Last week at Atomic Smash we had Alice, a junior developer, join us for some work experience. Helping someone get the most out of a work experience placement whilst maintaining the existing team’s productivity is challenging at the best of times. But during a global pandemic, with a fully remote team, it becomes even more so. As lead front end developer, it fell to me to oversee a large part of the placement, and provide assistance when needed.
In this article I’ll share how we approached this. I hope these tips and ideas might help others feel more comfortable with providing remote work experience placements or internships.
1. Team communication
A big part of making someone feel at ease on an internship or work experience placement is including them as part of the team during the time they are with us. For us, that means inviting them to team meetings, adding them to our Slack workspace, proving them with the appropriate level of access for the apps we regularly use, and making sure they can join our team social on a Friday. It also means maintaining a line of communication (mainly via Slack), and making them aware who to reach out to with questions at any time. We used Zoom frequently for training and giving feedback, which reflects how we work as a team.
I’m grateful that at Atomic Smash we’ve managed to work well together and deliver projects to a high standard throughout this period of transition to a fully remote workforce. That’s in no small part down to everyone’s commitment to maintaining a high level of communication through our various channels, and already having this grounding within the company meant that it was easier to extend it to work shadowing and training.
2. Accepting a drop in productivity
When someone new joins a team it’s inevitable that existing team members will need to take the time to onboard them. With a junior team member or someone on a placement, there is likely to be a bit more ongoing support needed. This needs to be communicated to the project manager, and planned for accordingly. It’s likely to affect some team members more than others, depending on the type of assistance and training required.
I found that a over couple of days my productivity was hugely impacted, when I needed to spend a lot of time on training and orientation, but other days I was able to get on with my work, while being “on call” in case I needed to help with anything. Taking on a work experience placement when you have a pressing client deadline probably isn’t a great idea, as it would inevitably make the person doing the placement feel uncomfortable bothering established team members with questions – and the freedom to ask for help when necessary is super important to helping new team members feel relaxed and do their best work.
Alice spent the first few days shadowing different members of the development team to get some insight into the different types of work we do, from support and maintenance through to building brand new projects from the ground up, as well as our tools and internal processes. On the front end side, I spent an entire day with her just talking through our project process and the technologies we use, including demonstrating them in action by screensharing and building some front end components while talking through my development decisions. The aim wasn’t that she should remember everything perfectly, but that she should feel orientated within the project when it came to writing code herself. I fully expected that she would still need to frequently reach out and ask questions, and made sure she was aware that she could do so at any time.
The onboarding involved a lot of talking on my part. I found it a bit more draining than I would have if we’d done it in-person, as it’s a little more difficult to gauge whether someone is taking everything in, but doing this over a video call was relatively painless on the whole.
We use Tailwind for writing our CSS at Atomic Smash, so once I’d given Alice an intro, I invited her to spend a bit of time building a small Codepen demo, to allow her to get more familiar without the stress of thinking about everything else the project entails. Personally, I feel that having the time and space to try out unfamiliar tools and technologies in a relaxed environment can help speed up the process when it comes to moving into a real project environment.
5. Writing code
I wanted to give Alice the chance to contribute some real code to the project, but didn’t want her to feel pressured to deliver a final, polished outcome within a short deadline, especially while she was learning the ropes. At Atomic Smash we break our tasks down into milestones, so I assigned her some tasks from one of the later milestones, that was less time-sensitive. I gave her plenty of time to work on each task, checking in with her towards the end of the day. We then did a code review (over Zoom), where I talked through any parts that I would do differently and why. I made it clear that those differences weren’t things I would expect her to know, more like things that come with the experience of being embedded with the technology and the project for an extended length of time.
Taking on a junior developer or work experience placement during a global pandemic need not be a headache – it just needs planning, consideration and empathy. I hope these tips give you some ideas about how to approach this, and the kind of support you can offer.
(Alice is currently looking for work – you should hire her!)