Zappos’s 6pm.com website was built to be a place to find bargains, but the e-tailer offers an even bigger deal to its summer interns. Instead of just doing busy work, for the past two years the company has tasked students with designing and launching new apps that make the shopping experience more enjoyable for customers.
"Doling out this kind of autonomy and responsibility to interns is very representative of Zappos’s ethos," says Vincent Calderaro, who leads Zappos’s mobile development team. After being impressed by the knowledge and ability of the 2014 interns, Calderaro got the idea to push the envelope in 2015 and put them on a real project.
"Creating the 6pm app had been on our roadmap," he says. "We were getting feedback from customers who were asking when it would be available. We felt our intern program would be a good opportunity to create a basic version."
To pull it off, Zappos had to find the right set of students. Five interns are hired each summer in the mobile division to work on design, branding, and coding. The interview process involves several steps, including a video cover letter that helps leadership find good cultural fits. For coding interns, a tech challenge is also given, and Calderaro created a special test for 2015 based on the skill set the interns would need to create an app.
"They were given two hours to make a quick app as an exercise," he says. "We watched them work, and chose candidates based on skill level."
Once the interns were selected, the team was challenged to create the actual 6pm app. Leaders provided the requirements, gave guidance on workflow and business insights, helped set up the project from a project management perspective, and assisted with any roadblocks.
"The 6pm site is different than Zappos, and the design of the app had to be a little different," says Calderaro. "Zappos is brand drive; 6pm is value drive. One requirement as far as design flow was that there had to be an easy way for customers to find what they’re looking for and the value they’re looking for."
Ultimately, the students had a lot of freedom, says Calderaro. "They decided what they wanted to do with the project, how the design would work, and how to set priorities," he says, adding that the structure of letting employees be in charge of initiatives is integral to Zappos’s culture. "By pushing limits and pushing the bar, we let them experience what it’s like to work at a real company, on a real e-commerce app, through the full life cycle of a project."
The interns brought a fresh perspective to the project and were motivated to complete it during their eight-week internship, says Calderaro. "That brought in a lot of energy," he says. "They were very diligent in the development, and wanted to get it done and have something tangible to show at end of their internship."
And Calderaro is pleased with the results. "The app turned out really nice," he says. "In fact, we’ve hired all five interns after they graduate."
The 2016 internship team will continue the 6pm project by working on customer-facing features of the app, and they’ll get to work with the original group that created it.
"For any company that has a culture driven by autonomy, this kind of internship program could be easy to implement," says Calderaro. "The key to being successful is aligning specific skill sets with the kind of results you seek."