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The Snapper Internship Program

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A couple of years ago, Snapper was a highly operational company of fun people – average age forty-mumble – who ran the Snapper Scheme in Wellington, supported by a small, but dedicated team of BAs and developers to look after the technology.

The Snapper of today bears little resemblance to that Snapper, having almost doubled the headcount, with the new recruits dragging the average age down into the twenties.  Water cooler conversations have moved from real estate and school zones, to J.J. Abrams and Fallout 4.  All this change was wrought as the organisation turned its eyes to overseas markets, and built a large team to help us deliver to them.

 

How it all began

In 2014, faced with growing backlog of projects, Snapper CTO Norman Comerford was experiencing difficulty finding good developers.  Anybody working in software development knows that finding good developers and keeping them is quite a challenge, as the competition for them is fierce, and you’re up against rapidly-growing NZ success stories like Xero, TradeMe and Vend.

Meanwhile, Norm was mentoring a team of Victoria University students as part of an Agile development course.  The four students in his group worked over three months to develop a mobile web application using the Snapper API.  Impressed by the calibre of the end project, and the students’ teamwork and commitment to rapid iterative development, Norm offered the four students paid internship roles at Snapper.

 

Are you one in a minion?

And so, the minion programme was born.  Yes, that’s right, I said ‘minion’.  I’m not sure how the interns came to be known as minions – no doubt it’s related to an animated film about a race of cute, yellow, sausage-shaped, overall-wearing, bespectacled beings in search of an evil lord to serve.  And bananas – they’re also in search of bananas.

I was a bit taken aback by the name when I first came to Snapper – I felt that it was a little condescending, and implied that we wanted an army of compliant workers to boss about.  This is not the case.  But most of the interns think it’s funny, and it’s stuck.  We even use it in our recruitment advertising for new interns.

From the start, a key focus of the internship program was to give students a chance to tackle real world problems, and contribute to the organisation in a meaningful way.

“It’s been great to work on production systems from day one, which was unique of the internships I was considering.”  Stephen Ballinger, Snapper developer and original minion

With mentorship and oversight from the core development team, the first team of interns worked together to rebuild the Snapper Mobile app from the ground up, delivering a new version with a seriously jazzed-up user interface, and new core functionality.  This version of the app has been downloaded more than 28,000 times at the time of writing this blog.

 

Learning to mentor

As the amount of work continued to increase, we needed to grow our internship program.  Scaling the program presented its own challenges, with more time needed from the core team to provide interns with the right support and direction.

To keep the new interns going without overly burdening our core team, we worked out a system where graduates of our internship program became mentors.  We also pulled in the expertise of some of the talented partners and suppliers we work with to mentor our interns in their core disciplines.

“We’ve built up a knowledge base to help the new interns adapt quickly to the Snapper environment, despite the steep learning curve.”  Jacob Dulligal, Snapper developer and original minion

Two years later, all four interns from the initial team (the original minions) are full-time Snapper employees, leading teams of interns.

 

The program today

With the help of Summer of Tech, a new intake of interns recently joined the team, with interests ranging from software development and DevOps to business analysis and testing.

Today, the original four-person team has grown to four separate teams, lead by developers who have come through the internship program themselves, and mentored by dedicated coaches from each core discipline; including software development, architecture, UX/design, business analysis and security.

The functionality of the Snapper Mobile app has been sold to an overseas Transport Authority, and the intern teams are working to deliver this project to a client on the other side of the world.

 

What we’ve learned

We’ve learned that coaching and support pays off, and that building a team from the ground up will give us a stable and productive workforce.  The well-coached have become great coaches themselves.