I'm a college student doing an internship with a startup (shudder) in NYC this summer. I applied with the intent of furthering my web development experience, especially learning about what its like to be developing a production-level website.

Note about the company: this is a startup developing its beta website. It hasn't received any funding yet (it's going for first rounds in the fall). I think the team is just four guys. This internship program appears to be established and they've hired one of their engineers from it before. It has also been ostensibly vetted and approved by my university (I applied from our university's job listings site).

They have two internship teams: two guys are working on developing new features for the site, and the other two are working on maintaining and polishing the existing features (these are the 'hardcore' programmers/engineers).

After two interviews and some idea-generation exercises they had me do and submit via email, it is clear that I am seen as a better fit for the "creative" team. That is, I will be working with two of the founders on new features for the website. I'm not really sure what this means. I made it clear that I want to be programming, but they said I would have experiences to do that.

If I do not get programming opportunities from this internship, which I am participating in with the expectation of having them, is it a bad idea for me to simply leave the program? I will not be satisfied if my time with this startup will be spent simply brainstorming and whiteboarding ideas for them, as I am hoping to get programming experience out of it.

Note: the work expectations are pretty relaxed: I'll only have to commute to NYC (1hr 15min) one day a week, and am expected to be in communication throughout the week via Slack. For this reason I am fine with not being paid. If I had to commute daily and work 9-5 for no pay I would not be doing this.

Edit: Honestly, I accepted this because I only started applying for summer positions in late March/April, and I am grateful to have any sort of position this summer (purely for the purpose of resume padding/hopefully learning about production environments).

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    It isn't clear to me whether you are still interviewing or whether you have accepted the internship. If you are still interviewing, it's perfectly reasonable to see clarification about whether they are talking about brainstorming on a whiteboard or writing code. It seems terribly unlikely that they'd have half their development team not doing development but if that concerns you by all means ask. Apr 26, 2016 at 21:45
  • Does your university know that the internship is intended to be unpaid? You should never accept an unpaid internship, especially if you are intending to write code for a company. Apr 26, 2016 at 21:48
  • @JustinCave I have been accepted to it.
    – socrates
    Apr 26, 2016 at 21:49
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    @socrates If the company is for-profit, it's illegal in the state of New York to have unpaid interns. Is your college a for-profit college? Apr 26, 2016 at 21:51
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    "have been accepted" implies that the company has made an offer. It is not clear whether you have accepted that offer. If you have accepted the offer, why did you accept it if you weren't confident that you would be doing something that you would find acceptable. Apr 26, 2016 at 21:51

2 Answers 2


I made it clear that I want to be programming, but they said I would have experiences to do that.

If I do not get programming opportunities from this internship, which I am participating in with the expectation of having them, is it a bad idea for me to simply leave the program?

It's not clear why you are entering this internship with this negative thought in your head already.

Try to fix that. See if you can go into this with a positive attitude. In my experience attitude often separates the great from the not-so-great interns.

Since the internship is unpaid, seize this as an opportunity to learn everything you can. You'll want to learn some programming, sure. But you'll also want to learn what it's like to work, what it's like to work in a small startup, about what founders do, about the creative aspects, etc, etc. Many would kill for such an opportunity.

If, early on, you somehow don't get a chance to do any programming, press a bit. Talk with your supervisor and ask for the chance to do some. Whenever I've hired interns (although they were always paid), I tried to give them chances to do many things, and always honored the promises I made to them.

It is generally considered bad form to duck out of an internship early (even an unpaid internship). You want to demonstrate your ability to stick with a job for a few months. Leaving early won't demonstrate that and may reflect badly on you - certainly you would lose any potential opportunities with this company (startups often hire former interns), and any great references you might otherwise get.

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    To add to Joe's suggestion for a positive attitude - maybe I'm odd, but of the two options I think they have offered you the far more interesting one to learn from. Would you really rather be bug-fixing, or getting a much broader view of the whole business of software? You will see more of the code base (and have to figure out how to wedge new features in), you will see how requirements change (a fact of life), and you will come out with a much better internship on paper on in future interviews.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 27, 2016 at 16:59

Short answer:

You would want to leave if they said they would not allow you to touch programming at all. Else, it would be a great chance to take up this internship and learn how a product is made from scratch.

If they can't give you a clear answer, then you should suggest leaving for the better.

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