Rewriting the Internship Playbook – Fostering Brilliant Ideas from a Distance

How embracing autonomy, adapting to change, and creating meaningful connections enrich virtual summer internships

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Head of Adobe Research at Adobe
Head of Adobe Research at Adobe

It was a summer like no other – especially for the 2020 Adobe interns. While many companies had to put their summer internships on hold during COVID-19, Adobe brought on more than 700 interns virtually across the company, including 135 in Adobe Research —my team of research scientists and engineers who shape early-stage ideas into innovative technologies.

It wasn’t easy, but our intern program has always been at the heart of Adobe’s culture of innovation, so it was crucial to maintain it. This summer became a real-time experiment in how to make internships work in a virtual world. Here’s what we learned:

1. Encourage innovation by embracing freedom

One of the guiding principles for our summer internship program, whether we’re in-person or virtual, is to step back and let interns try out their ideas. These explorations may lead us toward new areas of research and products we’d never imagined before. Sometimes a project may not make it beyond a proof-of-concept, or the direction of the work may change course based on testing or feedback. However, even when the project doesn’t work out, we often learn a critical insight that informs future research.

Our interns often say that having the autonomy to develop a project, take initiative over their own research, and try new things makes the program invaluable.

2. Welcome interns into the heart of the research process

Another central tenant of our intern program – one that worked in a virtual world as well as it does in-person – is to ensure our summer interns play a central role in our research publication program. It’s critical to have interns research, test, ask questions, and develop new ideas on the cutting edge of tech exploration, even from a distance.

Nearly half of the technologies shipped in Adobe products in recent years have come from projects with interns or university collaborators. In the past three years, around 90 percent of Adobe’s technical publications started as collaborations with universities or students. Last year, more than half of the technology patents our team filed included an intern as an inventor.

3. Open the dialogue between industry and academia

One of the strengths of an internship program is that it can help interns see beyond academia to gain an industrial research perspective and see how customer needs shape product development. This exchange of ideas strengthens the broader conversation between industry and academia, pushing the state of the research forward for all of us.

4. Be creative to build remote connections

We were committed to making this summer’s internship program work remotely, which took extra effort to keep ideas flowing and help interns share their thoughts and questions without the typical hallway conversations, group lunches and whiteboard sessions.

We turned our social events into online gatherings, starting with “virtual donut dates” aimed at creating some of that magic that usually happens in person – those moments when you discover that someone’s research interests dovetail with your own, or that you are looking at two different aspects of the same problem.

Since their research interests were already a match, interns and their mentors made deep virtual connections. We kept our tradition of asking interns plenty of questions and offering suggestions — one way we let them know that their work is noticed and appreciated. And as always, interns were paid and will be credited in all relevant publications and patents.

By the end of the summer, 98 percent of our interns surveyed across Adobe in North America responded by saying that they felt a sense of belonging at the company. The fact that they were able to thrive is a testament to the power of an intriguing research question and an all-ideas-welcome approach.

5. Embrace the new world of work and the generation that will shape it

This summer’s interns amazed us as they took their remote internships in stride. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised as they’ve grown up in the digital age. They have high expectations for the tools they use, and they bring that same mindset to working remotely. Admittedly, this latest crop of interns taught us as much as we taught them – especially when it came to flexibility and adapting to new digital collaboration tools.

Looking forward

Prior to this pandemic, we already had a strong intern program in place, so we tried to keep as much of the spirit of it as we could. It was challenging, but it forced us to think more deeply about what matters for innovation and collaboration, and to better support our teams – no matter where they are. While it’s too early to say how next summer’s internship program will be structured, we will continue to keep the best of the ideas and tools that emerged while we were remote, no-matter how the work environment evolves in the future.

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