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A Virtual Internship with Real Benefits

Jessica Mcquade Smaller

It used to be that summer interns spent their days doing filing, making copies, and following people around to watch what they did. But those days are gone. Today’s interns are looking for true, professional, resume-worthy experience and connections that give them a leg up in their careers.

Palo Alto Networks takes this goal to heart, and its University Relations (UR) team has developed a distinctive internship program that — even in the midst of a pandemic that forced all interns to work remotely — is ranked among the top 100 in the nation for 2020 for the quality of experiences given to interns, its emphasis on diversity and inclusion, and its innovative approach to remote work.

“Real” Work

The UR team creates a valuable, real-world professional experience for interns. While, of course, interns can expect several weeks of onboarding and ramping up their knowledge about their jobs, the philosophy at Palo Alto Networks is that one learns by doing. After all, an internship is supposed to prepare you for the next phase of your career, so it’s important to gain true professional experience.

“The reason I chose Palo Alto was that, during my conversation with the manager, he made it very clear that, at least on his team, he was definitely going to give the intern real work,” says Karen Jiang, a rising senior at Cornell University in New York who interned during summer 2020. “What I’ve noticed about a lot of internships is that, while the work is legitimate, it was always kind of isolated from the rest of the team, just so the intern doesn’t ‘break’ anything. But my manager made it clear, this would be real work. That meant I’d also be in the zone for breaking other people’s code or other people potentially breaking my work, which is really interesting because that’s what real developers and engineers do..”

In fact, interns frequently express pleasant surprise about the level of work experience they gain through the program. Sabrina Liu, a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and a summer 2020 software engineer intern, says, “It’s really mind-blowing that they let interns get involved with this kind of thing and take ownership of something that impacts thousands of customers.”

Keeping Diversity and Inclusion Top of Mind

Ensuring that we grow a cybersecurity workforce that includes a diverse range of backgrounds, talent, experiences, and ideas is a priority for our internship program. This is why our University Relations team actively reaches out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other diversity-focused institutions. During orientation, the team highlights Palo Alto Networks’ Employee Network Groups to encourage interns to get involved with groups they are allied with or interested in.

And as the nation turns increasing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing awareness of and interest in understanding the Black experience, we’ve created opportunities for deeper learning and connection, including spaces in which to have conversations about media representations of this subject as well as webinars with diverse speakers.

Shifting Gears

COVID-19 threw a wrench into plans for summer 2020 for the interns, many of whom had actually relocated to California to be near headquarters. Suddenly, gone were the dreams of water cooler conversations, sit-downs with managers, and happy hours with colleagues at local gathering spots.

Instead, the UR team reimagined an internship program that is both collegial and distant. Laptops were sent to each intern, along with a $200 stipend for any needed home office equipment. The onboarding plan included virtual learning paths that helped interns get up to speed quickly on Palo Alto Networks’ policies and expectations, guest speakers from various parts of the company, and an introduction to the Early in Career Employee Group, a small employee network of young professionals new to their careers who can share insights, form relationships, and ask questions, no matter how mundane.

Every intern was paired with a buddy from their team to act as a coach, motivator, and advisor. A professional development speaker series allowed interns to hear directly from professionals about tips for charting their career paths.

And just because they were working remotely doesn’t mean the interns weren’t able to have fun and socialize. The UR team got creative in planning a number of virtual events, from Bingo and 20 Questions to Zoom background competitions and much more.

As a result of these efforts, the interns say that not only did they feel included and engaged from day one, but they also warmed up quite easily to the remote work, with its lack of traffic and long commute times, and ability to carve out their own schedules.

Another unexpected benefit was how virtual interactions seemed to level the playing field for shy interns. “I’m a huge introvert,” says Karen. “I get very nervous meeting new people and talking to them — especially in the beginning of an internship, where you might need a lot of help and hand-holding. So with this experience being remote, it was actually a little easier for me to approach new people than it might have been in person. Sending a message on Slack isn’t all that different from chatting to anyone online; titles are erased. So if someone says, ‘You need to go talk to the director,’ you don’t see the word ‘director’ next to their name in Slack. It makes them seem more approachable.”

Ultimately, our goal for interns is to ensure them every opportunity to learn and grow in their chosen subject areas, but also to gain a deeper understanding of themselves as professionals and colleagues, as well as the cybersecurity industry and their place in it. We are so proud to be among the nation’s Top 100 Internship Programs, and we invite you to discover its many benefits for yourself!

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