Why virtual tech internships might be here to stay

Rolled out as a short-term solution during the pandemic, remote internships can open up new opportunities for interns and their employers.

By Courtney Rubin — May 13, 2021

When Katlynn Stone, 24, interned at a major automaker in the summer of 2019 and returned as a remote intern in 2020, she hoped to earn a permanent position. But because the 2020 program had to be shortened to six weeks instead of 12, Stone’s project was “disappointing” and solitary. (She worked 10 hours a day, but at her good-bye Zoom, she says many members of her team didn’t know who she was.) 

Stone — a computer science major who graduated from Michigan Technological University in the fall of 2020 — scrambled to find a second internship to make up the cash she’d been counting on, and stumbled on ThermoAnalytics, a small software company that had virtual happy hours (bring your own beer) and Dungeons & Dragons sessions. Plus, the work was challenging. She chose a full-time job offer from them over one from Ford, in part because she thought the former did a better job with virtual internships. 

“They actually paired me up with people and taught me things,” she said. 

Internships have long been an indispensable talent pipeline for tech employers, which is why so many put forth a herculean effort to modify their programs for remote work when the pandemic hit. In some cases, the work could remain the same; in others, it had to change because of security issues. Although most interns were just grateful companies honored their hiring commitments, one happy surprise was how satisfied both sides were with the virtual experience. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the offer rate for interns rose to about 80% in 2021, from 68% in 2020. 

“In some ways, interns are getting an opportunity they might not get in the future. They get to be at home and they can still do great work,” says Tanisha Howell, HP’s Global University Program Coordinator, who helped organize the virtual experience for some 300 interns in the United States in the summer of 2020. Howell, a former HP intern, says the company also benefited. “We had a lot of managers saying, ‘Oh, so-and-so is doing so well. I want to bring her back.’”

In an exit survey, 100% of the 2020 HP interns said they would recommend the internship, says Tania Rodríguez, brand and digital coordinator for HP Careers, who thinks the high marks were in part because the virtual environment helped interns hone their communication skills.

“A lot of them talked about how their soft skills were developed or how they were mentored at HP,” she says.

Silver linings of remote

Companies have found benefits in remote interns, from zero relocation costs to a bigger talent pool from which to draw. The virtual tech internship — developed as a short-term only-in-2020 solution — may become a fixture, especially as remote work or hybrid models become the new normal. As a May 2021 study about online internships from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison put it, “the trend toward online internships became a torrent.” 

“I don’t think virtual is going away,” says Kevin Collins, senior assistant director/career consultant for Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. “I think some companies are saying, ‘Do we really need to have everybody at this location?’ There are advantages to remote.” 

HP intern using HP monitor and laptop during a virtual meeting while her dog sits on her lap.

Courtesy of HP

Tanvi Parikh, who interned virtually at HP last summer, watches a talk by Chandrakant Patel, HP's chief engineer. The whole virtual experience presents new opportunities for companies to find and attract young talent.

Angelo Del Priore, a partner at HP Tech Ventures, the venture capital arm of HP, agrees. Through Paragon One, a startup that handles the vetting of students (as well as their onboarding, training, and evaluation), HP Tech Ventures so far has hosted two extern cohorts in 2021, each with about 50 students, who researched companies in the virtual reality space (collectively they found 600). The students, he says, were more geographically diverse than in-person arrangements would have allowed. 

“Not everyone can afford to live in San Francisco or New York,” he says. He plans to continue using remote externs even when offices are open — and to recommend them to HP Tech Ventures’ portfolio companies. (Externships are typically shorter in duration than internships, unpaid, and take place throughout the year.) 


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Paragon One has been organizing remote externships since 2019, but for many companies, the onset of the pandemic meant a massive scramble to convert their internships to virtual. This often required changing the nature of interns’ projects, sometimes because of security issues, other times because the intern program had to be shortened or otherwise altered. 

To help students who found themselves left in the lurch when other companies rescinded their hiring offers in 2020, HP also created the Summer Scholars program, a six-week learning experience featuring workshops and webinars from industry experts at HP. It was originally designed for US students, but nearly 2,000 worldwide participated. 


Making it work 

Inevitably, technologies and methodologies that have yet to be invented will make virtual experiences richer, but even now, both interns and employers are finding new ways to make an impression. Virtual internships may unlock opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible in person. Abbott, a global health technology company in Chicago, was able to host video discussions for remote interns with C-suite executives (including the CEO), which were experiences that in-person internships didn’t get previously. 

“My hope is that the geography is opening up, and more candidates are rural, people of color, and/or female.”

— Jennifer Abman Scott, VP of strategic partnerships, Society for Women Engineers

To integrate interns into corporate life and help them build their networks, global aerospace defense firm Northrop Grumman created a special app for interns to interact with one another. Meanwhile, at Facebook interns were put into teams of three to six and encouraged to work together in a Zoom room and simulate a real office, says Azhar Ali, 21, a rising senior at Florida International University, who interned at the company in the summer of 2020. The company also organized virtual social events, from game nights to cooking lessons, and Ali attended as many as he could.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to make the most of it,” he says. (Ali “trended,” in Facebook parlance — meaning he received an offer to return in the summer of 2021.)  

HP intern working on 3D printed parts.

Courtesy of HP

Amir Suhail, a Service Delivery 3D intern for HP last summer, got hands-on experience producing personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic.

The flexibility in working hours that some managers allowed also suited some interns well. Yuliya Litviakova, 32, who interned in person for HP in Palo Alto in 2019, worked in 2020 from her family’s home in Kyrgyzstan, 13 time zones ahead. Litviakova wouldn’t have been able to do the internship if it were in person, as Kyrgyzstan closed its borders shortly after she arrived home from completing her master’s at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in the spring, and she enjoyed the uninterrupted time to do some work before any meetings began. (Litviakova moved to Palo Alto as a full-time employee this year.)

Other interns impressed their managers with how well they were able to handle remote work, even under less than ideal conditions.

Karen Hannon, senior engineering manager-search services at Mimecast, the email and data security company, supervised two interns from Year Up, a nonprofit job training program for underprivileged students. They didn’t have dedicated home office space and had many interruptions from family during the workday.

“They did an amazing job under the circumstances,” she says. 

Hiring Gen Z

The whole virtual experience — from recruiting to onboarding to the culture of the online office — presents a new opportunity for companies to find, attract, and convert Generation Z to hires. At Penn State, which has 24 campuses, more employers from different regions have come to virtual career fairs since the start of the pandemic, says Kimberly Fox, the school’s associate director of engineering career resources and employer relations.

“Before, employers might not have traveled to all those campuses,” Fox says. “Now they don’t have to travel to any campus.” Meanwhile, at Spelman College, a historically Black college, the fall 2020 career fair reached its highest participation rate to date, with 400 employers, thanks to both the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic.

Because recruiters can reach so many more students, some internships are becoming more competitive (Howell says HP received more applications for internships in 2021, though the number of internships available was roughly the same. A tiny fraction will be in person; most will be remote.) On the flip side, Fox says, each student also has more opportunities than he or she might have had before.

Supporting DEI efforts

Companies must now debate keeping internships completely remote or moving to a hybrid mode, such as Amazon, which this year is offering the option to work virtually or hybrid. One key factor may be how remote internships would enable tech companies to widen the diversity of their employees, says Jennifer Abman Scott, vice president of strategic partnerships at the Society for Women Engineers. “My hope is that the geography is opening up,” Scott says, “and more candidates are rural, people of color, and/or female.” 

Lakeisha Mathews, the director of the Career & Internship Center at the University of Baltimore, says she hopes virtual internships are here to stay because the flexibility these experiences allow makes them more accessible for underrepresented students, who are more likely to work and have families, and are less likely to complete internships because of their personal obligations. (And when they graduate, they often face barriers to employment because they haven’t gained relevant work experience.)

A March 2021 survey done by the publication Inside Higher Ed found that women are more likely than men to be somewhat or extremely interested in a virtual internship (43% versus 34%), and people of color have a lot more interest than their white peers (60% of Asian students, 47% of Black students, and 45% of Latinx students, versus 33% of white students). 

“Virtual work can help [these students] manage their priorities,” Mathews says, while helping companies achieve theirs.