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Yuan Gao
Yuan Gao

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I nearly ruined an intern's career

Some years ago, I almost ruined the career of an intern. Just wanted to tell this story.

We hired a python developer intern who was quiet, but seemed competent. But they weren't getting much done, and wasn't taking part in discussions. Asking around the team, I was hearing things like:

"seems to have problems with productivity"

"doesn't seem to understand the task"

"might not be the right fit"

The junior developer who I paired the intern with didn't have high opinions either. So naturally we were considering letting them go; these things happen, it doesn't always work out.

However, one day, purely by chance I overhear a conversation between the intern and the junior dev from across the room. It was just an every-day technical discussion, the kind that's always going on, so I didn't think much about at the time, but for some reason that particular conversation stuck in my head, and something clicked days later.

I realised what might have been going on. Consider their personalities:

  • The junior dev was outgoing, hard working, and speaks their mind easily. Too easily. They had a habit of saying the first thing that came to mind, sometimes without thinking it through. It was often wrong. I'd chalked this down to a combination of reasoning out loud and wanting to be seen taking part. More experienced devs just ignored it
  • The intern on the other hand was quiet and deferential to the opinions of others. If I had to guess, they probably had quite a bad case of impostor syndrome, and lack in confidence of their own abilities.

I realised that the intern was straight up believing whatever half-cooked idea was coming out of the junior dev's mouth; stuff that we all just ignore, but stuff that the intern, in their lack of confidence, was trying to parse and failing, and as a result either being lead down the wrong path or just getting confused. It was stuff that the intern probably had the knowledge to ignore or call out had they more confidence.

Neither the intern nor the junior dev were doing anything wrong per se. Though you could argue that both lacked soft skills that would have helped them do their job. On the other hand I, as their manager, was most at fault for not digging into the situation more. I had avoided chatting to the intern much because I had made my mind up that we were going to fire them; had I done so, I may have figured this one out earlier. Thinking back, the reason for this was probably lazy prejudice - this intern isn't doing their job, why should I waste my time?

Fortunately it turned out ok, we ended up hiring the intern full-time, and some time later for unrelated reasons the junior dev was let go.

This was earlier on in my career. I'm not naturally a management type, I struggled with a lot of aspects of the job, particularly coaching, and still do to this day (still much to learn and improve on). I realise some of this is impostor syndrome combined with introversion

I learned from this:

  1. It's possible for two people who work fine with others to fail to work together due to a personality conflict
  2. I should have coached both of them more about their respective issues
  3. I realised something very important about teams: teams grow together. You don't arrive at work, transform yourself into a corporate drone, follow the rules, do your job, and go home. While you adapt to the team, the team also adapts to you. It's always a two-way street. The best teams figure out how to work together, and managers/team leads facilitate this by removing barriers preventing that from happening. By being oblivious to what was going on, I didn't do my job, and I didn't act until almost too late.

I carry this story close to my heart, and it colours the way I manage

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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