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I am currently interning as a software engineer for a medium-large company. I have a lot of autonomy in my role to learn at my own pace with little expectation and oversight, essentially I can take on as much or as little work as I like (including none), as long as I am learning valuable skills which I can demonstrate to my lead. The internship has been essentially guaranteed to me until I have graduated and am ready to move into an engineering position with the company.

The cut and dried truth is I believe my future career lies elsewhere. Would it be better to spend my time on personal projects which I can put on github/resume or knuckle down and get stuck into company projects to build relationships?

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  • 3
    where does your future career lie, and why do you see it there? this might influence the answer of people
    – Benjamin
    Jan 22 at 6:08
  • 17
    Is your internship paid?
    – Freiheit
    Jan 22 at 14:23
  • Do you expect to get recommendations from the company you are interning with when you apply for jobs elsewhere?
    – DaveG
    Jan 22 at 19:40
  • 1
    You "buckle down" and get to work. You "knuckle under" and submit to something someone is forcing you to do.
    – JRE
    Jan 24 at 15:20
  • If someone is paying you to do work then do it. When you apply to other jobs will you say, here's some stuff I did while I was supposed to be working?
    – RedSonja
    Jan 27 at 14:13
57

You can mess around doing your own thing, but that's not a great start to a career.

As an intern you're given a chance to build soft skills, a work ethic, and experience. These are important in a career regardless of industry or company. Often no one particularly cares about your work very much, but there's other important skills like networking that are important. But that doesn't mean no one notices.

When you first break into an industry a professional network is a big asset.

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  • 6
    In fact, as a manager I prioritise your soft skills over your hard skills, especially your teamwork ability.
    – Anton
    Jan 22 at 15:15
  • I think you're under estimating how much a good portfolio of work is to a potential hiring manager or technical lead at a company. Maybe this is only software related, but a project could paint a picture no referral could ever paint.
    – li x
    Jan 22 at 15:16
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    @Maxime I can teach you whatever hard skills you need to do your job. I cannot teach you how to communicate, network, and get along with other people. If you don't come to me with the soft skills already in place, you aren't that valuable to me.
    – Seth R
    Jan 22 at 16:14
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    This is a great answer. Working on personal projects and building a portfolio doesn't necessarily require collaboration with others, an internship is an opportunity to work with more senior people at the company and learn from them.
    – Egor
    Jan 22 at 17:05
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    In my answer I say "that doesn't mean no one notices" this can be important. I'm quite well connected in my industry locally, I don't interfere with interns work, but I notice. If someone asks me about a potential hire and I shrug and say 'he just fluffs around doing his own thing', thats a huge mark against him at the very beginning of his career.
    – Kilisi
    Jan 22 at 18:17
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It sounds like the company has an expectation that you'll work for them full-time after you graduate.

But, you plan to work for some other company after graduation. That violates their expectation.

When you apply to that other company, they'll probably want you to give them a reference - someone who is familiar with your work. Normally, for someone in your circumstances, that would be your manager or team lead at the company you're currently interning at.

Now, when that manager gives their reference, what would you prefer they said about you?

"IllyaKara used the time and autonomy we gave them to buckle down and do some good work for us"?

or

"IllyaKara used the time and autonomy we gave them to put together some personal projects and post them on GitHub"?

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  • 3
    I don't think a reference is usually necessary to get a new-grad position, but that might depend on location.
    – Peter
    Jan 22 at 9:23
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    @peter, it doesn't hurt. You also never know when you will encounter that manager again in your career. It is better to have people who think highly of you than not. The world is smaller than you think.
    – Seth R
    Jan 22 at 16:46
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    It's also just the right thing to do. Jan 23 at 1:36
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Work experience is worth so much more than personal side projects. Why? Because for your personal project, you never experience those "But I want it anyway, even if it's technically impossible" boss-moments. You never have to do it, even though it's not recommended in the docs. If your supplier/vendor/framework is shitty, you pick another one. But if you cannot, because of a larger picture in the company, you have to go where it hurts. You have to do this complicated things that would not be worth it if you did it for yourself.

Think about it this way: you can do sports for yourself, or you can always do what your trainer says. One will be easier and more fun, one will likely make you a better athlete.

Now obviously, if you don't see your career in sports but want to become an artist, maybe you should cut that sports thing short and go right into it.

But if you want to stay in your field, the saying "no pain, no gain" is true.

How much pain you want to invest in your gain is a personal choice that you have to make yourself, we cannot answer that here.

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  • There are many things you learn working for someone else that you most likely won't learn working on your own. But this is certainly not one of them.
    – Peter
    Jan 22 at 8:45
  • @Peter what do you mean by "this is not one of them"? Especially "this"? I wasn't aware we are talking about anything specific?
    – nvoigt
    Jan 22 at 8:49
  • The main point of your answer (what I mean by "this") seems to be that when working on your own projects you never have to overcome difficult technical limitations. That is simply not true, you can make your own projects vastly more difficult, both conceptually and technically than anything you would ever do commercially. You can also set yourself very challenging and limiting requirements in the process if you feel like that will help you.
    – Peter
    Jan 22 at 8:55
  • And comparing your boss and a professional trainer is a bit far fetched. The goal of your boss is most often not to make you the best programmer possible but to generate value for his company, which might lead to you having to do menial work that will not let you improve or broaden your skillset.
    – Peter
    Jan 22 at 8:57
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    The comparison I'm trying to make is that you have an external force that is weighting "worth it" differently than you are. Right now I'm implementing a payment method that in my personal project would totally not be worth the time I'm putting into it. But it is for the company, because the actual customer using it is a good starting point to sell our product in that market. In my personal projects, I don't think about markets or opportunities that way. If I would, it would no longer by my personal project, but probably a company I founded.
    – nvoigt
    Jan 22 at 9:34
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Knuckle down and do work or build my portfolio?

What if we re-phrase that as

Work alongside the experts at this company, or work on something completely autonomous?

Presumably you accepted this internship because the company has at least some expertise in their field. Working on a project for the company (even if you don't end up producing anything meaningful, or it's not exactly your chosen field) means that you get to learn from the people around you, understand the way they work, what is good and bad about they way they work, ask questions about the things you don't understand. Even if the technical content has no value to you, you should use your internship to gain experience about project management (tracking and prioritizing work items, tracking requirements, deadlines, etc), sd well as people management (do you like the way this manager interacts with their workers? If not, then what type of manager would you prefer to work for?). The more you embed yourself in the team, the more exposure you will get.

If you are going to work on personal projects, then why are you even in the internship? Presumably you could do that more effectively as personal study without the oversight of a manager?


There may also be legal implications to working on personal projects on company time. Did you sign any employment contracts as part of accepting the internship? Employment contracts often have language that anything you produce on company time is the intellectual property of the company. Posting things to github that you produced on company time may get you in legal trouble.

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I think it's a bit strange that the company has no expectations whatsoever what you will do/deliver for them during your internship. Are you sure that you understood this correctly? If they haven't assigned something to you I think they probably expect you to come up with a proposal yourself. They might leave you alone at the moment but I think there is a big chance that in the next weeks somebody will ask about your progress.

This being said I personally think that if you have some time to spare during work as an intern it's totally ok to work a bit on your own projects. However opinions about this might differ.

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  • It may be that the company has some sort of requirement to have one or more interns. In which case, whoever is assigned the intern(s) might be just as happy if the intern "went away" and just did whatever they wanted to do.
    – DaveG
    Jan 22 at 19:43
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This sounds like a failure for your mentor.

-wait, you DO have a mentor, don't you?

If you don't, stop looking for things to do and talk to whomever you report to about who is your mentor for this internship. If they don't have a name for them, or they say they are- then you should ask for some guidance and when would be a good time to sit down (virtually) and talk about what they'd like to see you do and how you can help them meet (whatever goal) they have.

If they don't have a mentor for you then you need to convince them to find you one. And virtually this is going to be far harder than walking the halls to find someone to talk with.

Mentoring an intern is a lot like watching a new puppy- the Mentor has a lot of work to do, added with watching a puppy get into things. Just 'coding' things in your case is great, but that doesn't help you grow nor does it give you a taste for corporate culture.

Perhaps asking the person you report to for a few names of people that can talk to you about different aspects or programs in the company, and then try and set times up for them to talk with.

Long way of saying: Do what the company asks, use your time to build ideas for the company... but don't go off and do your own thing without making a lot of effort first.

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So my personal experience in the industry is derived pretty much exclusively from creating and working on personal projects and presenting them to hiring managers/technical Leads. My first real developer job I was hired because the hiring manager found my use of websockets on a personal project exciting and innovative for the time, something none of my competition had at the time.

The thing about using personal projects as a way to find yourself a job is that you have to remain consistent and create something of value that's worth showing. When people view your time as an intern at X company I'm thinking of your ability and skills as an intern. When people view your personal projects people are viewing your skills and ability as an individual. This gives someone hiring you the ability to think of you as more or less than an intern. If your really good and trying to accelerate your carrer there's no better way of showing people you're capable than literally showing them.

In my experience this approach has paid off magnanimously, I'm now fortunate enough to be the one hiring and leading developers and I'd of never gotten my current opportunity if it wasn't for the 100+ projects I've submitted to Github over the years. Sure maybe you'll lose out on some soft skills and networking now, but working on the core of your ability in my opinion will always pay off in full later down the line.

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