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Over the past several months I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring two fantastic interns here at Wired. Here are 10 big picture things I tried to teach them.

But first, I’m going to start with a lesson learned when I was an intern. Right after I graduated college, the country was in a recession similar to now, so unable to find a job, I took an internship at a very small independent film group. I was going to learn about multimedia! The group was run by the ego-centric director of these films, who was a bit of a jerk and a dictator.

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One of the street smart guys that worked there was an African-American I’ll call Marcus. The director once told me that Marcus was a recovering crack addict. Hmmm. Not sure why he decided to tell me that piece of personal information.

One day he asked me where Marcus was, and I said I didn’t know, so I tried him at home and got no answer. The director then said, try him at Susan’s place – another coworker — and handed me her number. Without thinking I called the number, Susan answered, and I said it was Jim from the office and asked for Marcus. She was clearly thrown off guard and said he was busy.

About half an hour later, Marcus arrived at the office. He told me to follow him, and we went for a walk outside. He calmly put his arm around my shoulder and said,

“Jim, I know the director told you to find me and you were just following orders, and he put you in a really bad position, and believe me, I’m going to have a talk with him next. But if you ever, ever, call me at Susan’s place again, I’ll kill you.

That’s because Marcus and Susan were secretly sleeping together, and that was a little bit of information that they didn’t want anyone else in the office to know.

So I learned a valuable lesson that day. Also that summer, I learned:

  • How to use a Mac for the first time
  • How to apply for a grant for a non-profit film
  • How to use a character-generator to add subtitles to a foreign movie
  • How things worked in the film industry … that you suffered in very crappy production assistant jobs for years that paid little or nothing in order to pay your dues before moving on to the next step.

And because of that, the most important thing I learned, was that the film industry wasn’t for me.

And really, shouldn’t that be the purpose of an internship?

It should be a combination of practical work skills, a picture of what it’s like to work in a certain industry, with a few life lessons throw in along the way.

Super intern #1 was Brandon, who couldn’t have been a closer replica of myself back in college if I tried. Great work ethic, unending thirst for technology, and a love of cars and computers and gadgets.

Super intern # 2 was Anuja, a double-major, pay-her-own-way-through-college, graduate-a-year-early talent, also with an unending thirst for knowledge and a ridiculous work ethic.

Here are the top 10 things I tried to teach them:

1) Misuse of Reply all, BCC, and mute: Don’t be that person.

Let’s start with the practical ones. Thankfully neither of them had a problem with these, but clearly SOMEONE isn’t getting the word out on this so I told them anyway.

We’re in year 10 of ubiquitous e-mail communication in the workplace, but it’s still a common occurrence for someone to ‘reply all’ to an all-encompassing company e-mail, usually with embarrassing results. Don’t be that person.

Ditto for composing an email in your work life or personal life and putting 30 people on the ‘To:’ line. Not only does this expose everyone’s email to every other person on the list, which gets into privacy issues, guess what? It sets the stage for some moron to hit reply all with a dumb comment.

Lastly, if you don’t know how to use the mute button, you are not allowed to participate on a conference call. Really? You can’t hear yourself breathing like Darth Vader having an asthma attack? Everyone knows the first words ever spoken over a phone line were Alexander Graham Bell saying ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.’ This was quickly followed by ‘Um, is someone on the line typing? Can you please put yourself on mute if you’re going to be typing!’

2) If you’re doing a presentation, something will go wrong.
Here’s the typical corporate conference room: a beautiful mahogany table surrounded by Eames chairs, a giant monitor at one end, and a rats nest of various wires poking out of a little trap door in the middle.

Video projector

Even with modern advances, getting everything to work right is still very difficult. Every laptop has a different set of key commands to change from the laptop screen to the overhead monitor. There’s never the right dongle to connect to a projector. The speakers are always too loud or non-existent. The internet connection doesn’t work or is too slow.

I once did a presentation in front of 250 people involving a laptop hooked to a miniature camera on a tripod that was focusing on the beta version of live features on a prototype cell phone being held in vice grips. I was there an hour ahead of time, and checked everything over 5 times, and believe it or not, I was good to go. That was, of course, until 5 minutes before I went on, when the setup went dead. The unknown cause? The lamp on the projector overheated.

How can you overcome a nightmare presentation?

Preparation and alternatives.

  • The more important the presentation, the more time you need for setup time before the meeting starts.
  • Always bring paper copies, just in case.
  • If giving internet presentations is a major part of your job, invest in a standalone internet card;

In my case, I quietly pulled the conference director aside, asked him to move the next speaker ahead of me on the agenda, and by then the fan kicked in, the projector cooled down, it came back to life, and I was good to go.

3) Learn about every part of the business.
My first internet job was in Seattle, as a technical producer building the product online. It was all about the product. Any interaction with the sales team was to fight them against putting banner ads that would take away from the user experience. Then I moved to New York, where I found, it’s more about the money.

I got to know the sales team, and gained a whole new respect and understanding of the business. I mean, these account reps walk into Chevrolet and without blinking an eye, asks them for hundreds of thousands of dollars to put a little picture of a Silverado on a 300 pixel wide banner. That takes moxie.

So get to know editorial and design on the west coast. Get to know sales and marketing and finance on the east coast. Read the weekly updates from the engineering meetings. The more you know about the entire business, the better you’ll be.

4) Numbers count.Little professor calculator
It’s great to come up with creative ideas, but ultimately it’s the numbers that count. If you’re talking content, it’s uniques and sessions and page views. Drill deeper and you’ve got page views per session, time spent on site, and other analytics. Ask to see the marketing budget and learn how funds are allocated across various programs. And if there’s one lesson we learned from the dotcom bust, it’s to ask the question, so what’s the revenue model? Oh, and another place to have good numbers? Your resume.

5) Fail fast and test often.
This is one of the greatest strengths of the internet. Most everything can be measured. At my last job, a few of us were arguing over some language to put on an ad banner. I was strongly in favor of one message, and two other colleagues had different ideas. Finally, the director stepped in and said, you know what? It doesn’t matter what your gut feeling says. Don’t spend another second thinking about this. Do all three banners, throw them up, and see which one performs.

Of course, this doesn’t work as well for something like print ads, which have long lead times. But in the digital age, changing a layer in Photoshop to test Click Here vs. Learn More vs. Take our Tour takes about a minute, and with any basic analytics program you can get the results in a few days or less.

6) Keep a list of personal accomplishments.
This is a practice I’ve done throughout my career that has paid dividends. I simply keep a text file on my hard drive, and every week or so or every time I complete a major project, I jot down a line or two. At the same time, I make sure to take a screenshot if it’s a major project or marketing program. This comes in handy in a few scenarios:Checklist

  • Most obvious is that the interns need to report back to their professor what they learned during their internship. Taking quick notes throughout the year is a lot easier than trying to remember at the end of three months.
  • Next, it’s good to go back and do a quick review every once in awhile. Sometimes the projects that ended up having the most success were not the ones that took the most time or had the highest budget.
  • It also comes in handy at review time, as it makes it a lot easier to print the file and run down the list of accomplishments with your boss. Call me crazy, but when there’s money on the line, I’m not leaving it up to my supervisor to keep track that we increased online subscription sales 14.5% in Q1.
  • And if your fantastically organized performance review doesn’t go so fantastic? Well, you’ve got 80% of your resume done when you’re ready to start your next job search.
  • Lastly, and I think this can be true not just for marketing, but for most any other field, putting together a solid portfolio of your work is the best interview technique I can recommend. For example, my previous portfolio contained magazine print ads, screenshots of web programs, offline collateral, marketing plan documents, project timelines, and sample spreadsheets.

7) Always keep learning.
As the saying goes, the only constant in life is change. That’s why it’s so important to keep up with the latest trends in your industry.

  • I start each Monday morning by visiting every one of Wired’s competitors and reading the latest industry news.
  • You should attend at least 1 conference in your industry per year to see what other companies are doing and to make connections
  • Subscribe to industry newsletters and emails. Two that I recommend for online marketing are MarketingSherpa and Website Magazine.
  • Subscribe to or read publications in your field. Since I work on Wired Magazine, I often pick up an issue of Fast Company or other competing magazines. If you work in finance, I’m not saying you need to subscribe to ‘Accounting Illustrated,’ but you might want to take a peek at Fortune or Money or The Wall Street Journal.
  • Take at least 1 class per year in a subject you enjoy that is related to your job. Chances are, the company might even pay for it.
  • Stay in touch with old co-workers and go to lunch with a different one every week or two. Not only does this help you with your current job, it builds a strong network in the event that you are laid off.
  • One old co-worker when I was just starting out told me he tries to go on a job interview every six months. Even if you’re happy where you are, it’s good to know your value in the marketplace. And if your company shows signs of problems, it’s much better to be among the first people to leave, then to be the last one stuck with all the work when people start jumping from the sinking ship.

8. Connect with people.
It really is all about communication. Yes, if you’re an accountant you need to balance the budget or if you’re an editor you have to write the column. But the most important skill you can develop is dealing with your co-workers.Happy hour

There’s going to be some office politics, guaranteed. There will be people that you can’t stand and others that become lifelong friends. You might even meet your future spouse at the office. But most every single ‘moving on to a new job’ farewell email contains the line ‘The thing I will miss the most is the people I worked with.’

And don’t think that connection ends at 6:00pm. Sometimes social interaction outside the office is just as – if not more – important than what happens during the day. Don’t underestimate the importance of grabbing a beer with the department on a Friday night.

9. Do something you love.
You might not get your dream job right off the bat, but early in your career, make sure that every company you invest your time at contributes something toward your ultimate goal.

Let’s face it, a lot of people – too many people — will spend 45 hours a week for 45 years doing their ‘job,’ maybe even hating their job, so that they can eventually retire and do what they really want to do.

I call these people morons.

But maybe that’s a little harsh. Phrased positively, I have been fortunate enough to make a living doing something I enjoy. Whether you’re a 20-year-old intern or have been in the workplace for years, it’s never too late to go after your dream job.

Take the pillow test to assess your career satisfaction. When you take your head up off the pillow in the morning, are you excited about going to work, or dreading it? And when you lay your head down on the pillow at night, are you happy about what you have been able to accomplish, or are you still carrying the stress of the day? The answer will not always be positive, but if it is consistently negative, it may be time to move on.

I once read a book titled Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow.

I think that sums it up pretty well.

10. Go Home.
Life is short. Impress me by working hard during the day, asking questions, challenging me, and doing quality work. Impress me more by knowing when to shut off the computer and go home to spend time with family and friends. Did you use all your vacation time this year?

Technology has almost made it too easy to stay connected to work, with cell phones on 24×7 and a Blackberry or Treo to check email at any time. Resisting the urge is difficult. I know. I worked plenty of 18 hour days or 60 hour weeks trying to prove myself when building my career in my 20s.

Ask any retiree for advice at the end of their career. They probably have a few regrets of things they wish they had done or trips they wish they had taken. But I challenge you to find one that looks back, reflects, and says ‘I really wish I had worked more hours.’


Other articles you may like:

10 Tips for Effective Communication

Job Searching in the Digital Age


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