The benefits of hiring the best engineering interns into full-time positions are well known by top technology recruiters at Facebook, Apple, and Google. CNBC reported that engineering interns at these companies “earn almost twice what the average American worker makes,” which often includes an array of mind-blowing perks.
This puts pre-IPO companies like Cockroach Labs at a disadvantage. We often can’t provide the extensive compensation and perks that top technology companies are offering. However, we can get creative.
Our CEO, Spencer Kimball, and I had a lengthy discussion about how we can attract engineering interns and have them come back to our company when they graduate.
To attract more candidates, we give interns the opportunity to have direct exposure to high-impact projects. During the onboarding process, we expose interns to a smaller, manageable part of the system and set a scope for their first project to last about a month. During the first project, they learn not only how to navigate the code base and engineering environment, but gain confidence in the work they are doing. After they complete their first project, we set them up with a project for the duration of their internship that is in line with their interests and the company’s needs.
Starting with a project that is smaller in scope allows for an intern to feel they are making impact sooner as they have reached productivity more quickly than they would if they were working on a larger project. In addition, we pair our interns with a mentor and have checkpoints as they progress. These efforts can include 1:1s, 30-day check-ins, mid-intern reviews, etc.
To encourage our top engineering interns to want to come back to Cockroach Labs in the future, we have approached the intern-employer in two ways.
First, we provide ongoing mentorship. One of our past interns had a desire to work at Google on a large-scale system in his future internship. Our VP of Engineering and past Google employee, Peter Mattis, advised on the benefits of working at Google and what the intern could expect while working at a larger, more structured company.
For example, at a company like Google, you get the benefit of what it is like working at a company at scale but your internship project may have less impact on the overall business as it could be a smaller piece of the product area. At Cockroach Labs, we want interns to have all the data points possible to make the best decision for them while they are considering full-time opportunities. If that involves exploring internships at other companies, we want to provide support in any way possible, all while leaving an offer open to return to Cockroach Labs.
Second, subject to board approval, we may extend options (pre-IPO shares) to our interns that will vest if they choose to return to us after they graduate.
If interns who receive such options return to the company within a specified period of time, they will be recognized for the work that they have done previously by accelerating their option vesting schedule by the time spent at Cockroach Labs during their internship. For example, our standard option vesting schedule is that 25% of the option vests after 12 months of service from an employee’s start date (the “cliff”), and the remaining option vests in equal installments over the following 36 months of continuous service. However, if an intern spent four months with us, on their hire date they would only have eight months until they hit their one-year cliff date and vest 25%.
We started extending these options to a number of our interns in 2017, and thus far the response has been very positive.
It’s now been nearly four years since we started offering interns equity if they came back to Cockroach Labs full-time. Back then, we were a Series B startup with $53 million in funding. Today, we’re a Series E company with $355m in funding and a $2 billion valuation. Interns who joined us back then will benefit from the lower cost to exercise stock options as a Series B employee even though those options have grown in valuation.
Paul Bardea, a former intern who joined us full-time in 2019, shared his perspective on this benefit: “As an intern, I felt like I had the opportunity to work on impactful projects, as would a full-time engineer. Being offered equity for my time as an intern further recognized the value of my work. It was also an exciting and unique way to be involved with an early-stage startup.”
Our efforts to attract and retain our engineering interns are different from later stage or larger technology companies. Our approach stresses supporting our engineering interns as they evaluate long-term career decisions, even if that takes them in another direction. However, should they decide to return to Cockroach Labs, we ensure we are recognizing the impact that the intern has already made even before their transition to full-time employment. This approach shows our commitment to our intern’s lifelong career.
Humans be humans. ;)
Illustration by Jared Oriel