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I recently started a SW internship at a big government contractor. I was very excited for the opportunity to work on big projects and collaborate with experienced programmers. However, my first day I got tasked with helping a small team of non programmers increase their efficiency. I spend most of my days doing work that is neither challenging nor stimulating such as writing macros in excel. I've also been given regular data entry work and find myself struggling to find work to do frequently.

Is this normal for an internship? My entire reason for doing the internship was to gain experience and see how I liked working for a government contractor as a programmer. I feel like I'm not getting anything out of it. Are my expectations of an internship reasonable?

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    You actually coded on the first day on your internship?! I don't even have access to the development server on my first week in some of my FT jobs... – Nelson Jun 8 '17 at 16:36
  • No I didn't do any coding until the next week. I just got assigned to that team my first day. – Philip Jun 8 '17 at 16:37
  • I've read documents for the first couple days in all the coding FT jobs I got... So i think your judgment is a bit hasty. – Nelson Jun 8 '17 at 16:37
  • What have your previous internship experiences been like? – TheFamousDirector Jun 8 '17 at 16:40
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    A gov SW contractor isn't going to live the drama of a startup nor see the same innovation as at an ISV. Arguably SW in gov should be all about making efficiency enhancements to the operations of gov. Coding macros to optimise a business process is being an "analyst programmer (AP)". The same role at bulge bracket investment banking can pay big money (with business knowledge) and occasionally use macros (as a stop gap) else generic tools (eg sharepoint). If you don't enjoy the work you have learnt something: you don't want to be an "AP working in operations". Ace the job then move on. – simbo1905 Jun 8 '17 at 19:39
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Is this normal for an internship?

Internships vary widely from company to company. You can be involved doing menial tasks like grabbing the team coffee, all the way to working/being taught by the lead developer.

How should I approach this situation?

With an open mind. Most internships don't start off hot at the gate. It takes time for companies to judge your skill level and give you tasks. You need to pace your expectations and realize the position you're in at the company. As a first year intern they don't expect much. You have to ask for new tasks when you can. Prove yourself by exceeding their expectations.

Be thankful. I was lucky to have relevant job internships. Many of my friends weren't. Manual labour is the typical flavour of summer work. So take all opportunities as a golden ticket.

Your data entry might seem menial, but it gives you an appreciation for what you're automating. Talk to the people you're writing scripts for: it's good experience with getting requirements from customers (blood from a stone).

And lastly, if you truly can't find work, take some courses online. Take the spare time to increase your coding skills and build something you want to. Practice is the only wait to get better.

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    I try to ask for work when I can but I feel bad for bothering them too much. They're clearly overwhelmed with work. – Philip Jun 8 '17 at 17:25
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    That's a very common feeling that isn't limited to interns. I very often feel like I'm imposing on co workers. It's a fine art of knowing when to ask for help. – TheFamousDirector Jun 8 '17 at 17:47
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I was very excited for the opportunity to work on big projects and collaborate with experienced programmers.

If those were your expectations, then they might have been a bit unreasonable.

As always, it depends on the context - in this case the company, your abilities, the pace of projects, the free time of mentors, etc.

In most shops where I have worked, interns were initially given inconsequential "safe" projects, at least until we could accurately assess their abilities. Even then everyone typically had important tasks to be completed. These "experience programmers" may or may not have enough time available to bring an intern up to speed on any big projects. Mentoring interns was never anyone's top priority.

More often, interns were given smaller tasks that never seemed to get done, tasks that the more experienced developers were happy to offload.

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I think writing macros on Excel is good start. First few weeks for junior developers are quite unexciting - you read a lot of documents, ask some questions and somebody with more experience is tutoring you. Obviously, company will spend less time on you than on regular worker. That means you will be given some work that is not very critical nor need a lot of supervision.

My advice is do every task as good as you can. Do not show your frustration. If you finnish you work early - ask for more or even suggest something if you feel confident enough.

Don't be afraid of bothering them - professionals appreciate some enthusiasm. It's opportunity to gain some soft skills as well.

  • Yeah I didn't expect to have it start out super exciting, but the main thing that worries me is that there seems to be little direction for me to go. My manager and other people on my team seem to have a hard time finding work for me to do. I spend so much time doing nothing which is the most frustrating part of my job. – Philip Jun 9 '17 at 4:31

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