Observations on Tech Summer Internships in Portugal Versus the US

In the summer of 2015, I interned as a software engineer at a startup based in Portugal called Unbabel. The internship was only two months long, but it was an amazing opportunity which definitely put me on a different footing when it came to start my career abroad in 2016. Since then, I've been involved in several career fairs in the US, as well as some in Portugal more recently. The two tech ecosystems are vastly different, and I've come to learn a lot about what distinguishes them through summer internships. As an example, a lot of students at the top universities in the US will take part in multiple summer internships during their school years. However, in Portugal, this is much less frequent and internships are rarely 3 months long, as is common practice in the US. Also, internships are typically not paid very well (at least nowhere near the 5000-8000 USD rates seen in the Bay Area).

For the past 4 years (from 2020 to 2023), we've been hiring summer interns in Portugal for various teams at SingleStore, and the program has been very successful:

  • 7 different interns across 3 summers, and 2 more locked in for 2023
  • 2 out of 7 interns have joined us full-time once they finished school (and we're still counting on a few more!)
  • 2 interns have done repeat internships with us (one person even interned two consecutive summers and then joined us full-time the year after!)

However, despite this success, it's still sometimes a challenge to convince strong candidates to intern with us. Our internship salary is very competitive (more than 2000 euros per month), but the required internship length is a shock to many.

How long should summer internships be?

In the US, it's fairly standard for internships to be 12 weeks long. At SingleStore, the only real difference between interns and full-time employees is that interns have a known departure date, whereas regular employees have an unknown departure date. In other words, interns are treated just like employees, and we find that 2 months is not enough for a productive internship (it usually takes a few weeks for new hires to get onboarded and able to work independentely throughout the codebase).

If we look at the calendar year for one of Portugal's best computer science schools, we can see that the exam season officially ends on July 14th and classes start on September 11th. Of course, students might be done with exams as early as June 30th if they don't need the "special exam season". So, in the best case scenario, and excluding weekends and national holidays, students have 50 business days for summer internships. If students need to, or want to repeat some exams, they only get 40 days. However, it is extremely common for students to want to extend their exam period into the "special season" because it allows them to better manage their time and get better grades. So, most students can only count on 40 days (exactly 8 weeks) for working during the summer. This presents a challenge and for all of the interns we've hired in Portugal so far, they've had to either:

  • Start work during exam season
  • Work alongside classes

This is not ideal, but it's actually very manageable because we operate in an high-trust environment, and we are extremely flexible with our working hours (by relying heavily on asynchronous communication to get things done).

Still, when presented with the opportunity, it was still a real struggle to persuade some folks to intern with us. I've also personally found that a lot of students want to get some time off during the summer for a vacation, but that's not really compatible with wanting to intern with us. We have, however, allowed students to take a 1 week break during their internship provided they still work for 12 weeks total. I think this allows for the best of both worlds!

Of course, ideally schools in Portugal would look at tightening their schedules in order to encourage students to do longer summer internships.

How to find candidates for summer internships in Portugal? And how does it compare to the US?

Having attended university career fairs in the US (MIT, Stanford, etc.) and in Portugal (IST, UC, etc.), the setup is always roughly the same — companies have some sort of booth and students walk up to these booths to learn about the opportunities available at these companies. Different event organizers might have some gimmicks to try to spice things up, but overall things aren't that different between the two countries.

In Portugal, we have attended SINFO every year for the past 4 years. SINFO is a tech conference with a career fair built into it which takes place annually in Lisbon, Portugal. It was first organized in 1993 and features talks, workshops, and networking opportunities on a wide range of topics, including AI, cybersecurity, software engineering and game development. It is organized by a team of volunteers from the Instituto Superior Técnico, the most prestigious engineering school in Portugal.

The experience has been very positive thus far, given the conference has been extremely well run every year. Our only complaint has been that it takes too long to get the resumés of students that "connect" with us digitally after the conference is over (in the US, students typically hand in their resumé in paper). However, a lot of participants will apply directly to us on our website so we can start interviewing candidates more quickly.

SingleStoreDB Query Playground screenshot
The SingleStore booth at SINFO 2023

How much do interns get paid in both countries?

From what I hear, most companies are paying somewhere around 1000 euros per month for summer interns in Lisbon (and less in other cities). It's also quite common for these salaries to be paid off the books. In the Bay Area, salaries for interns are typically around 6,000 ot 8,000 USD per month. Of course, these values are not really comparable since there's a lot more demand for interns in the Bay Area which naturally leads to higher salaries. Furthermore, attending university is almost free in Portugal compared to the US (so students in the US need all the help they can get to pay off their tuition), and the cost of living between Portugal and the Bay Area is quite different as well.

When I did my first internship in 2015, I was paid 500 euros per month. The tech ecosystem in Portugal has grown tremendously since then and it seems to continue to grow. There are more and more companies setting up shop here and creating more competition for talent which drives salaries up. I hope that this trend continues and that salaries become much more attractive for students to do summer internships.

When is the recruiting season for both countries?

In the US, most career fairs happen between September and the end of the calendar year. By contrast, in Portugal, they happen much later — between March and May. It would be almost unthinkable for a student to sign an offer for an internship before mid-to-late April. This has been a challenge for us at SingleStore since we like to plan things in advance.

Personally, I wish career fairs would happen much earlier on in Portugal. This would allow companies more time to prepare for summer interns, and it would also let students focus on exams instead of desperately trying to find a summer gig at the eleventh hour.

What about everything else, like interviews, the actual work, teambuilding events, etc.?

I don't think these are very different between the two countries. The interview process might be a bit longer and more challenging for US-based internships, but the rest of the experience is mostly similar in the two countries.

SingleStoreDB Query Playground screenshot
One of SingleStore's intern events in Lisbon in 2023

Wrapping Up

All in all, it's been a blast to hire and mentor interns both in the US and in Portugal over the last six years. I'm always stoked when students agree to come back and join us full-time in the years that follow. However, getting students to come back later is not the main reason companies invest so much in these internships. The real motivation behind these programs is that students go back to school in the end of the summer and tell all their friends about their (hopefully awesome) experience. This awareness is well worth the interns' salaries and time put into the process. I hope more companies in Portugal realize this and invest more in their summer internship programs.

And to summarize, I think the situation in Portugal could be much improved if:

  • Universities tigthen their calendar school year to allow students to intern for longer periods of time in the summer
  • University career fairs start happening much earlier
  • Companies realize the true potential of internships as an awareness play, which could lead to increased salaries for interns

As always, feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have any thoughts to share with me on any of this!