Norwegian Internship Q&A

Since I've received a few emails from students looking for more information and advice on my internship over at Atmel, I thought I'd prepare a public Q&A for the most relevant questions and their answers. If you would like me to answer any additional question, send me an email and I'll add it here. The following is highly specific to my own experiences and opinions, so take it all with a grain of salt.

Background:


Why did you want to take on an internship?

The electronics engineering side of my double University degree requires that all potential graduates undertake 12 weeks of industry experience. This is to ensure that students get a feeling of engineering "in the real world" before they graduate, to ensure that we all have some relevant experience before accreditation. Even if it wasn't a course requirement, an internship is still a great idea and looks good on the CV/Resume when you start applying for jobs later on.

Why did you want to take on an internship?

For the experience - both to make sure my personal skills were adequate, and to give me a leg up over other potential job candidates once I graduated. The engineering world seems to love those with experience, so having some to put on my resume was important to me. Over the years I've done some small consulting jobs for many international companies, however these have all been over the internet, meaning while I've worked on real projects, I lacked some real-world team experience in a large corporation.

How long was your internship period?

Twelve full weeks. My University allowed me to take on just 10 weeks if necessary, however I wanted to go for the full three month period.

When did you go for your internship?

Over my end of year University break in my fourth University year (2010). Here in Australia our semesters run from February to November, giving three months at the end of year for student holidays. Since I didn't want to delay my course graduation, I elected to take the internship over the holiday period. I did miss out on Christmas at home (and had to endure the Norwegian winter), but I'm very glad I did it and even if I could go back and change the dates I wouldn't.

Why Atmel over all the other companies?

Those who know me know that Atmel AVRs are a large, large portion of my life; I've worked with them since my early teens. I had always wanted to see the Atmel Norway headquarters in person one day, so I was absolutely thrilled when I got the internship offer. I would have accepted just about any interesting company, but I knew that Atmel would offer me the best fit for my skill-set, and provide some extremely valuable personal and professional experience.

How did you apply?

Funnily enough I didn't really. I've been quite active in the AvR microcontroller world for several years now, and have received many free pieces of equipment from Atmel over the years to support my personal projects. One of the Atmel engineers in the AVR Applications group forwarded my contact details from my website to his boss for consideration as a potential job candidate for an opening they had. Since I wanted to finish my University degrees first before even considering employment, I asked if they would consider employing me for three months as an intern instead, to which they generously agreed.
This just goes to show; if you do ANY personal projects, make sure you document them online. An online portfolio and actively participating in online communities relevant to your field works better than any cover letter on a job application. Companies want to employ those who they know can do their required job, so show off your skills and see how you go.

Organisation:


What organisation did you need to undertake to prepare for the internship?

Since my internship was in a different country, I had a lot more things to worry about than the usual student. Purchasing and packing relevant clothes was especially difficult for me as Australia does not have sub-zero temperatures like Norway, so we lack much of the proper winter clothing that Norway has. Make sure you enquire about your company's dress code ahead of time - I did, but I didn't really believe T-Shirts were acceptable, so I didn't pack many of them, and consequently looked a bit out of place.
Tell your bank you're moving overseas if that is the case so you don't have your accounts locked for potential fraud. If you are using a SMS based online banking authentication, enquire about physical access tokens and make sure your debit card will work in your destination country (even with a Mastercard, I had terrible trouble finding an ATM that would accept it in Norway). Absolutely, definitely, order some local currency from your bank - even just a few hundred dollars or so - to act as an emergency fund, and to get you through the first week or so.
Make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. I was fine for going to Norway but you do need to be careful for some destinations. If you have a phone, make sure it is unlocked and will work in the frequency band of the destination country. I purchased a "TravelSIM" which was a great help - through the magic of VOIP, I was able to make and receive calls in pretty much any country on Earth for the cost of a local call or less. Don't take your home country's SIM card with you, as roaming charges will bankrupt you.

What documents and materials did you need?

The usual passport and visa applies here - although Norway has a strange system where you actually receive your work permit after entry at the local police station. Norway at least has a horrendous amount of red-tape to get through to apply and receive your permit, so apply at least 3 months in advance. If you're going to Norway, remember that the police station is only open on week days, so you might need to ask your boss for the morning/afternoon off if you start work immediately. The Norwegian police department will take your passport for a week to apply the permit and do the requisite background checks, after which you will need to make another trip to pick it up.
For my work permit, I had to fill out several forms and provide two passport photos - so make sure you have a few ahead of time just in case. I'm sure other countries have similar requirements.

Where should I apply?

My international internship was organised through a non-profit organisation called IAESTE. The IAESTE organisation helps students find international work experience. If you aren't sure where you want to go, the IAESTE organisation will help you find potential matches in different countries. There's a few up-front administration fees that apply, but it's VERY much worth it, as they will provide assistance with accommodation and help you out if you run into trouble.

Norwegian Life:


Where did you live while in Norway?

I lived in a shared student accommodation associated with the local university. Normally this would not be allowed (residents must be students enrolled in the local University) but the IAESTE organisation got me in. I hadn't lived in a shared apartment before but I actually enjoyed the experience. The rent was significantly cheaper than any other apartment (approx. $500 per month plus electricity, vs. $400 a week elsewhere!) which got me my own bedroom, and a shared kitchen/lounge/bathroom. It wasn't a glamorous apartment, but the other two guys staying with me were very friendly and fun to be around.

Was the apartment furnished?

In the apartment I was given I was supplied with a bare bed/mattress, desk, bin, lamp and shelves. I had to purchase a pillow and sheets, plus provide my own sleeping bag. I shared the kitchen utensils with my housemates, but I paid for food to make up for it.

Did you have trouble with the local language?

Actually, no. I only met one or two people in my entire time there that couldn't speak perfect English, so I had no trouble interacting with the locals. That said, I am a bit sad I didn't get much of a chance to learn much Norwegian in my previous visit. The Atmel engineers would talk to each other in Norwegian if I wasn't around, but switched immediately to English if I entered the room. Well, except for Andreas, who wasn't a morning person and would occasionally forget, that is.

How did you get to and from work? Transport in general?

Trondheim has a decent bus system - although it can be a bit tardy at times which isn't fun when you're standing out in -20C weather. When I left they were phasing in electronic signs to show the bus ETA, which would have been quite helpful. The Trondheim bus system is quite expensive at Kr. 30 per hour (about AU$5) although there is a weekly/monthly ticket option which is cheaper if you can stump up the money up-front. I was extremely fortunate that a wonderful fellow Atmel employee took pity on me and offered to drive me to and from work each day since he lived close, for which I and my slightly frozen extremities were eternally thankful.

What was there to do over in Trondheim?

It's a small place, but there's still plenty of shopping, pubs/bars and the usual activities (Tennis, movie theater, bowling alley) for entertainment. The biggest difference to me was the lack of choice; rather than go to "a" bowling alley, you go to "the" bowling alley. Entertainment is expensive in Norway, and keep in mind that nothing's open on Sunday.

How did you contact back home? Were you homesick?

Skype calls were a big help to me - being able to call back home for free (Internet was included in the rent) meant that I could keep in contact with my family and friends. I actually didn't get all that homesick, as 12 weeks flies by faster than you would think and I was far too caught up with my work and exploring to get homesick. Just remember the time difference between yourself and your home and plan accordingly.

General Advice?

In Norway, try to only shop for groceries at supermarkets called “Rema 1000” – there’s plenty of them around. These are the cheapest compared to the smaller (Bunpris, et. al.) stores, although sometimes the latter has better specials. By and large however, Rema is the place to shop at. Food is quite expensive in Norway – so get used to plain food with lots of Rice and Pasta. Pork and Chicken are the two cheap meats, with everything else commanding a huge premium. I did without the others and got by with just different pasta dishes and rice + one of those meats with vegetables. Buy in bulk and buy frozen, since it’s far cheaper.
Don’t get a taxi unless you really, really have to – they charge three arms, two legs and a vestigial tail just to get half way across the city. If you do need to take one, try to split it with whoever you’re travelling with.
If your workplace has a cheap provided lunch option, take it. Atmel had a gigantic cafeteria which cost me about three home meals worth of money for the entire month, which was well worth it if only for the variety.
Don't be afraid to explore, and say "yes" to as many invitations as possible. I'm not a socially outgoing person at all, but the invitations I did accept all turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun.

Work:


What skills did you need to know for your work?

For Atmel, a good knowledge of AVRs was essential for my work, but I'm sure others could get by with just general microcontroller skills. If you are taking on an embedded systems role make sure you are at least decent at coding in C, and know the basics of source code revision control (SVN/GIT/etc.). Be prepared to be put out of your comfort zone; unlike in University, when your boss gives you a problem to solve, he is expecting you to come up with a solution, rather than figure out a solution that was already known ahead of time. It's a bit different since you can't fall back on a solutions sheet if you get stuck. Don't be afraid to ask your coworkers if you need to know something; engineering at least is a very team orientated profession, so don't worry about appearing like an idiot.
Also, don't complain if you aren't given the most glamorous of jobs. You're there to learn, so if you are presented with a gigantic box of boards that needs a repetitive cut-and-patch job that will take you a day or two (this happened to me) just get on with it and use it to practise your skills. Especially don't complain if the week after you finish said patching job a fresh batch of corrected boards are delivered to the company.

What should I do if I run out of tasks at work?

A good employee is an autonomous employee. When I ran out of tasks over the Christmas break while my boss was on leave, I ended up writing a USB audio driver for Atmel's ASF USB V2 stack. As far as I know it wasn't ever released to the public, but the important thing is to find your own work to do. Clean up old code, look through the bug tracker or start reading some training materials - whatever it is, just make sure it's useful to someone at the company. Ask your coworkers if they need help or have any tasks they would like to off-load onto you.

Did you get paid for your work?

Yes - I had to pay for my airfares, accommodation and rent, but I was paid a small salary for my work. This may vary depending on what work you are doing and/or where you are doing it, so don't take this as a given. I was paid approximately 60% of a full junior engineer's salary, which was plenty to cover the costs of the entire internship.

What sort of work did you perform?

I can't disclose the exact projects, but in general I performed software framework development (and bug-fixing), product testing, hardware patching, and product development. Frankly I think I was damned lucky in that most of my time was spent on interesting tasks, although that may have to do with my reasonable experience with AVRs in general and USB specifically, that Atmel wanted to make as much use of as possible. Expect boring "grunt work" tasks, so you are pleasantly surprised by any interesting tasks you are asked to perform.

Was your experience in industry similar to that of academia? For example the design processes you were taught about relevant?

No, very different. The real world doesn't stop for UML diagrams, formalised pseudo code and other software development methodologies, although some places may make use of a Waterfall or other development process. Results are what are important, and any time wasted in pointless frippery was frowned upon. Take all your formalised development processes and chuck then out the window, then sit down and start coding. That's no to say Atmel didn't have development processes - just that most of the academic rubbish I hated while at University wasn't used.

How should I act?

I worried about this for weeks before I left, but as soon as I got there I felt right at home (this is probably due to the excellent calibre of engineers at Atmel in my team). Don't be afraid to speak your mind and offer suggestions, but make sure you propose solutions along with any criticisms. I'm a bit guilty of doing this sometimes, but "this sucks because of X, we should do Y to fix it" is acceptable - as long as you're prepared to do the work to implement your proposed solution. Remember to separate out yourself from your work; criticisms can be directed to the product, but not the person who developed it.

Future Career:


Do you think the internship has made you more employable?

Absolutely! I was only a few weeks into my internship when I was asked to sit in a job interview, and once I left I was presented with a contract almost immediately. Even if I wasn't employed at Atmel, I would bet good money that having my internship on my CV and the associated experience in my brain has made me significantly more attractive to other companies that I would be without it. Again, experience is more important than all the pieces of paper in the world, so get as much as you can.

Did you enjoy your time over in Norway? Was it worth it over a local internship?

Immensely. I have many good memories (and many completely unpublishable photos) associated with my stay, and I made some excellent new friends and got some good experiences. My Atmel team members were some of the nicest, most intelligent people I've ever met, and living away from home for three months help build my own independence. Experiencing another culture for a long period of time was also a lot of fun, and I'd always recommend an international internship over a local one to all students. Expand your horizons!

Would you go back?

At the time of writing I'm less than a week away from moving back to Atmel in Norway to become a full time AVR Applications Engineer, so yes.

 

Vital Stats

  • 28 Years Old
  • Australian
  • Lover of embedded systems
  • Firmware engineer
  • Self-Proclaimed Geek

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