Gavin Miller, head of Adobe’s internship program, and current intern TJ Rhodes.
Photograph by Claire Q. Li
By Anne Fisher
August 31, 2016

If you happened to go to any big tech conferences this year, you may already have gotten a glimpse of what Adobe’s interns have been up to lately.

They presented 20 research papers at CVPR 2016, for instance, a major annual event for computer vision and pattern recognition pros. Then Adobe introduced two new products, Wetbrush and Stylit, last month at graphics conclave SIGGRAPH 2016 — both developed by interns. At the Apple iPad Pro launch earlier this year, Face-Aware Liquefy, a new facial-expression editing tool for Adobe Photoshop Fix, made its debut. That, too, was an intern’s brainchild.

Clearly, this isn’t your average internship program.

Consider: About 70% of the projects under development in Adobe’s research labs at any given time can be traced back to an intern. The company gets more than half of its marketable products that way. Interns account for 64% of all new full-time hires in North America, often rejoining the company after graduation to pick up a project where they left off.

“It’s a core part of how we work,” says Gavin Miller, vice president and fellow of Adobe Research, who directs the company’s intern program. “The interns free up our full-time researchers to take risks on creative projects.”

See also: What Every Boss Can Do To Inspire Innovation

To get in, students submit online applications that include a detailed description of a concept they hope to turn into a marketable product. The most promising ideas lead to interviews with Adobe research scientists, and each of those applicants then has to build a prototype to prove his or her idea works, says Miller. “Some PhD candidate interns come in with more expertise on a particular technical subject than our full-time researchers have,” he adds.

How does the company attract that kind of talent? The main reason for Adobe’s appeal, Miller believes, is its openness. “We let people keep the rights to their own intellectual property,” he says — like, for instance, the copyrights on those 20 research papers presented at CVPR this year. Word about that gets around. “Talented students see others doing well, and being recognized for their achievements, and it makes them want to work here too,” he says. “It becomes self-perpetuating.”

See also: Here’s What Interns Can Do Differently to Impress Their Bosses

In contrast to most companies’ internship programs, which keep a tight rein on any intellectual property that interns — or employees, for that matter — produce, Adobe (adbe) encourages them to publish their work. Particularly for PhD candidates, who account for about one-third of Adobe interns (another 40% are undergrads, and 16% are pursuing master’s degrees), that’s a big plus.

Another big plus is letting interns apply for patents, using their own names, on the work they’ve done for Adobe. TJ Rhodes, who will finish up a master’s degree in software engineering from Drexel University in March, invented a method of rapidly capturing the surface texture of materials to create super-realistic 3D photo images. It’s a potential boon to CGI animation, video game production, and e-commerce advertising.

Rhodes developed the technology at Adobe over the past two summers, so being able to put his name on the patent along with Adobe’s “surprised me at first,” says Rhodes. “Having this kind of product-development experience right at the start of my career is fantastic.”

 

Miller hopes it’s also drawing people who are interested in leading the company someday. “We’ve changed the focus of the program a bit recently,” he says, to put more emphasis on developing leadership skills. The secret to making that shift, he says, is to “not try to fit interns too neatly into the company’s current goals. Instead, see them as a source of new ideas.”

So far, at least on the technical side of the business, that approach has been working pretty well.

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