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I am slated to begin a summer internship at a very competitive software company this summer, and I was recently contacted by my future boss with a list of possible projects to work on. Unfortunately, all of the proposed projects seemed very simple and dull. I would say they are appropriate projects for an undergraduate with no work experience.

I'll only be doing a single project during this internship and I am worried that I won't get anything out of it if I'm doing work that is far below my skill level. I am a graduate student in Computer Science at a top tier institution, and I have several years of industry work experience from before I started graduate school. My boss is aware of how strong my program is, though I don't believe he is aware of how strong my background is because of it.

I would like to tell my boss that I am interested in doing more challenging work, but I don't want to come across as arrogant or unwilling to put in time and effort when it's needed even if a project doesn't fall directly in line with my interests. Can I tell my boss that I would rather do a more challenging project? If so, how should I tell him?

Also, it may be worth noting that if I do well in this internship I would get a full time offer, should have no trouble switching teams, and would certainly get more challenging work as a full-time employee.

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    Is your previous work experience in a corporate environment (as opposed to self contracting or small startups)? If not (and maybe even if so regardless...), the most valuable experience from the internship is probably in learning to navigate the corporate world. – corsiKa Apr 15 '16 at 0:04
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    I agree with the comments that an easy intro project is sensible early in your time with them. On top of the reasons given (like judging your actual skill), you may find that even an easy project is unexpectedly challenging because you need to learn the company's culture, like who should be used as a resource when certain types of situations/problems arise. An easy project may be an excuse to get you in the system, and let you learn these other details that you can't possibly learn while you're still an outsider. Then ask for more opportunity to help more substantially after scoring victory – TOOGAM Apr 15 '16 at 2:39
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    Personally I've been in a similar situation and here is how I handled it : I took the job they offered me and did my best. After 2 weeks, I was done while it was suppose to take the whole summer. They offered me a full time job right away on one of the top project of the company. What I'm trying to point here is that if you do a great job, chance are that you will be noticed fast and will get what you deserve. Until then, you are an intern (as inexperienced as other) and don't have much to say. – Jean-François Savard Apr 15 '16 at 12:44
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    The challenges frequently lie where unexperienced people would never have thought. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 16 '16 at 12:40
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    tbh highly skilled and intern don't go together. If you are overqualified for internship you have 2 choices, suck it up and prove your capability (hoping they may offer you fulltime) or get a normal job. At the end of the day positions are created for the company's needs, not the employee's. They might not have the budget for a better person, they might have some lower skilled tasks to get out of the way. So don't count on a glowing performance guaranteeing an offer. – JamesRyan Apr 17 '16 at 14:20

12 Answers 12

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Interns typically don't get a lot of say in things, so it would depend on what projects they have available. Personally I would ace one project before asking for something more challenging. In the same way as a skilled, experienced full time employee has to prove themselves when they first show up.

I wouldn't ask for things before I felt I had proved my worth, because as an employer I wouldn't hinge everything on what school you attended etc,. I've seen excellent students who turned out to be mediocre workers and vice versa.

So knock over a project professionally, don't make a huge deal out of it, then ask for more challenging work and bring up your skillset and experience after you have made that crucial first good impression on everyone.

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    I agree, good references get you in the door, but you still need to prove yourself. – Kilisi Apr 14 '16 at 21:04
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    It's not just the project I look at with a worker, it's how they accomplish it, and how they solve problems, how much initiative they show etc,.. I can work out a whole range of things from that. Good luck. – Kilisi Apr 14 '16 at 21:25
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    I think I'll let it stand, quite possibly he will knock a three month project over in two weeks with no issues and make an excellent impression and do another or have him work on part of something more interesting. Great chance to network with possible future colleagues and quite possibly skip the junior role (and pay) entirely if he gets full time.. – Kilisi Apr 14 '16 at 21:42
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    As others said, you don' need to ask: show yourself worth and they'll give you more important tasks. Usually when I start a new job they give me trivial bugs to fix but once they realize what I can do they assign me to big projects without need to ask. – algiogia Apr 15 '16 at 8:16
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    @01101010101010 There are a lot of ways to prove oneself that have little or nothing to do with skill level, training, or programming experience. There are so many other things that go into being a great employee that have nothing to do with the actual work. It also sometimes happen that incompetent people manage to get references and and experience that seem to be great, so usually everyone has to prove themselves on the simpler projects at a new place. – Todd Wilcox Apr 15 '16 at 15:12
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Show, don't tell

Do the simple and dull projects. Do them very well, do them quickly, and do them completely without complaining.

Your boss will see that you are more capable than expected and will give you more challenging projects in the future.

Put another way, Under promise, over deliver.

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    -1. It's a summer internship. There may or may not be future projects. If an intern was doing entry-level work just so he could excel at it instead of letting me know that he has years of actual work experience I would probably be both shocked and disappointed. I'm not sure why the OP accepted your answer when it doesn't seem like you actually read the question. – Lilienthal Apr 14 '16 at 20:45
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    @Lilienthal, Assuming a resume/CV was part of the internship, OP's manager probably wants to see for her(him)-self. As such this advice is very applicable. Better to demonstrate your skills by real work than a document. Future projects may in fact mean a full-time job. Demonstrating your proficiency for real is the best way to get there. – cdkMoose Apr 14 '16 at 20:54
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    @Lilienthal: I think you are putting way too much emphasis on "years of actual work experience". I've managed far far too many developers with 5+ years of technical experience who simply didn't understand the basics. People who spent 5+ years doing a whole bunch of copy / pasting with very little understanding. Further, if this is really such a softball project then the OP should be able to accomplish it in far less time than allotted which will not only speak volumes to the manager but also allow the manager to find something more interesting to work on. – NotMe Apr 14 '16 at 21:59
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    @NotMe The key fact that you're forgetting is that the internship will only cover a single project. Even if the OP manages to power through it in half the time, the odds of him being able to start a new one are slim at best. Your team's failure to check references or hire well does not mean that every developer is guilty until proven innocent of being an incompetent slob. – Lilienthal Apr 15 '16 at 7:01
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    @Lilienthal: If I have 3 months of time with someone and they finish the assignment early, I'll find something for them to do. It may not be a full project but it would certainly be more challenging. Regarding references - most businesses I've contacted won't say negative things about previous employees for obvious reasons. Further, any personal references aren't worth the time to follow up on. All I'm saying is that completion of a simple project will show quite a bit. – NotMe Apr 15 '16 at 17:06
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Since you have previous work experience, I would ask the boss to assign me to the more complex of the available projects. I might also tell him some subjects that I have an interest in and see if he has anything related to that. I see no problem with politely expressing a preference. Do not make a demand however.

However, the projects may be written in stone for the internships and he may not have anything better to offer you that can be accomplished in the short time period. Therefore, if he turns you down, don't pout or do a poor job.

If the goal is to get hired permanently, you want to impress with your performance. Do the tasks assigned well and beat the deadline, so they are impressed. If the goal is simply to check off the intern block in your course list, then do a good enough job to get a good grade but save the learning of more complex things for outside the internship.

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There are no small parts, only small actors.

I am experienced in my field. I have a certain amount of choice in my assignments. My opinions are valued. I am trusted to teach others. I have a lot of latitude in how I complete my work. Yet, I still often find myself doing "intern-level" work, because that's what needs doing.

The thing you should know about intern projects, at least where I've worked, is they are almost always things we wish we had time to work on ourselves, but couldn't get management to prioritize above other business needs. That means the projects are usually very important to your coworkers, even if they're not particularly urgent or business critical. For example, interns gave us a huge boost in test automation framework that would have been very difficult to prioritize otherwise. It may look like you're doing the jobs we won't do, but often you're doing the jobs we want to do but can't.

So my advice is to go the extra mile on whatever assignment you're given, and try to see its value to your teammates. It's those kinds of interns that we want to hire full time.

  • excellent main point, surprised this got so few upvotes, I've handed off stuff that is both time consuming and boring although it needed to be done thoroughly and with attention to detail, but when done made my own future work a LOT easier so was very important in those terms. Enough so that I'd give a glowing report on anyone who soldiered through it, they've just proved that they can do solid work. – Kilisi Apr 17 '16 at 22:11
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You should absolutely reach out to your future manager and establish a dialogue. Let them know your hopes and desires for the internship experience. You should also ask them to help you understand their expectations for the experience. Good communication is an important aspect of being successful in the workplace, regardless of the industry or role.

If I may be so bold as to speak for other managers in software development as well as myself, I would ask that you and future student readers of this question try to objectively view this from our perspective.

  • So, I have an open internship position. My team and I have weeded through a pile of resumes, conducted numerous phone screenings and several on-site interviews. We have offered the position to a self-professed "highly skilled" developer. Now I need to find a project for the candidate. The problem is that every candidate claimed to be highly skilled in all the right technologies. This candidate has some experience, but as usual the reference just confirmed that the candidate did in fact work there and I have no objective measure of your true ability. I'm optimistic that since you made it through the interview process, you should at least be one of the best of the crop, but I haven't seen any real work from you, so what shall I do? I'll give you a straight forward project that you should be able to do very well at and grow from there.
  • I have several projects in-progress right now, all important to the business. My team and I are responsible for the quality of the execution of these projects. Am I ready to risk the my reputation and that of my team by involving an unproven developer to join in the middle of the project? I think I will give you a project that will let me evaluate your skills, technical and otherwise, and then I will know where I can put you on the project.
  • People often accuse us, even in questions and answers on this very site, of using interns as cheap labor. It is certainly possible that we might get a small amount (we're talking a couple months here) of high quality work at less than the normal cost. BTW, these are the people who I will offer a full time job to. I might also get some average work and you learn in the process, so what the heck nothing broke and we helped you grow. Unfortunately, if you turn out to not be as good as you claimed, this internship may turn out to be a costly experience for us. Not in terms of what we paid you, but in terms of the lost time and the need to recover from efforts that produced no value.

It is important for new employees to understand that their new manager may have just as much at risk as they do when starting in a new position at any level.

  • I appreciate your insights, but I would also ask that you see things from the student's perspective as well. In the interview process I was promised that interns get to work on very exciting projects -- the recruiter even told me, "We give you important stuff. Like, you can break stuff. We guarantee that you'll be on a good project." So, I decide to accept an internship from company X, while declining offers from several other companies. At this point, the understanding should be, "you are capable, I trust you to do a good job on a challenging project, here you go". – DIMMSum Apr 14 '16 at 23:48
  • Now, I'm not saying that your company or all companies would do that, but it's important to realize that some applicants are, frankly, very lucrative to companies, and companies try to advertise their work as interesting to compete with each other. As I mentioned earlier, if I do boring, easy work all summer and then end up going to another company because I didn't like the job, both parties lose out. – DIMMSum Apr 14 '16 at 23:50
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    I wouldn't expect you to do boring and simple work all summer, I want to evaluate you as quickly as possible to see what you can do. – cdkMoose Apr 15 '16 at 0:54
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    With all due respect, I don't have time to setup interesting and challenging work that isn't important to the business, because after all, it is a business. Any work we undertake needs to be important to the business or we aren't going to spend the money on it. – cdkMoose Apr 15 '16 at 0:56
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    FWIW, I do believe I am in a position to see both perspectives. I have been in the industry for quite a few years, and for the last several years I have helped my sons through this same journey to find rewarding summer/internship positions in math/applied statistics and computer engineering. – cdkMoose Apr 15 '16 at 1:13
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I would treat this as your first assignment. You have been given a list of things that need to be done, and you need to prioritize. I would advise you to select based on the impact / value add. Ask your manager which of the projects has the most business impact. Ask him to walk you through the impact each project has. If none of them seem particularly impactful, make sure to mention you are keen to make an impact but of course will do your best on any project you end up on. Your manager should get the hint. If not, there's not much you can do about it.

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Before going to your boss and asking for more "challenging" assignment, think about something: You will be at this company for the "summer internship" which tells me you will be there 3 months, give or take. Challenging work requires commitment. In a short time like your internship term, if they make you a part of a big team, where you will work side-by-side with other project members, it would be fine and dandy as long as you're there, but when your term is up and you're gone, they will be in a worse position than not having you work on the project, because, now, they have to find someone who knows nothing about the project and endure his ramp-up time to become productive. This might be good for you but it definitely is not good for the company, unless you are planning to stay with this company, for a reasonable period of time, past your internship requirement. You said if your internship goes well, you will be offered a permanent job, but they first need to make sure you are worthy of hiring. You may believe yourself to make that grade easily, but probably they don't know you from Adam, at this company and your internship period is going to be the make or break time for them.

Also, take internship is paying your dues before you get into the ranks of real work. You might have worked before but probably not in the same capacity that your new and advanced degree is getting you to. And no, you can not expect to bypass the lowly work and find yourself at the top of the heap, because your school program is such a great one. I knew some Ivy-League college grads, who can barely author a "Hello world" program. So, expecting the company to trust you on your word is not very realistic in my opinion.

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    Takin a chance on someone just by looking at...work this person might have done earlier in their career is not feasible for any serious employer. So you shouldn't look at someone's work experience? That doesn't even make sense. – DIMMSum Apr 14 '16 at 20:52
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    @01101010101010, Succeeding in the toughest program in the (acaademic) world does not directly correlate to succeeding in the business world. I've seen too many brilliant students fail in their first complex real-world project. Your manager is rightfully reserving his right to make his own judgment on your skills. – cdkMoose Apr 14 '16 at 21:00
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    @01101010101010, from above, that work experience predates your current graduate school time. Does your manager have access to that previous experience? Or just what's on your resume? You know exactly what you have done and are capable of, but your new manager has no way to know. He is doing his due diligence. If you really nail your first project and he still gives you simple tasks, then I think you have a complaint. – cdkMoose Apr 14 '16 at 21:05
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    Strongly disagree. This is just as bad as companies that throw out questions to "production" issues for interviewing candidates to actually solve during the interview. The OP could be put on a challenging assignment with limited scope. It could be independent, or with others. Don't assume that because the worker is labelled "intern" that the work won't provide a high amount of value to the company. – Xavier J Apr 15 '16 at 2:37
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    @Chan-HoSuh It's not hard for anyone who's been developing for a while to know the difference between valuable work and "busy" grunt work. – Xavier J Apr 15 '16 at 17:26
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As Joe Strazzere pointed out, you shouldn't tell your boss anything. I wouldn't exactly ask, but instead make an offer to your boss. Pick the most interesting project amongst those you were offered. Tell your boss that of the projects offered you find the xyz project the most interesting. Tell him that you think you would do a great job on it. In the same conversation (either via email or phone) also mention to your boss that you've completed substantially larger projects than that and that if there are any larger projects that you would be glad to take that on instead. As an alternative, you could think up a project that you feel would meet a need that they have and offer to do that project for them.

In order to get the outcome that you want, it's very important that you approach everything you do from an angle of "What are the bosses needs that I can help meet?" and not from the angle of "What are the needs that I want to have met?"

This all hinges on how the boss really views working with interns. Does he think "Oh crap, we're going to have four interns this year, and I've got to find something for all of them to do." or does he think "Last summer's interns really accomplished some great things. I really enjoy working with the interns." The answer to this question will probably indicate how likely you are to get a different project assigned to you.

I've had interns working for me before who were very talented and I was glad to assign them difficult, meaningful tasks, and to spend as much time with them as I needed to guide them because they were making my job easier. I've also had interns who worked for me who had low skills and low capabilities. For those people I tried to assign much easier tasks that were least likely to require much intervention by me. I still spent time with them when they needed it, but I really tried to minimize it by careful task assignment.

I need to tell you this because it's important to how you are perceived in the company. I clicked on this question to read it because I thought "Here is a student who thinks because he's had a few courses and not much experience that he is smarter than his boss." I expected to be amused by this thread. Instead, I think your desire is reasonable. It is essential that when you offer to do more than the other tasks available, that the boss not hear an arrogant student who thinks he's smart and deserves meaningful work. If you send your request to your boss via email, I suggest you find a friend who has outstanding communications skills (or a business mentor if you have one) and have them review it first.

If you end up having to do one of the tasks on the list, do the best job you can possibly do, then try for a more desirable task as others have suggested.

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If you feel like you should ask for more challenging work I think it would be a good idea to do so. It has advantages for both you and the company. You may get the work you desire, the company learns more about you as a person.

Internships are not intended to produce high value output since once the intern leaves someone else has to maintain that output. Which is more difficult the more complex that output is. There are internships that explore very advanced topics, but those are usually test balloons for future products and more often than not go to people writing a thesis on the topic, not potential-hire-interns.

But they are great for finding out if a person will fit the culture in the company. So the more you are yourself during both the hiring phase and the internship (not that most people can keep up a facade for month) the better for the company.

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Is this a paid internship? What country is this internship taking place? In the U.S. companies are required to pay interns as employs if certain conditions are met. Such as, but not limited to: will the intern perform activities that are essential to the day to day operations. It is possible that the nature of the internship limits the scope of projects that would be eligible to you. If you were assigned to a more challenging project it is likely that it would be construed as an essential activity. In order to be exempt from payed employ status the company would have to assign you to an employ already performing the task. Your presence at that point would be redundant. If there isn't any restrictions in your locality or you are a "paid" intern then by all means ask.

Nothing ventured nothing gained. Who dares wins. Nothing to it but to do it.

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There's a lot of good answers here already, mostly all saying the same thing - prove yourself before asking for more. Which I totally agree with. They obviously think you're capable enough if they chose you, they just need to see where you fit. For all you know they might have 2 or 3 more challenging projects they're considering you for, but they need to see where you're best suited first.

You know what you're capable of, but they don't. Show them early and I think you'll have great results! For example, if a hockey player from out of town gets on a team and says to the coach "I'm a first line forward, I want to be on the first line" the coach probably wouldn't put him on the first line. The coach will start them on the 2nd or 3rd line to see how they fit into the team, then move them up once they get a good "feel" for the player.

Showing up as an intern and saying you want harder work (not what they suggested you have) could show off a side of arrogance or unwillingness to do tasks assigned to you. Judging from your answers, this is not what you intend to do at all - you just want to be working on things that won't bore you. So just suck it up for the first bit, knock it out of the park, and give them a reason to give you the good stuff!

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Unfortunately, earning the privilege of doing advanced tasks requires a lot more than being a good student and showing up.

Most of the work in the real world is pretty mundane. When I went to help out my aunt who worked at Coca-Cola I was attending an elite Ivy league college. The first task she gave me? To add up a list of numbers.

A relative of mine once hired an assistant to help in his photography studio and on the new hire's first day he asked him to start by sweeping the studio. The kid sniffed, "I am a graduate of the Brooks Institute." (the most elite photography school in the world). So, my relative picks up the broom and says, "Oh, yeah, I forgot. This is how you do it." and he proceeded to demonstrate how to operate a broom.

In any business a lot of basic stuff needs to get done. Do you think your boss should do that stuff?

Nothing is stopping you from doing creative work, just make sure the basic tasks get done first. You think the interesting stuff I do are things other people have "assigned" to me? No, of course, not. 95% of the cool stuff I do is stuff I thought up on my own. If I waited around for my bosses to think up cool things for me to do I would be waiting a long time.

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