How intern mentorship works at Khan Academy

Three of our twelve(‽) summer interns have arrived. It’s high time I share how we mentor interns before I’m spending all my time swatting sharks and helicopters out of the air. These tips also apply to new full-time hires, of course, but for now I’ve got interns on the brain.

1. Make the mentorship relationship explicit

At some point in a new employee’s first day they will hear some variation of the words, “I’m your official mentor. As we work through your first few projects together, you can interrupt me any time for any technical question, non-technical question, question about the rules of Bang!, or just because you want to order a specific keyboard. Don’t think twice.”

We don’t throw our interns into a room with 5 people and say “You’re surrounded by mentors! LEARN.” If you’re hiring right, they already know how to do that better than you. What they need is awareness of a specific mentor that will unflinchingly act as their outlet for any need, without frustration.

Good hires will find the right balance between diving into their new codebase to find their own answers and asking you for help. Some may need a little bit of guidance. We’d rather err on the side of interns asking too many questions (easily correctable) than them being scared or unsure of who to interrupt (unfortunate culture problem).

I wish this shark was remote control.

2. Code review everything, and have interns do code reviews

Gonna keep this short because I’ve been over this before. Code reviews form a huge part of our mentor/mentee relationship. Warning though! I’ve been bitten in the past when a class of interns wasn’t code reviewed consistently. If a few interns are getting great code reviews on every checkin and others…not so much…, then they’re going to notice and draw weird conclusions. I’ve been part of teams that have suffered from this in the past, and I publicly apologize. I’m less worried about this now that we have a simple review all the code policy at Khan.

3. Prep your product pre-arrival

The most successful intern projects I’ve been part of began with months (no exaggeration) of preparation. At least for Fog Creek and Khan, intern summers are the most suddenly dramatic infusion of horsepower we ever have to absorb. We don’t want to waste a drop not knowing where we’re going. You have 9 months every year to stumble around not knowing what you’re doing…just get it together for the summer.

I’ve been scientifically tracking every intern class and found this to be the most significant variable.

What do you prep? I’ve seen a couple things work well:

  • If you are planning on using the summer to launch a brand new product or large feature (I recommend this, it’s a blast), have everything solidified from high-level goals to low-fidelity mockups to code scaffolding.
  • If you have a less defined vision but generally want to improve a particular area, set aside a couple weeks of bite-sized projects long before anyone new sets foot inside.

Don’t worry about overdefining things just yet. This is about making sure people start with a tangible goal to aim for while understanding how that goal fits into your team’s deeper principles. Smart new hires will have absolutely no trouble stepping outside the bounds of your preparations, taking ownership, and persuading you away from all your stupid assumptions. That’s exactly what your culture should be encouraging.

4. Weekly 1-on-1’s

Our mentors have weekly 1-on-1s with their interns to make sure they’re learning what they hoped to learn and are working on the types of projects they’re most passionate about. These days the top interns have tons of opportunity. It’s a battle for the best, so we make sure Khan interns get the most out of their time. If you think it should be the other way around, you’re probably already missing out on the best and it’s highly likely you never started reading this blog in the first place.

1-on-1’s can be just a few minutes and may fall back to every other week when appropriate. Just enough to make sure our interns have a chance to self-direct.

5. Friday tech talks

"Keep learning" is on the short list of Khan Academy company values. Jamie Wong started his internship this summer and dropped this tech talk about meteorjs in the first week. We’ve had tech talks about fonts (typefaces? styles? ugh I can never remember the politically correct word, I’m so sorry Marcos), game design, a/b testing, performance, and how Khan Academy is being used in towns without internet connectivity. We’re inviting cool people like Steve Yegge to teach us about API-centric development. We want to learn more.

In fact, if you like Khan Academy and want to give us a treat, we’d love for you to come teach our team something. Email me - — I promise a low-key atmosphere and maybe board games.

5/17/12 — 7:00pm Permalink