Yes, But What Did You *Do*?

True story, the one that I am about to narrate, although both the person in question and the firm will remain unnamed.

A firm had come on campus for placements, and I happened to know one of the people who happened to be on their recruitment team that day. Midway through the recruitment process, said person came to my office for a chat.

He appeared to be rather frustrated. And when he was halfway through the cup of coffee that had been offered to him, he spoke about what was frustrating him so.

It was, he said, the same story with all of the candidates he’d interviewed that day. When the interview reached the stage where they asked the candidate about their internship or projects they’d worked on while in college, the same conversation played itself out.

“Tell me about your internship at xyz”

“I interned in the abc department at xyz.”

“Ok, what did you do there?”

“I worked on project pqr”

“Yes, but what did you do in that project?”

“I worked with lmn”

“Yes, but what did you do?”

“I submitted a presentation on def”

And on and on, round and round the mulberry bush. It was frustrating, he said, because it was mostly the same story in most of the colleges and universities where they’d been for recruitment. Now, I’m sure (or hopeful, at any rate) that the story will be not quite as bad in the very top tiers of academia. But based on my own experience of interviewing candidates, his experience rang true.


Interviewers don’t ask you about your internship in order to be impressed by the firm you interned in, or to be impressed by the title of your project. They’re interested in the following:

  1. What skill sets did you have to use to complete your part of the work?
  2. Which of these skill sets did you pick up on the job?
  3. What appreciation have you gained of that skill set as a consequence?
  4. Are you aware of where you fell short, and if so, what are you doing to get better?
  5. And as a coda of sorts to all of this, what would you do differently if you got the chance to do the internship/project again?

And so when interviewers ask you about what you did in an internship, you have to answer the unsaid questions. What they’re really asking, what they really want to know, is whether you are have acquired the ability to apply your learning. Whether you have the self awareness to know where you’re lacking. Whether you have the “fight” to acquire those skill sets you don’t possess. And most importantly, are you able to assess work you’ve done, and figure out how to do it better the next time around.

When interviewers talk about “attitude”, “willingness to learn” and “jigar“, this is what they’re talking about.


Which brings me to the most important part of this blogpost. There are two ways to react to what I’ve written so far if you’re a student preparing for job interviews.

The first is to train yourself to tell a story like this better, and more convincingly, in an interview.

But that’d be the wrong approach.

The second is to actually apply all of this in your next project. Actually doing all of this makes talking about that much easier, wouldn’t you say?

And as a consequence, writing your CV becomes that much easier.


The bottom-line: doing the work makes talking about it convincingly that much easier.

How to prepare for interviews, you ask? Simple.

Do the work.

Faculty Internships. But Why Not?

What stops the world from inviting teachers and professors to work for a while in industry?

We need to make education more relevant to the demands of the workplace – most people would be in complete agreement with this. The question is how to go about doing this. Sure, one could rejig the syllabi, and get feedback from alumni and industry – and this has been happening for years in many colleges and universities.

But how many industry professionals have spent a semester seeing what is taught to students? How many professors have spent a couple of months observing what work happens within a corporate set-up? Would the world be better off if more of this happened?

And if your answer to that question is yes (and this is very much true in my case), then why are we not trying to make more of such “internships” happen?


  • When a firm visits a campus for placements, also have the firm explore the option of asking professors if they would like to tag along for the duration of the internship
  • No money need change hands – the college will pay the professor their monthly salary (and if need be, an additional stipend to cover living expenses)
  • Students get a mentor on site, which means lesser work for the employees of that firm
  • The professor gets a peek into what is going on in the corporate world:
    • Which are the tools in use, versus the ones being taught in college?
    • What is the work pressure like, and are students being adequately prepared?
    • How important are the changes in the style of writing and speaking?
    • Is what is being taught in college relevant?
    • Are corporates missing out on tricks that the professor can help them out with?
  • And the firm gets an insight into how the professor has been teaching. Even better, while at this faculty internship, the professor can attend training sessions that have been organized in the workplace, meet with departmental heads across the firm, and perhaps even meet some of the clients.
  • If the professor can actually get involved in a project, nothing like it. Sure, you’ll need to sign NDA’s and all of that, and sure this might not be possible in all organizations for all projects – but surely some projects in some organizations should be possible?
  • And if a firm is willing to make the investment, why not have industry professionals spend a month in a university? Maybe conduct a course, or a part of a course – but really more like a scholar in residence. The ability to interact in a more relaxed environment with students, to guide them, to mentor them, maybe collaborate with them – surely there is merit in the idea?
  • I do not know if there are colleges/universities in India that already do this. If you know of any, please do let me know.
  • But especially if you don’t, please do one of these two things:
    • Help me understand the potential downsides to such a scheme
    • If you think there to be no potential downsides, help me try and get this off the ground? Bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems1 is a great problem to try and solve, and I think this idea has some serious merit.
  1. if you know, you know[]

On Interning

It is hunt-for-an-internship season at our Institute, as I suppose is the case all over the country.

The process is trickier than usual, because of the pandemic, and for that reason I wanted to put up a small outline of my thoughts about internships.

  1. At the start of your career, optimize for learning, rather than branding. This means that in your internship, and your first job, you should optimize for firms where you are likely to learn a lot, rather than firms that are prestigious. Prestigious firms are likely to be more bureaucratic, and more about status. This means that the junior employees aren’t likely to get a lot of crucial, really important work. The pay will be better, the Friday parties will definitely be better, but the opportunity cost will be high as well.
  2. Learning how to document the work you’ve done is a very, very underrated skill, especially in internships. One way to be really and truly remembered at the end of your internship is by handing your mentor a docket of what you did, what you wish you had done, and a documentation of all the processes you learnt about.
  3. Best of all, include a section for the next intern in this team. Include stuff like who to meet in payroll, where is the best chai to be had, who in IT is especially helpful etc, along with the obvious stuff. Not only is paying it forward a good idea in and of itself, but that next intern is automatically a friend for life.
  4. Go for all the chai and sutta beaks that you are invited to, even if you don’t smoke or drink chai. Relaxed conversations with your mentors or seniors is invaluable, and soak in all the info you possibly can.
  5. Learn Excel. Here’s a laundry list to get you started: HLOOKUP, VLOOKUP, INDEX, MATCH, OFFSET, SUM, SUMPRODUCT, COUNTIF (and all the variants). Pivots, filters, data analysis add-in, solver add-in, charts, trace precedents, what-if analysis, data tables, goal seek, data validation. You must know all of this in and out, and be able to know what you can use when. YouTube videos, websites will help, but the best way to learn is to sit with a colleague and ask her to help you out. I cannot emphasize this enough – you need to know Excel. It doesn’t matter which role, which team, which department. You. Must. Know. Excel.
  6. Whatever productivity suite your organization is using, soak yourself in it. GSuite, MS Office or anything else. Know the ins and outs of the email system, the calendar tool and the internal messaging tool. Invest the time to make yourself a ninja in it. Trust me, it is worth the effort.
  7. Seek out a mentor in the organization if one isn’t allotted to you. Set up weekly lunch/tea meetings with the mentor, and have her tell you stories about stressful times in the office.
  8. Continue to learn whatever tools you got access to at the workplace. It could be Tableau, Crystal Ball, R, Jupyter notebooks or anything else. Again, soak yourself in the tool, and start on the path of becoming a ninja in it. This will take time, but it is worth your while.
  9. Learn the big picture. Ask your mentor how whatever project you are working on fits into the larger objectives of the workplace. My very first manager told me something I have never forgotten: every single thing you do in the workplace is either raising revenues for the firm, or is cutting costs for the firm, or is improving speed-to-market. If what you’re doing is achieving neither of these three, then it is a waste of time. Ask, until you are clear about the answer, how your project fits into this simple model.
  10. Lastly, about landing an internship. Do not send out blanket emails to contacts on LinkedIn, or elsewhere. Shortlist not less than ten, but not more than twenty people, and write them a personalized note. These folks should have skillsets you want to possess – it doesn’t matter where they work. The note should include a specific question about this skillset. If they answer – and to such specific notes they usually will – take their advice to heart. Incorporate it into a project you are working on. Send them this project, and ask for feedback. Then ask if they can help you land a gig. All the notes I get on LinkedIn just ask for a gig. That’s a waste of a potential networking opportunity.