Tech Mentoring: A Win-Win

Last Friday afternoon, as I listened to my interns at Affectiva eloquently discuss with our visitors from AI4All the benefits of interning, I couldn’t help but think of the additional benefits that internship programs bring the people who mentor interns, the company that hosts the intern program and the broader technical ecosystem.

Benefits to interns

The benefits to students are of course the most obvious: learning technical skills they need in order to bridge the gap between academia and industry, experiencing first hand different corporate cultures (informal versus formal) and work environments (startups versus big companies), learning the importance of teamwork, accountability, clear communication and positivity towards productivity, and developing their professional networks are all benefits which enhance the job readiness of interns. And from personal experience, I would say the money one earns (I am of course assuming that ALL internships are paid; after all this is 2019 people!) doesn’t hurt: my repeated internship stints at the Mayo Clinic paid for much of my college expenses, but even more importantly, they taught me the value of money and budgeting.

Benefits to mentors

Internship programs which involve true mentoring — no coffee runs or paper shredding jobs — can sometimes be seen within companies as a hindrance to productivity and disruptive to the usual process of getting stuff done. However, I argue that with proper training and resources, interns or mentees can not only learn vital skills to join the workforce but they can also be of great benefit to the mentors and an asset to the company.

In 2007, scientists identified the “protege effect” which shows that subjects enlisted to tutor others work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively, lending credence to the long-held belief that we learn when we teach. I have personally found it to be true in every opportunity I have had in over a decade of being a mentor. Thanks to one of my interns’ projects, this year I had the opportunity to learn about some very cool deep architectures for fusing facial, vocal and textual channels of information.

And it isn’t just technical skills; by mentoring interns, an independent contributor can learn how to manage people whose work styles may be different from their own, how to delegate and trust yet keep people accountable, and how to critique empathetically and receive feedback with openness — skills that they may need to use later in their career.

Benefits to the company

Mentoring interns can be critical for mentors’ continuing education; this is especially true for the fields of AI and Machine Learning, where the technology is changing so rapidly that even those who are familiar and up-to-date with the technology are vulnerable to falling behind. In fact, for this reason alone, companies should be all over intern programs. Through the process of teaching their interns, the company’s employees can keep their knowledge and skills current, which ultimately helps the company. There are other great benefits to the company as well: Interns can bring fresh and diverse perspectives to issues and problems long unnoticed or simply “lived with” by those well-entrenched into the organization and its way of doing things. 

And now for the elephant in the room: Can interns help the company’s bottom line? To that I say a resounding “yes!” Given appropriate training, support and autonomy, interns can overall improve the company’s productivity. Interns at Affectiva regularly work on projects that are essential to the company ranging from building machine learning models for detecting emotional and cognitive states, to figuring out how to mitigate algorithmic bias, to exploring the use of data synthesis for classifier improvement. None of these are toy projects and none of them are boring; they are often the most interesting and innovative of projects that we are doing at the time, and some are critical to meeting aggressive R&D deadlines. And the amazing thing is that our interns meet and exceed our high expectations regularly, doing their work with diligence and accountability. We at Affectiva so believe in the benefits that interns bring that almost every scientist or engineer mentors at least one intern a year. 

Another important benefit for companies implementing a mentorship program is that it gives them the opportunity to bring in and nurture talent from underrepresented populations who otherwise may not have the resources to learn and apply their skills in an impactful way. In fact, more diverse companies have been proven to perform better: according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, “companies that have more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to innovation”. 

Benefits to the tech ecosystem 

Diversifying the pool of talent is essential to the health of the company and its products. When people from a variety of backgrounds have a voice at the workplace, it ensures that the goals of the company are not skewed to more heavily represent one group, thus further shutting out others. Keeping in mind that the consumers of AI are from all walks of life, it is vital to integrate a variety of perspectives, opinions and concerns into the development of AI technologies, thus mitigating the creep of unconscious bias into our AI.

However, the benefit of increasing the diversity of the tech talent pool transcends beyond the company and applies to the tech ecosystem as a whole. Women and people of color are severely underrepresented within STEM. Consider this: less than 2 percent of employed engineers and scientists are women of color, though they make up a much larger percentage of the US population. These statistics become even more dire when paired with other factors such as single parenting or special-needs parenting. Creating opportunities for such subgroups is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do: they will not only reinforce the STEM pipeline with a variety of perspectives and breathe life into an otherwise homogenized workforce, but they will help alleviate the very tight labor market that is already upon us. 

So readers, I challenge you to change the way that you think about internship programs. We can give interns amazing learning experiences, while simultaneously familiarizing mentors with new technologies, increasing the overall health of the company, and replenishing the industry’s naturally leaky pipeline. We can look at internship programs as an ecosystem of their own, where symbiotic relationships between interns and mentors benefit companies hosting intern programs and have the potential to transform the face of the tech industry. Internship programs can be a life force for keeping the talent pool healthy, and impacting future generations by building up a new generation of leaders in tech. Every company, no matter how small, can have an internship program; so let’s not wait: start with one intern; teach them something and learn a lot in the process. It’s a win-win!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on August 4, 2019.

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