10

I was hired as a software engineer intern to a large corporation. I was assigned to a machine learning team. In my interview I told them I had just begun learning machine learning 2 months prior.

After being hired I received no training and no mentor but was expected to lead a machine learning project and be the main programmer. Whenever I ask questions no one seems to know the answers and just point me to the internet. Is it normal to receive so little guidance in an undergraduate internship?

They make it seem like I have needed too much help from them and in a meeting with another team my manager told them I was a machine learning expert. Any advice on how to handle this situation?

8
  • 18
    When you say "lead a project," do you mean that other people are reporting to you (e.g. as the "project lead" or a similar title), or do you mean that you have been asked to do this project by yourself?
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:42
  • 9
    Sounds like a great learning experience, which is what an internship should be! From what you describe, you have now done more research on machine learning than anyone else in the company, which indeed makes you the de facto expert, at least compared to any of your colleagues. What aspect of it do you need help handling?
    – Seth R
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 20:13
  • 3
    No, it's not normal but it's a great opportunity for you to learn how to take responsibility.
    – jwh20
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 21:25
  • 4
    How many programmers are there in this project. Are you the "main programmer" or the only programmer on the project?
    – Helena
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 9:56
  • 2
    This still needs to be clarified. There's a huge difference between "Have a look at our existing data grooming process, see how you could use machine learning to improve it and get back to us in a month with a prototype" and "We need to update our data grooming process and are going to use machine learning, you are in charge of this project, details of the developers who report to you and the subject matter experts to call on are below. This needs to be done in a month". The former is a great opportunity (although the akser may regret bigging up their ML experience), the latter is a fiasco.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 10:39

6 Answers 6

17

Is it normal to receive so little guidance in an undergraduate internship?

No it's not. It's unprofessional for any sizeable company.

It's an opportunity to learn a lot. It's also an opportunity to fail badly. So while it's not unknown to be given a solo project, leading one takes a host of different skills that companies should not expect you to have.

12

Is it normal to receive so little guidance in an undergraduate internship?

No. This is a train wreck in progress.

and in a meeting with another team my manager told them I was a machine learning expert. Any advice on how to handle this situation?

Start with your manager and set the record straight. Schedule a 1:1 meeting. Start with going through your resume again and explain that you only have 2 months of Machine Learning experience. Tell them clearly that you are NOT a machine learning expert by any definition, that, as an intern, you feel not qualified to lead a project of that scope and size and that the likelihood of this project succeeding is very low.

Then take your cues from the response you are getting.

3

Among the blind the one-eyed is king.

Obviously your colleagues don't know better than you, so let's translate this saying to your company.
The one who has at least heard about something is closer to be an expert than all those who have no clue at all.

my manager told them I was a machine learning expert

That's where the problem starts. That's also where you should try to solve it.
Next time you get a hint towards you manager's statement, make clear you just started to engage with this subject but you are not an expert at all.
There will be chances to do so if you keep asking if you don't know things. This is quite normal so don't hesitate or feel bad for it.

1
  • 5
    I had a manager like this once. As soon as I learned something, he introduced me as an expert in it. I was an expert in a lot of other items, but obviously I'm not an expert in the items I just learned. I called him out on it immediately, and he though he was giving me "exposure" and advertising my abilities. It took a little exlpaining that he wasn't doing me or him any favors, as when running into a true expert we would both lose our credibility.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 22:40
2

This is not normal, but it is understandable. It sounds like someone broke communication somewhere. Somehow, someone got the idea that you were an ML expert, and they hired you based on that, even though you told them specifically in the interview that you're not. Did you imply something like that on any supporting documents you gave them (e.g. your resume)?

You need to fix this miscommunication. When you say "my manager told them I was a machine learning expert", who is "them"? I think that person is the one you need to have a serious chat with. You need to tell that person that your manager was mistaken when he told them that, and you do not have as much expertise as was advertised. As a result, you aren't comfortable with the responsibility you've been given.

Be aware that this might get you fired, but this is a question you need to ask yourself: Would you rather be fired, or would you rather your "crowning achievement", so to speak, of your internship being a garbage fire? It's a hard choice, but it's one that it seems you have to make. The difficulty being that, as this is an internship, you'll need to find an alternative internship, which adds additional headache to the situation.

Overall, this is a really bad situation that you shouldn't have been put in. Someone dropped the ball, and you're on the hook to fix it.

Aside from all of this, it's not normal for an intern to lead anything. It sounds like your company wanted to get some cheap labour from someone with expertise without hiring someone who actually has that competency, and they got you, which is to say they got what they paid for. Even aside from all of the other concerns, it is definitely not normal for an intern to be given leadership responsibilities, except, occasionally, perhaps, if the entire project is intern-developed, and even then not usually.

1

Project is a very flexible term. Depending on the context it can span work for one person for a few days to large teams working for years. There's not quite enough information in the question to know how large this work is, and that makes a significant difference.

When doing software development, it can take months for a developer to learn to navigate and change a larger system which is new to them. This is often longer than the duration of an internship. This investment doesn't make sense for the company or the intern.

If the work available on a large system doesn't suit an intern, it's fairly common for them to work on a useful standalone or prototype project which is otherwise lower priority. If the intern does good work, it's a win. If it doesn't work out, critical systems aren't impacted. This might still involve working with other developers to some extent.

As an intern, you should have support and be able to discuss things with more experienced team members. However, it's not unreasonable to expect you to independently research and try out new things, either. One rule of thumb is to try for a day to solve a given blocking problem before asking for help. You would get more feedback on how your team works by asking those questions, including how quickly they expect you to raise problems.

Along the same lines, the comment about a "machine learning expert" may just be a compliment and certain self-deprecating recognition of the ML skills gaps in the team at the moment.

Now perhaps this organization has given a larger, more critical project to an intern because they are the person available with the most relevant experience. This can be frustrating. On the other hand, it's a tremendous learning opportunity, and the downsides are pretty limited. You finish your internship after a few weeks or months, and learnt a lot of things about working on real systems, while getting paid.

0

Quite common in new fields

First of all, you must understand that machine learning is quite a new thing concerning business use. Yes, it did exist for a while in academia, but only recently it became interesting enough (in terms of profit) for companies to start hiring experts in the field. Therefore, do not expect many experienced older employees in your branch, in fact your two month university course could be the best they have.

Second, considering that this is a large company, I doubt they would assign an intern to some "mission critical" project that could have huge negative impact on company's future. Much more likely is that they gave you an "explorational" task to test both you and this new technology. Nothing spectacular would happen even if you fail, after all it was just an intern project.

My advice to you is to be relaxed about the whole thing. Your primary concern is to finish your university studies. If you plan to make machine learning your livelihood, now you have the opportunity to test the stuff you learned in classes or online, relatively free of major responsibility. For general programming techniques (unrelated to machine learning) you could and should ask for help from your senior colleagues. Overall, there are only two outcomes for this whole ordeal - you will not finish this project but you will learn a lot about your own limitations and corporate culture. Or you will "fake it till you make it" and really become an expert with nice job opportunities when you complete internship.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .