If there’s one thing I’d get rid of in the CS community, it’s early stage startups offering internships. You see this all the time, whether it’s on the opportunities mailing list, on job postings, or mentioned in passing by the startup founder. Simply put, these are scams.
I’m not talking about funded startups offering paid internships. Those are perfectly fine. I’m talking about the startup that is pre-funding or seed funded that is trying to get free labor out of unsuspecting students.
As I’ve mentioned, you should care about technical mentorship. An early stage startup does not have time to mentor an intern. The developers at an early stage startup are working at full capacity to keep the ship afloat. They’re not going to mentor you.
Instead, they’ll try to use you as free labor. As a code-monkey who can help them be the next Facebook. Not only is that exploitative, it’s stupid. Any company that genuinely believes unpaid interns—without guidance or mentorship—can produce useful code is a company run by morons.
You’ll also have a mountain of work. Startups by their very nature have a practically endless amount of work. You’ll be stuck with no guidance and a massive pile of tasks to get done. Not fun.
Often times this is a move pulled by startups run by non-technical people. Non-technical people fall into the classic trap of assuming that more programmers means more code means more features. Yeah…that’s not how that works. If you see an offer for an unpaid internship at a startup where there is no technical leadership, run. Well you should be running anyways since unpaid internship at a startup should sound as good as “unpaid grunt in burning tire fire”.
There’s so many other ways you could fill your free time. Work in a side project. Contribute to open source. Read stuff on the internet. Send out more applications. Everything’s remote these days. Send out applications to every company you can imagine.
If you truly have nothing to do, i.e. you’ve sent out 300 applications; you’re unable to build a side project for whatever reason; you’ve read all you can read on programming, then at the very least, you deserve to be compensated at this startup. If they can’t pay you in cash, fine. You should get equity1. And don’t let them call you an intern. If they can’t afford to pay you, they can’t afford to call you an intern. You’re a software developer.
But say you’re a student, you don’t have any experience and besides, you don’t need the cash. A few months at an unpaid startup gig doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Yeah it is damn well is pretty bad. You are actively helping a person who is blatantly exploiting people, namely yourself. There’s something truly mean about giving an intern a pile of work and very little guidance. It’s profoundly discouraging.
Your boss is using the title of intern to artificially create a power dynamic. Internships are ways for students to learn about various topics, whether that be technical skills or business knowledge. There is a relationship implicit in this arrangement: you—the intern—are the apprentice, they are the master. In the absence of training, the company is simply trying to maintain the illusion of this power dynamic without any of the requisite mastery.
I’ve seen this used far too often with students or recent graduates who start companies. They find students who are maybe a year or two younger and call them “interns”. There’s no reason for this. A student who is a year or two older does not have enough experience to properly handle a mentor/mentee relationship. They’re trying to raise their social standing by pushing down on others.
That’s what’s so sad about these startup internships. It’s not just that they’re exploitative. It’s that they’re a desperate attempt to gain social capital by playacting as a larger company. They may not have funding or users or a product that people use, but dammit, they have interns.
Although that’s a terrible idea since the equity will probably be worth zero. That being said, it demonstrates a certain amount of respect. ↩