I've owned several companies, so I have been exposed to variety of scenarios but I'm a bit at a loss here.

We have a new intern studying computer science. Interns are a little bit random because you find some who are passionate about programming and will be very proficient, while some others are just cruising along and now and then, some are just not interested in their topic and discover it during internship.

Since we have many tasks where interns can practice along with the staff, usually they get a chance to pick and chose which ones they're interested in and eventually tend to stay with the same staff for other things since they're getting to know each other.

All in one, it's a flexible environment where they can be exposed to a variety of things.

So, we have that new intern who's passionate about everything related to technology; his curriculum exposed him to C++, Java and Javascript as well as web technologies.

He's a very dedicated and focused guy, gets along great with everyone, will stay extra hours with the team, etc. While he understands base concepts and keeps himself very informed, he is completely (I would even say terminally) unable to 'connect the dots'. While he has factual knowledge, out of his passion, he can't grasp the logic required in this field.

Having dealt with this field for 29 years now, I can say in absolute confidence that programming is never going to work for him. There are other fields in technology that may be a good fit, but programming is not one of them.

He's aware of the challenges he has, but being very young with no work experience, he doesn't have the foresight of how badly he'll fare in that field.

As he's a good kid with passion I'd like to find a way to help him discover other fields within his realm where he's not going to hit a brick wall.

But I don't know how to do this without casting a negative shadow on him, or hurting his motivation to be into tech.

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    Given that he's aware of his deficiencies what makes you so sure he'll be forever unable to overcome them?
    – jcm
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:29
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    You can't make that judgement, doesn't matter how many years you been in the field, and it's not a call you should make either. No offence, but one of the brick walls he's facing is you. With many people it's just a hump they need to get over... once they're over it they're away laughing. We've probably all experienced it at some point in our lives.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:31
  • I don't see myself as a brick wall he's facing :) we're exposing him to a variety of tasks, from web to logic and architecture, where he has experience people with him all day. He's clearly exhibiting the lack of logic people in the field need all day, despite putting a lot of effort. Of course, I could always be wrong, but considering that in my life I've been responsible for over 500 people, there is a fair chance that I'm not. If he wasn't so motivated, I wouldn't care; but I don't think it's nice letting him go in a path that I, and the people around him, think is never going to go well.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:44
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    Much better to provide factual feedback for the work and projects that this person has done. That, by itself, is already a difficult thing to effectively and humanely. But to go farther and to bring into question the future of the person's career requires that you're a mentor who knows the intern so well that you wouldn't have to ask strangers about it.
    – teego1967
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:46
  • @teego: 2 very valid points
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:56

6 Answers 6


You shouldn't ever tell anybody they are unsuitable for a profession in general. You can point to the deficiencies in their skills, but that's it.

You don't even know if he's really unsuitable. Personally, I frequently have problems following other people's guidelines on how to do things exactly - I frequently don't understand what they want me to do. This has lead to a number of problems when during job interviews I'm asked to do something in a very specific way and guided step-by-step to do that. I just can't work like that. I've been told that I should never work in my profession because of that and that I absolutely don't have the necessary analytical skills. The thing is: I have worked in the profession. With excellent results. I've received the following feedback from one of my bosses: "You do things differently and I frequently don't get how you do them, but you do deliver excellent results, so I'm 100% with your performance".

What I'm trying to say is that several explanations are possible here:

  • he might lack logic
  • he might have difficulties understanding your communication style or language
  • he might be used to a different way of working than you offer him
  • he might be very shy or feel bad in your team or have another problem which makes him difficult to communicate what he knows in an understandable way
  • he might be going through a difficult period in his life; e.g. depression is known to decrease concentration and memory
  • maybe your office is not "his" work environment; e.g. maybe it's too loud or too chaotic (or too structured or calm)

So don't tell him it's not a profession for him.

Don't add to his problems. Leave it. Give him fair feedback on his performance. Try out different communication channels with him (verbal/ oral, give him precise guidelines or live him alone with a goal). Give him an opportunity to try himself out. That's the goal during internships.

  • Couldn't upvote it more. It's a bit arrogant of OP to decide that someone is 100% unsuitable for the job - no one can ever know another person that well.
    – Ans
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 13:23

I don't really think you want to make this call. You are assuming your personal perspective is more important than this intern's passions and goals.

If you are that confident in your diagnosis that this intern is "terminally unable" to be an effective software engineer, then tell him.

You will either cause one of two things to happen:

  1. You will be considered one of the biggest jerks in that intern's life and they will remember you bitterly forever
  2. They will appreciate you telling them and they'll abandon their passions

The first is much more likely than the second. Especially if you haven't had many ongoing conversations with the intern about helping them grow/learn and be more effective.

What you should be doing is coaching and mentoring the intern. If you find you are unable to do this effectively, sever the relationship. You (or someone) should be talking about challenges the intern is facing and helping them to work towards resolving them.

If you have spent considerable effort working with them and helping them in a 1/1 context (and not just expecting a close-to-high-school kid to be fully productive without any help, which your posts sort of read like), and don't find them to be capable in your job, find a way to let them go from your company.

You haven't given any indication you've worked with this intern to actually try to develop them as an employee or to build their skills at all. It feels based on the reading of your question/comments that you just are expecting them to be fully engaged/functioning.

But I don't know how to do this without casting a negative shadow on him, or hurting his motivation to be into tech.

Translation: "How can I tell someone to change careers because they aren't good enough to be in tech without hurting his motivation to be in tech?"

You, ah, can't have your cake and eat it? If you tell someone "this isn't the career for you" then you... have to expect the motivation to be changed.

Ultimately if you haven't had a conversation around the difficulties you see and talking about those specifically in the context of "how can we work through these so you can be more effective?" then you (and/or the intern's direct manager) are the problem here.

  • 1
    I usually talk with him a few times a week to see how things are going, and get reports from people sitting with him all day. We take very good care of interns since we're in a very specialized business and the internships are for us a way to see how juniors fit and eventually extend a job offer. I thought several times about parting with him (I'm one of the directors), but since he's always volunteering whenever something pops up, it would be nice to be helpful.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 0:20
  • I think he would do good in QA (we don't do in house), and if he knew of other avenues, he may himself find them better fit. Since he's young, he doesn't really see the different paths in tech besides what his school showed him, which is essentially some programming and IT services type of knowledge, but there is much more.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 0:21
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    It sounds like you have completely avoided all difficult conversations with this person, to me. Have you talked specifically about the concerns you are saying here? Your comments (and post) sounds like that's not happened at all. Knowing how things are difficult doesn't mean you have actually and actively coached this intern in the areas you're considering firing him over.
    – enderland
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 0:24
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    The feedback was always the same, he doesn't grasp logical steps in a process (from high to low level, it's been irrelevant). So, yes, I need to have a talk with him, but I'm not sure how to make it helpful and I'd like to because of his good attitude.
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 0:43
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    Joking about things is very different than trying to correct behavior and constructively helping the intern to understand the problems you have seem. You basically have avoided talking about the root issues and working to resolve them. How many conversations specifically around, "this task isn't going well, it seems like X, Y, and Z are causing issues - do you think we can put together a plan to resolve those?" rather than "well, that wasn't a good idea, try something else!" have you had?
    – enderland
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 1:06

So you, the experienced professional, are watching over a fresh intern that is full of excitement and energy. You have identified his biggest issue with his chosen field.

Seems to me this is the exact scenario where you help him fill the gap instead of just dismissing him.

When a mentor sees the problem that a student is having, they don't say "You're bad at x so give up", they say "You're bad at x so here are some tips to help."


I'm going to add an answer here because in my (limited 5 years) of experience as a programmer (lead programmer past year), I've faced this situation. Though, not as the one that should switch, but as a tutor to an intern.

I've had this intern (2 years ago now I think), that exhibited much of the same qualities you've described. He was current with what was going on in the tech world. He "knew" stuff about the job, like "what is dependency injection?", he had the answer.

But if you asked him to apply his knowledge somewhere, it either took forever, he had someone else do it, or it just never got done because < reason >.

I'm not suggesting he was an impostor or a smooth talker, he just didn't know how to think through an issue and create a solution. No matter how often he got shown, he just couldn't figure it out by himself. The simplest assignment of "create register form with 'wants to receive promo email checkbox" was too difficult.

Now, still, don't get me wrong. He was smart, just differently so.

I ended up sitting down with him after he struggled on by for a good 3 months (out of 5 or so). That day when also someone from the school from whence he got the internship at our company. I had send them both an email that I wanted to discuss the topic of him fitting in in the industry, based on performance, knowledge and contribution.

Obviously, the school and the student dreaded the appointment, however, we got talking. Me starting out with that it wasn't to put the guy down, just that I noticed him struggling (and trying) a lot, without accomplishing much useful.

I hinted at the fact that I noticed his smarts. His passion for pretty much most things IT. But I also stated his (obvious) lack of "how-to". So we got ourselves some coffee and brainstormed a bit, gave the kid some ideas. I made sure he also got to try a few things within our company, such as we were able to offer with mentoring so he wouldn't just be blundering about.

He's actually switched studies now. Still in the IT-world, but on the sales side.

Moral of my story above:

Though the other answers may generally be correct with:

  • it's not your decision
  • it's up to the kid
  • et cetera

However: sometimes sitting him down and telling him he might be headed down a difficult career path is just the thing to do!

I would add: I think this would strongly depend on the situation, the mental fortitude of the person concerned, any possible guidance for other professions (possibly within same company or through educational institution) and support of family/friends.


All throughout my career, I have met quite a few programmers who are experienced but cannot write new logic/code on their own. They either take help from others or write obnoxious code and yet, are surviving in the industry. I guess there is at least 10% of such workforce in every company. They are still being paid and still being allotted work. Almost everyone who work with them know their potential. They are assigned work based on their caliber. Unless you want to reduce that percentage, why even bother suggesting to change their career?


I'm not too sure about technology interns (especially since there's no location tag for this question), but here's what I'd do in your position, based on what happened when I was in the position of the intern when I was failing my practicums as a student teacher, on the assumption that it works roughly the same way (that it's a part of a university course they're doing, and that will be assessed on a pass/fail basis and will count towards their university coursework):

Well, the first thing I'd do is contact the university, and ask to speak to the faculty member responsible for the internship program (might have a role of something like "university liaison"), and inform them that you need to hold a mid-internship meeting with them and the student about their current performance and developing an improvement plan, because your current assessment of them is that they're going to fail the internship. During that meeting, bring up the information that you've brought up here; maybe mention that while there are areas of tech that you think they might be more suited for, they aren't areas that your business offers. If you have documentation of the areas that the intern is deficient in, bring it with you, since it would likely help with developing their improvement plan.

Then, if the intern fails to improve despite the improvement plan, give them a failing grade for their internship at the end of the internship.

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