How to quadruple your productivity with an army of student interns

Startup companies are always hunting for ways to accomplish as much as possible with what they have available. Last December we realized that we had a growing queue of important engineering projects outside of our core technology that our team didn't have the time to finish anytime soon. To make matters worse, we wanted the projects completed right away, in time for our planned product launch in early February.

So what did we do? The logical solution, of course. We quadrupled the size of our company's engineering team for one month using paid student interns.

20 men and women posing for a group photo

The Ksplice interns, ca. January 2010.

Now, if you happen to know Fred Brooks, please don't tell him what we did. He managed the Windows Vista of the 1960s---IBM's OS/360, a software project of unprecedented size, complexity, and lateness---and wrote up the resulting hard-earned lessons in The Mythical Man-Month, which everyone managing software projects should read. The big one is Brooks's Law: "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later". Oops.

Brooks's observation usually holds. New people take time to get up to speed on any system---both their own time, and the time of your experienced people mentoring them. They also add communication costs that grow quadratically with the size of the team.

Fortunately, Ksplice benefits from a bit of an engineering reality distortion field (our very product is supposed to be technologically impossible) and, with the right techniques, quadrupling our engineering team's size for one month worked out great. Every intern was responsible for one of the company's top unaddressed priorities for the month, and every intern successfully completed their project.

So, how do you quadruple the size of your engineering team in one month and still keep everyone productive?

Ten people working at computers in a room
At work in the Ksplice engineering office.

  • Tolerate a little crowding. It took a little creativity to suddenly find a dozen new workspaces in our two-room office. Fortunately, we've found that a room can always fit one more person---and by induction, you can fit as many as you need. (All those years we spent proving math theorems came in handy after all.) Seating everyone close to each other has an important advantage, too: when lots of people on your team have just started, it's handy for them to work right next to the mentors who are answering their questions and helping them ramp up on the learning curve of the organization. With the right team, the crowding can also create an energetic office environment that makes people love to come in to work. (Sometimes it gets in the way of concentration, though---that's when I put on a good pair of headphones.)
  • Locate next to a deep pool of hackers. OK, so we're a bit spoiled by being headquartered a few blocks away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, January is set aside for students to pursue projects outside of the curriculum---perfect for hiring an intern army. Many other institutions have either a similar "January term", or a program for students to spend time working in industry during the term.
  • Know who the best people are and only hire them. Ksplice was born four years ago at SIPB, MIT's student computing group. When a group of students run computing services thousands of people rely on, and spend hours each week discussing, dreaming, collaborating, and learning from each other on computer systems---some of them get really good at it. Even better, everyone sees everyone else in action and knows exactly what it's like to work with them. Investing some time into getting involved with technical communities makes it possible to hire people based on personal experience with them and their work, which is so much better than hiring based on resumes and interviews. Companies like Google and Red Hat have known for years that being involved in the open source community can provide an excellent source of vetted job candidates.
  • Pay well. In some industries, "intern" means "unpaid"---but computer science students have plenty of options, and you want to be able to hire the best people. We looked at pay rates for jobs on campus, and pegged our rate to the high end of those.
  • Divide tasks to be as loosely-coupled as possible. Our internship program would never have worked if we had assigned a dozen new people to hack on our kernel code---the training time and communication costs that drive Brooks' Law would have swallowed their efforts whole. Fortunately, like any growing business, we had a constellation of tasks that lie around the edges of our core technology: infrastructure upgrades, additional layers of QA, business analytics, and new features in the management side of our product. These had manageable technical interfaces our existing software, so our interns were able to become productive with minimal ramp-up and rely on relatively little communication to get their projects done.
  • Design your intern projects in advance. A key challenge when scaling up your engineering team quickly is making sure that the interfaces are all well designed and the new projects will meet the company's needs. So we spent a good deal of time getting these designs together before the interns started. We also allocated plenty of our core engineers' time for code reviews and other feedback with our interns in order to make sure their work would be maintainable after they left.
Have you achieved more in one month than anyone thought should be possible? How did you do it?

[Edited to make clear our interns were paid and to say more about how we designed their projects for high-quality output.]

~price

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Tired of rebooting to update systems? So are we -- which is why we invented Ksplice, technology that lets you update the Linux kernel without rebooting. It's currently available as part of Oracle Linux Premier Support, Fedora, and Ubuntu desktop. This blog is our place to ramble about technical topics that we (and hopefully you) think are interesting.

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