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A Fistful of Interns

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Soapbox | 1 Comment »

There is a strange phenomenon among the newer small game development studios in Singapore that I have worked with. This is the employment of interns in their development team. While this is nothing out of the ordinary, these companies take it to such extremes that the intern force outnumbers the full-time staff. In some cases, the intern force is the entirety of the development team.

Why does this happen?

There are a number of advantages to hiring interns. First and foremost, they are dirt-cheap. For S$400 – S$500 a month, you can get a warm body working for you full time. The allure of this is irresistible for smaller setups with tight purse strings. This means that for every entry-level permanent staff you hire, you could have gotten 3-4 interns.

The other major factor is that it is very difficult to find competent programmers, artists and designers in Singapore. Though the local polytechnics are churning out batch after batch every year, supply is still extremely scarce. Why is this? A significant portion of the students come to the realization that making games is hard work, and not the dream job they once saw it to be, resulting in them switching to other lines of work, such as selling insurance. Of the remainder, the big boys (i.e. EA, Ubisoft, Koei, Lucas, etc.) suck up the majority. This leaves for thin pickings for the smaller companies with more modest employment budgets.

Why is this bad?

The first bad thing is turnover. Internships typically last 1, 3 or 6 months. If you are lucky and on very good terms with the institution you got them from, you might extend this by another 3 months by setting your company project as their final year project. It typically takes about 2 months to train and fully integrate the said intern into your workflow. This does not leave much in the way of “productive time”. Also, given that the vast majority of the game development students are male and local, they will be gone for National Service after they graduate, killing prospects of hiring them full time.

Then there is quality. Hiring interns is like dipping into a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. Of each cohort, roughly 10% is self-motivated and competent enough to jump right into the job and get things done in a timely fashion. 30% are your worst nightmare. At best they take up space and not much else. At worst, they impede production and demoralize the rest of your workforce. Fortunately, most institutes recognize these people and do not send them out for internships. Some however, occasionally slip through the cracks. The remainder require constant training and supervision, and even so, the quality of their work will remain sub-par and unimaginative.

Efficiency. After a few months of finding out that their interns cannot produce the quality of work they desire, many employers look to hire a senior staff to nurture their intern force. Quite often, that ends up as me or one of the other handful of freelancers operating in Singapore. However, little do they realize that if we were to handle the task solo, the project would most likely be delivered faster, and at higher quality, than managing all these interns.

Operational costs. If we were to assume that 3 interns = 1 junior developer, the company would have to provide three times the space and equipment for an equal amount for productivity. The higher maintenance cost may outweigh whatever savings you get from hiring interns in the first place.

What should companies know about interns?

Interns are a useful asset to have, but their usefulness depends on how you employ them. Know that your interns are going to sap time from your employed staff. If they outnumber your permanent staff, you may find productivity dipping significantly, especially within the first month or so of the internship.

When allocating tasks to interns, ensure that they have very specific and clear instructions on what has to be accomplished, and how it is to be done. It is also incredibly useful if you can define easy-to-measure KPIs to assess the level of their work. They will also require constant supervision, and somebody should be assigned to check in on them on a daily basis. Most interns are shy and hesitant to ask for help.

When deciding to hire an intern, plan out the tasks they will do during the course of an internship. Do have contingency plans as the intern may take an extended amount of time to finish their task, or if you are extremely lucky, may finish it well ahead of schedule.

Most interns will need to prepare reports and presentations for their schools. They will typically spend the last week of their internship doing this. These may also need to be vetted for reasons of confidentiality.

Pretty much all interns I’ve seen end up surfing YouTube and play web-based Flash games during office hours. Be aware, and strike a balance.

What the government and educational institutions can do to help

The major stick in the mud as far as internships go is national service. Ideally, you would want to use the internship as a testing ground for possible future employment. However, they are bundled off to the army for two years right after they graduate, breaking any continuity. If polytechnic education came after their time in the army rather than before, this would be much less of an issue. In Korea, outstanding students are allowed to serve their national service in game companies. That would be an excellent way to promote the growth of the game industry in Singapore.

Three-month internships are too short. Internships should be at least 5-6 months long for the companies to recoup the cost of training the students, particularly in highly technical industries like game development. The ability to extend this further by incorporating their final year project into the attachment time is an outstanding initiative done by quite a few institutions.

Interviews with students or at least some informal introduction to the students prior to taking them on as interns would be extremely useful. This would aid in getting the students with the right skills and interests to the right jobs. It may also open their eyes as to what is out there. Right now, the process feels too much like a lucky draw, especially from the perspective of the hiring company.

So where does that leave us?

Internships are useful, no doubt, partly as a means of accomplishing simpler tasks and partly as one of the company’s recruitment strategies. However, overdoing it can result in loss of productivity because interns are raw, need to be trained and won’t stick around long enough. Build up your core team first, and supplement them with interns rather than the other way round.

One Comment on “A Fistful of Interns”

  1. 1 DuracellRabbid: Thoughts for the Moment « The Sassy Meow said at 5:54 pm on September 16th, 2010:

    […] project which I would get sued if I said anything more. Recently, my supervisor, Eugene, blogged a post about interns in game studios. Being an intern myself not long ago (well, one year + isnt that long right?), I do have my own […]

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