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Career/Interactive Host Spotlight: Michael Strong

November 13, 2014 by

Michael Strong is the co-founder and COO of Zola Books, an independent online bookseller that empowers every passionate book advocate to create a more diverse community around reading and selling books.

1) When did you have your first Career/Interactive Intern?

We had our first Career/Interactive interns this past summer.

2) How did you choose an intern during interviews?

When we went for the interviews, I felt sad because there were so many people who would have been terrific to bring in.  There was a clear need for us to make a decision about whether we were going to bring people in who need a hand or whether we were going to bring people in who would move our objectives forward at this period in time.  For our company, we chose the second category, people who were talented, experienced, and maybe didn’t need the internships, honestly, as much as some other people did. (Our current intern) is terrific, and it’s theoretically possible that we could hire him at some point if he continues to make progress.  His summer internship has extended way beyond that.

3) What specifically are you always looking for?

For our QA interns, we look for maturity and attitude, as in ‘I don’t care what you give me, I want to learn and I want grow in a career in QA.’  So, in their case it wasn’t skill level, it was approach and attitude, although they had some training in the fundamentals of QA.  They didn’t come in and need hand-holding in an extended way, it was at first a couple of days orienting them to our systems, but they were more self-driven. The training was enough that they have integrated well into our team in four or five days. I put browser stack in front of them, there are automated components to browser stack, I would expect it to be weeks or even months before they were ready to execute anything with selenium or anything like that.

4) What was your intern’s day-to-day schedule?

Right now our intern is working on one thing, he is building something that we need. It’s actually mission critical, it has to happen, and we’re trusting that he’s going to make it happen. We bring people in and sometimes we have no idea what they’re going to do before that first day.  You learn very quickly what is someone’s competency level in terms of their total maturity.

5) What is your general management approach for interns?

As a general rule, my general approach is to give people more responsibility than they think they can handle to the point that they may fail. That’s my approach, because basically I believe that people can do more than they think they can do. I’m more interested in making people grow quickly, and if they say that they absolutely can’t do that, then we dial it back.  That maximized the value that we get out of people as a company, and it allows me to tell the story later that ‘hey, when she came in, she taught herself 12 lines of python, but when she came out, this is what she made, it’s in production, or it’s in testing.’

6) Did you learn anything from having a young voice in the office?

That is a secret bonus of having young QA people, especially if they’re nervy and they’re willing to say to the CEO that ‘this is stupid, or this is not going to work, or none of my friends are ever going to want to use this.’  That’s a valuable hidden asset of younger/savvier digital people.

7) How would you define a ‘mature intern’?

They show up when they say they’re going to show up, they do the things they say they’re going to do, they don’t claim to do things that they can’t do, and they don’t get stymied when they are frustrated. That raises our confidence level.

8) What preparation advice would you give to an intern?

There are some basics – look at the website, look at the app, use them, buy a book, flip through it, in a generic sense, make sure you understand what the consumer experience is supposed to be for the company that you’re thinking of working at.  Another thing you could do is look at our website, look at who is working there, read the press releases, go to TechCrunch, what is it say about us on TechCrunch, or how much money we’ve raised.  Understand what the larger context is in terms of what is public perception about our company. And then have a plan, even if it’s a plan, even if it’s a plan that’s going to discarded immediately. If I say, “what do you want to do here,” don’t say “I don’t know, you tell me.” Have an answer, which is, “I would like to learn some language.” If you come here and say you want to learn a language or I’m interested in databases, I’ll say “ok, great.”

9) What’s your best advice for other intern supervisors?

I think we have an obligation to challenge people. Most people are emotionally moved by given an opportunity that is beyond what they are expecting. We also generally don’t ask people to do things that there’s not any evidence that they’ll be able to do. Most of the time, we apply good judgement.

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