help you develop the best possible application because we truly want the best candidates to make the effort to apply!`
Goals of the Program
Many applications focus on demonstrating how effective an applicant would be as a developer. They talk about things like knowledge of specific programming languages, or problem-solving skills, to demonstrate that they will be able to contribute to our products. While these kinds of core software development skills are important for all of the members of our development team, they’re actually not the highest priority when we consider applicants for internships.
We usually hire interns for four-month work terms. We try to make sure they can start contributing right away (every intern so far has had their code deployed in production in the first week), but there are a lot of things to learn before they can be fully effective. For example, interns need to know:
- The Scrum methodology
- How email works
- The programming language used on the project
- The system architecture
- The build and deployment systems we use
It’s a lot to cover! It may be several weeks before a new developer can work independently. During this time, an experienced developer is taking time to provide mentorship and answer questions. Even before an intern starts, we spend a lot of time reviewing applications, conducting interviews, and handling all the administrative tasks involved in bringing a new employee on board. To make up for all of that in just four months, an intern would have to be amazingly productive. We don’t think that interns make sense as a source of cheap labour. We do think they can bring a lot of value by adding diversity and giving us access to a recruiting pipeline for future developer positions.
The MailChannels development team is small, and turnover is low. That makes for a great, cohesive team, but it means we have a limited range of perspectives. Bringing a new intern on board every few months means we get to work with someone with different experiences, different aptitudes, and a different point of view. We think more diversity leads to a stronger team and a better product.
There are other advantages to regularly adding a new person to the team. Whenever someone new starts working on our system, first we have to explain it to them. We have to train them on all of our processes and set them up with all of our tools. When we know someone is starting soon, it helps motivate us to automate our processes where it’s feasible, and to document them where it’s not. It helps us avoid having critical procedures only documented as a combination of tribal knowledge and the current contents of the hard drive on a developer machine.
Since diversity is one of the goals, if you’re applying, you should emphasize the things that give you a different perspective. We want to hear about things like previous degrees, hobbies, and interesting work experience — even experience that may not directly apply to a software development role.
MailChannels is a small company, working in an area (email) that’s not currently very trendy. That can make it difficult to get the attention of potential developer candidates. The internship program helps put us in touch with people who we know are interested in careers in software development. We hope that this establishes a pipeline of talent that we can draw from for full-time development positions in the future.
The internship program also lets us conduct extended evaluations of potential developers, with low risk. We have an interview process that works well for us, but there’s nothing quite like working with someone for an extended period of time to see if they’re a good fit for the company. Of course, the evaluation process works both ways. We all know that MailChannels is a great place to work, and it’s nice to get a chance to show that to new people.
We’re trying to look at you as a future permanent member of the team, so help us imagine that. Tell us what you find interesting about a career in software development, or what kind of work you’re excited to do.
Every work term, we look at hundreds of cover letters. Many of them are generic, including only information that is already available in the résumé. Many are obviously form letters, with at most one small paragraph referencing MailChannels. Some even still include references to other companies, that the applicant forgot to replace when preparing the application!
Cover letters that don’t include any new information are a waste of time. They’re a waste of our time since we have to read your résumé anyway, and they’re a waste of your time since they don’t help you stand out from the other candidates. If you feel that your résumé stands on its own, please don’t include a cover letter.
If you do have something you want us to know that doesn’t stand out in your résumé, please include a cover letter. We’d love to know why you’re interested in working at MailChannels, or how your unique experiences will help you contribute. If there’s one thing you really need us to read, make sure it comes first. We may only have time to read the first sentence.
A lot of the people applying for internships have great work experience, but it’s not always easy to tell that from their applications. There are two problems that we often see when people describe their work experience: talking all about the project, but not about the work they did, or talking all about the work they did, but not at all about the project.
For example, sometimes we see a work experience entry like this:
Software Developer, Acme Widgets Inc.
Acme Widgets is the premier provider of widgets to the widget-purchasing industry.
I’m sure the Acme Widget company is great, but this doesn’t tell us anything about what the applicant actually did there. We’d like to know more about the tools, techniques, and methodologies you used. We’d like to know what you learned, and why this job was interesting.
At the other end of the spectrum are work experience entries like this:
Software Developer, Acme Widgets Inc.
Applied object-oriented techniques to generate Java classes.
It’s nice to have a description of the work that was done, but we need to know how it fits into the company. What was the goal of the work? What made it challenging? Why was it important? We’d much rather see a summary like this:
Software Developer, Acme Widgets Inc.
Built a widget testing program in Go that interacts with Acme’s assembly line hardware to automatically evaluate whether a widget is ready for shipping.
Grades Matter, Sort of
We get university transcripts with every internship application, and your grades do matter to us. Grades may be the only way to differentiate between candidates with similar work experience and education. If you’ve had some rough patches, you should address that in your cover letter - almost everyone gets a bad grade somewhere along the line. Tell us what went wrong, what you learned from the experience, and how you’re addressing the problems. Grades don’t always indicate intelligence or capability: people sometimes have bad grades because of poor life circumstances. If that happened to you, let us know how you overcame the circumstances that you could control and how that makes you a great candidate for working the real world, where things definitely don’t always go according to plan.
Since we’ve started the internship program, I’ve been blown away by the quality of the candidates who apply. We get hundreds of applications for every position, and we only have time to interview a few of them, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an interview. I hope this post helps you to put together the strongest application you can, we look forward to seeing it.