Gaining work experience can be hard. As an intern, all you want to do is impress those around you. Be the best, the smartest, the quickest. Sometimes that results in taking things upon yourself – things that are maybe a little bit outside your abilities. Or maybe a lot.
Check out these 18 stories of major intern mess ups.
1. Film Swap
A friend of mine told this tale. Back during the first Nixon administration, she was an undermotivated 18-year-old hippie whose wealthy father forced a pal who owned a film distribution company to give her a summer job.
This was in the days before DVDs. Hell, this was the days before videotape. To watch a movie privately, your only option was to rent a film and run it through a movie projector. This particular film distributor was the largest in the northeast and served many large and prestigious companies and institutions. The company consisted of an office where orders were taken (by rotary telephone or snail mail) and a warehouse where an enormous film library was stored and orders were filled by a staff of mostly non-English speaking workers.
At that time, my impertinent friend behaved like a princess. However, she was bright and had good English skills, and it was New York, where an attitude is expected, so she was given a job taking orders.
One Friday evening after the shipping crew had gone home, at almost 6:00 PM, the phone rang. My friend answered to discover the White House was on the line. The President himself wanted to watch a film over the weekend. Now, this might impress some, but as older readers may recall, a favor for Richard Milhous Nixon was not generally considered cause for bragging.
The conversation began to go wrong when she cut off the President’s aide to announce rudely that the order was impossible because the last UPS pickup had passed. The voice on the other end explained—as if to a child—that he would send a White House courier to pick up the film.
“Okay,” she said grudgingly. “What film do you want?”
He mentioned the name of a deeply patriotic WWII movie.
“Okay,” she said. “That will be $96.50.”
This produced even more of an annoyance since the White House normally received its films at no charge. You can imagine the argument between an aide to the most powerful man in the world and a stubborn 18-year-old. Finally, the Presidential aide lost patience and said,”FINE, I’ll take it up with your boss on Monday, just GET THE FILM READY, the courier is on his way!”
My friend agreed. She hung up the phone, walked back to the empty warehouse, found the film, and brought it to the shipping area. As she was starting to package the film can for shipping, she noticed that a stack of new movies had recently arrived. On top was a documentary entitled, Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971) .
This documentary, combined with the President’s desire to watch a war film, sparked an idea in her radical, Vietnam-war-protesting, teenaged brain. She swapped the films, putting My Lai Vets in the can ordered by the President. The courier arrived shortly. She handed him the package and went home smirking because she had just changed the world!
When she arrived at work early Monday morning, the company was in an uproar. The entire shipping department, now fired, was wailing and shrieking in another language. Apparently, the POTUS had watched 15 minutes before realizing this was not the film he had ordered.
My friend had to own up that she, not the shipping department, had filled the order. After this announcement, she was in the doghouse, but her father was too important to the owner’s business so he could not fire her! She walked away scot-free and still smirking.
2. Reply All
The CPA firm I worked for always hired 4 or 5 summer interns, and they just got picked up to help on miscellaneous engagements as needed. When they didn’t have anything to work on, they were required to email the entire department with an “available for work” email, so people would know they were free.
When one of the interns sent their email, another intern friend of his accidentally hit “reply all” with three simple words: Suck my penis.
The intern just told an entire department of 60-something people including partners, managers, department heads, etc. to “Suck it.”
It was magical. Everyone got the email at the same time, and you could see heads start to come up over cube walls one by one like prairie dogs. Managers slowly stepped out of their offices and everyone just stared at each other in shock.
They now offer “reply all” training as part of intern orientation.
Okay, a fun one that happened in a family law firm.
X (female) and Y (male) were divorcing. Actually, it was X who wanted to divorce, and so she approached the law firm asking to draft a divorce request. She had not yet told Y about her intentions.
Lawyer drafted the letter (with a big “DRAFT” sign across the document) and emailed it to intern asking to mail it to X for proof-reading and feedback.
Intern deleted the large “DRAFT’ sign and sent it by post – only not to X, but to Y.
Needless to say, neither X nor Y was happy, and the intern was let go.
I was an aeronautics tech, and we had just received new interns fresh from college as part of their course work. They were in their second or third week.
We had just finished doing a maintenance check on a Boeing 737 that was supposed to fly a UN delegation to a neighboring country in the region for a peace mission or something. My colleagues and I signed off, headed to lunch, and left the clean up to the interns.
One of them was cleaning out the main cabin area. He had one job. One Job. And then, he had the bright idea to do this.
There is an evacuation slide and it deploys when the main cabin doors are opened in the armed position. The 737 had a stand alone fail safe voice alarm that notified anyone trying to arm it in case it was unintentional. If it fails to deploy or is not armed, there is a manual lever or, in our case, a red nylon handle tucked in the side of the door written in giant white letters “PULL”. So, that’s exactly what the intern did. The door was not armed, as a matter of fact, it was not even close, but he went ahead to, of all things, pull the damn handle.
We were all out of our work overalls getting ready for lunch when we heard the terrifying and familiar “pppppssssshhhhhhffffffffff”. We all knew it. Someone had messed up.
Well, some of you might think, “Hey, what’s the big deal, just get the slide back into the plane, you still got time.” Once an evacuation slide is deployed, it has to be taken down from the plane and transported to a certified shop, which was not onsite by the way, where it is re-inflated again to check for defects, deflated, professionally packed, and its air canister re-pressurized. Then, it has to come back to the hangar, get lifted, and fixed into the aircraft again.
Needless to say, the intern cost the company about $18,000 in delay expenses for the UN flight, peace for the country they were headed to, and our lunch.
5. Easily broken
Okay, I give in because I got an A2A. I don’t really consider this catastrophic, but it’s a funny story, and I had people messaging me from all around the company telling me what a great laugh they had encountering this bug (including the team that had to fix it!):
I joined at the beginning of my internship under the username www (they are my initials) and all the engineers’ sandboxes started to redirect to mine because of the URL address.
So yes, I managed to break things, without even writing a single line of code.
6. Short term contract
I worked for a small computer company doing a couple million a year in sales. One of my tasks was to update price listings and have those changes reflect on our vendors’ websites. I put one less “0” on one computer model and ended up costing our company $30,000 in about one day. Someone had noticed the error and bought a ton of computers. Even though there was a QA process to catch these things after me, I knew I was getting fired.
I should say that my boss was actually pretty cool about it, but they had to put the blame on someone. He told me I could still use them as a reference, and that I could label the position as a “short term contract”.
7. Not for sale
I used to work as a shipping department and inventory manager at an international trading company for women’s apparel. The intern in the accounting department was given full access to the inventory database. Three days after a major full inventory count was performed, the intern came to work and mistakenly cleared out every number of items in the inventory. Every style and size was listed as 0 in stock. The same morning we were supposed to load a container for our biggest client while fulfilling orders from other clients. That was a very messed up day.
8. Life threatening
When I was 21, I almost lost several hundred million dollars by threatening to mutilate one of our customers.
In my senior year of college, I worked full time as an intern PM at NetApp. I spent most of that time at work being groomed and prepared to be a full product manager and given that my background was in cryptography I got pulled into a lot of customer meetings related to security.
One of our customers at the time was undergoing a big change with their security architecture, and I tagged along with one of the directors to the meeting. I was one of ten PMs giving talks on the roadmap and our plans, and I had 30 minutes to convince their CIO and CEO that we could integrate our new systems well with the new security infrastructure they were rolling out.
It turned out though that the CIO and CEO weren’t the only ones in the room. Joining them was the company’s Chief Security Officer (CSO). Like me, he was a young rising star in their company with a lot to prove in a short period of time. He also didn’t like me much from the get-go. When I walked into the room he sneered, and when I went to plug in my laptop to the projector he openly asked, “Is he really going to present alone?”
Most of my 5 slide presentation was instantly ripped apart. I had a good command of the tech involved so the criticism wasn’t on our findings. Instead, he nitpicked the design – the colors were off, the fonts weren’t like the other presenters’ (admittedly I did disregard the style designs, my bad), etc.
When I finished my slides and hit the time for questions, he laughed and shooed me away. “Good effort, but you clearly don’t abide by our security practices.” I stared at him with tired, dagger-piercing eyes across the podium. Not only did we abide by what they needed, but I’d spent all night working on this presentation (which combined with going to school full-time meant that I was on very little sleep). I was pissed off, and I decided to push back.
Me: “Well what specifications are you referring to?”
Customer: “You don’t understand. We are subject to a vast amount of compliance requirements inclu-”
Me: “-ding FIPS 140-2, PCI-DSS, FISMA…”
(I did my homework on the account)
Their CEO took notice at me pushing back and seemed to wake up from his “I don’t care, when’s lunch” stupor. As the CSO and I nerd battled like we were Sith and Jedi LARPers at Gen Con, a bunch of the account reps in the back of the room tried to get me to come off stage. My director let me stay.
Finally, once I had proven that we fit the spec, the CSO changed tone to something ridiculous.
Customer: “Well what about biometric scanners? We need biometric scanners.”
I blinked. Biometric scanners? We’re a storage company, not the Goddamn NSA. I responded that our authentication schemes supported most of the protocols that are used by bio-scanners, but he retorted that it needed to be first-party only.
I sighed, clearly exasperated, and responded bluntly, “We don’t make biometric scanners. You don’t need biometric scanners. They’re expensive and none of your compliance requirements need them. It’s complete overkill.” The CSO immediately (and vehemently) shot back angrily, citing his military experience and how he was going to make an infrastructure that was “unhackable.”
So, I decided to turn the tables on him. “Okay, biometric scanners- what kind of biometric scanners do you need?” He gave me a basic list of specs, but having recently completed a homework assignment in my information security class (a class taught by a ex-NSA cryptanalyst who liked to talk about now-public faults in old security systems) on the topic I hit him back with the various faults in modern bio scanners – including the gory details on how you fraud them.
Me: “So you want bio scanners with feedback right? That’s cool. Well, what’s to stop me from cutting off your thumb and swiping it like in the movies? Nothing. Unless, of course, you want to integrate temperature and humidity monitors, and even then I’ll defeat it by running tubes into your cut-off thumb with warm water or soak it salt water in the microwave-”
At this point, the CSO sat back horrified. The CEO of the company was dumbstruck, the account team in the back of the room was mortified, and my director was dying of laughter.
I proceeded to then go into detail about the faults of various retina scanners (“well I could pull out your eye and put a layer of Visine over the retina..”) until finally the CSO sat back in his chair – both defeated in his designs and horrified at the kid in front of him that looked less like a brainy engineer and more like the Unabomber.
At this point, the team decided to call it. I was quickly hurried out of the room – only after thanking the customers for their time of course – to where I met with the rest of the PMs in attendance who were literally doubled over with laughter. The account rep on the team later joined us and blasted me with a series of insults, noting that my insubordination might cost them the account and that I “clearly wasn’t mature enough for my job.”
I spent the next few days calling myself names and getting ready to change my LinkedIn status. But when the email feedback report on my presentation came back I got the highest rating from the account’s exec team. They noted that the CSO can “be difficult sometimes” and they appreciated that I “had a strong command and understanding of the security requirements of our space.”
I spent the next few years at NetApp running product security. This event definitely came up during my year end review though and since then I’ve become much better at presentation etiquette.
It was early in my career. I wasn’t an intern, but a programmer with a few years of experience.
I was programming custom hardware and the protocol was to plug the custom hardware into an extender card, and then to plug a ribbon cable between the target board and the PC used to develop the code. With this setup, I could edit and assemble the code – then transfer it to the custom hardware, and then debug the code.
The cable was quite long – a ribbon cable with either 50 or 100 wires in it (I forget now.) Interestingly, the connector for the cable wasn’t protected by a key – so it could be plugged in correctly – or backwards.
Apparently, I was the first person to plug the cable in backwards. When I did it, then powered up the PC – the cable instantly heated up and disintegrated – filling the open lab area with dense smoke.
Everyone working in the lab (probably 30 or so) saw the destruction – and knew it was me that did it. Everyone was nice – even though it took days to repair the damage. I never made the same mistake again. There was a red line of paint on one of the wires that I now knew HAD to be on the right side of the connector plug.
10. Grateful and Humble
I yelled at a client’s secretary. My first year as a summer associate in 1992 at a Boston law firm – not quite a tech company, but I was doing tech law! – and I thought I was just about the pinnacle of hifalutin. Fancy lawyer (law student, natch) at a fancy firm. My job that day was to connect with the CEO of a client and get him to review and sign a document. His schedule was byzantine and interrupt-driven, so I was getting shunted around on the phone by his secretary. At some point, I actually lost my temper at her and shouted into the phone something akin to, “Well, you need to see that he pays attention to this because we are working on a very important matter for his company, so he needs to call me back immediately!” and I think I might actually have hung up on her. Wow. So important. So very fancy.
He called back. In an unimaginably gentle fashion, he walked me through the horror of the mistake I had just made. “You know you just blew up at your client’s assistant, right?” He made a truly teachable moment out of it. He could have fired my firm; could have had me fired. Instead, he connected with me, and he mentored me. I have never been more grateful and humbled.
11. Extra bullets
This isn’t my story, but one of my supervisors when he worked at a (pretty big) telecommunication company. He had an intern once, smart chap.
Now, one fine day, there was a conference call between employees based in Germany and those in the U.K. They were sharing powerpoint slides, in the pre-cloud era, so each had a local copy. The slides made by my supervisor typically used an ordered list instead of an unordered one, but in this case, the slide was made by/ported by the intern, so it had bullet points.
There was one slide which had a technical specification of the circuit board, something to do with frequency, I guess. Somewhere along the meeting, it was decided that the value in the 4th bullet point ought to change.
Now, unfortunately, bullet point 3 and 4 were both frequency values and somebody messed up. The result? 100,000 euros in recall.
Seems almost bizarre, but it did happen. Was it the intern’s fault? Maybe not, but my supervisor thought so, and I think that’s what matters.
Thanks for the A2A.
12. Temp to terminated
As a teenager, I worked for a temp agency to make money over summer.
One day, I was part of a group of guys sent to a local supermarket. We were to move furniture around so that the construction workers could replacing the carpets. In one of the rooms, I found cables lying around, so I took them off the wall and put them away.
About an hour later, the director came in and asked who did that. I identified myself, and he explained that these cables were a relay for the phone lines. Because they were missing, the whole supermarket couldn’t process any credit card payment for an hour.
No need to say I was not reinvited to work for this temp agency anymore.
13. Old farts
After graduating from University with Master’s degree in business, I started at Nokia in an executive trainee program in January 1998. It was a blast. I got to work at the headquarters of one of the best companies on the planet at the time and learn from many of its successful high-level executives. I was just 22, brash, full of energy, and had an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn.
The executive trainee program allowed me to work with multiple divisions and in different jobs and provided an almost unlimited budget for courses and learning. I embraced the opportunity and quickly dug myself deep into the business of telecommunications.
Fast forward a few months, I was working as a Business Operations Manager in charge of pricing complex telecommunication network offers for telecom operators around the world. Each network delivery included tens of thousands of SKUs, rolled out over many years to hundreds, if not thousands of sites. The proposals were massive and the negotiation processes long and complex. We worked with Account Managers, Regional General Managers, System Marketing, Customer Service, Competitor and Market Intelligence, Product Lines, Controllers, Lawyers and Executives from many other functions that were involved in the negotiation process.
We were bidding on a large, 100M+ euro network proposal to a large European telecom operator. When I was building the pricing proposal, I got reliable information from intelligence folks and from account managers that the competition was going in with proposals that were 20% lower in price than the offer our GM and VP were contemplating on bidding. I talked about this problem to them, but they didn’t pay attention to the opinions of young Business Operations Manager.
I was pissed. I felt like the “old farts” didn’t understand the consequences of starting the bidding round 20% above others. I reasoned that it would seriously damage the credibility of Nokia as a vendor candidate and make it unlikely that we would have been selected to continue to the second round of negotiations even if the customer wanted us as the rollout partner.
I made a very risky decision. Because the pricing was under my control, I secretly lowered the price of the network offer by over €10 million and sent the final proposal to the account manager at the last minute. The VP and GM realized the difference in the offered price only after the account manager had already delivered the offer. He refused to pull the already delivered bid to raise the price because it would be super embarrassing and damaging to our reputation.
Series of crisis meetings followed. One of the main topics in those meetings was the mistake of hiring a young, inexperienced manager for pricing that would cost the company “over 10 million in potential profit”. I defended myself and brashly claimed that I had a better understanding of the market conditions in the deal and that it was highly likely that they would discount the price even lower than what I had proposed in the following negotiations.
With a lot of effort, I managed to get them to postpone my firing to the moment when the customer response to the offer was received. When it came, the customer response essentially said that they were planning to continue the negotiation with other vendors because our offer was too much above the others. The vice president decided to make a new, last-ditch offer that was a total of 25% lower than their original planned bid that I undercut by €10M. He excluded me from the preparation of that offer.
Once I learned that the new, much lower offer was sent, I did the ballsiest move yet in my short career and emailed the VP and asked him to apologize for ostracizing and scolding me for being entrepreneurial and taking risks that were for the benefit of the company. For his credit, he came back, apologized, gave me a raise, and promised to listen to my opinions in the future.
What was my mistake here?
I was a brash and cocky young rising star in a corporation, didn’t have a shred of emotional intelligence, and didn’t follow the rules. I ignored the orders of my superiors in a rather brash and arrogant way. Luckily for me, it all turned out all right in the end.
Later, as an entrepreneur, I would learn a lot about humility and how to communicate my points in more diplomatic and a less aggravating way. But I also learned that the best leaders give space for their employees to try, take risks, and fail. We all have had our own failures and suffocating the entrepreneurial spirit will make the company culture weak.
14. Unrecoverable data
Back in the 90’s, I was an intern at Digital Equipment Corp before they were purchased by Compaq and later Hewlett-Packard. Many of the departments back then had their own mail server and mine at the time had an Exchange Server (version 5.5, if I’m not mistaken).
We had a couple hundred people on our department’s server, and a couple of them had left the company. So, I decided one day that it would be good to remove those people from the Global Address List. I knew virtually nothing about managing Exchange, but I figured that it shouldn’t be that difficult to delete a couple of entries from the address list so I decided to wing it (I was only 18 at the time and thought I knew better). Instead of removing a couple of entries from the address list, I inadvertently deleted someone’s mailbox by mistake. That was pretty bad, but fortunately, I found a tech note somewhere that explained how to recover a deleted mailbox, which involved restoring the entire database. Without telling anyone or asking for help, I took it upon myself to do the restore. During that process, I ended up wiping the database without a backup and nuked everybody’s email in an unrecoverable way. It was quite damaging.
Fast Forward 16 years later, I now work for Microsoft and I wrote and contributed to multiple Microsoft Exchange books. Hopefully, my past pains have prevented some people from repeating similar mistakes!
15. Gold master
So, this isn’t an intern story, but an entry level employee story.
I was an early employee at, a later to be, fairly famous game company. We were making the earliest CD-ROM games for the “next-gen” platforms, which were going to be CD-ROM based, if that gives you an idea of the timetable.
Anyway, we had a junior game designer with a bit of an attitude. Our junior game designers also were the level creators. He lost an argument with more senior heads on a design feature.
Not satisfied and unable to let it be, he buried a rant about “How much better this game would have been if they had listened to me” in one of the levels. Back in those days, you had to “freeze the bits” to create the “gold master” in order to produce a CD-ROM product. The gold master was literally a CD made from solid gold that was used to stamp out the plastic CDs. A gold master costs $5,000 to $10,000 to make. Needless to say, it was a disaster if you had to make more than one.
The hidden rant was caught JUST before we went gold, thanks to the eagle eyes of one of the game testers.
In 25 years in the industry, that is the ONLY time I have seen someone fired with a security guard in tow. That guard watched him while he cleaned out his desk, took his keys, and physically escorted him out of the building.
16. Stale Content
During my internship at Microsoft-IDC, I was working in the Sports App for Windows 8. There was one URL from which we used to get the data (news) for a page.
Accidentally, while making some changes in the code, I changed the URL to encoded URL(actually it was normal). So, there was no change in the news on that page and, unfortunately, nobody noticed it for about 25 days.
The whole cluster had stale content. That’s a big problem for an app like Sports news where older content can cause the users to lose interest and quit the app.
They had to take down the whole cluster after detecting the bug. As I got the defect to look at, I knew that it was me who did it. They had no idea what caused the problem, except for my mentor, he knew everything about my work.
Then, during my presentation, I told my team lead that I was the one who did that. They all had a good laugh about it.
17. That’s not a foot rest
I used to intern at a national hotel chain at the corporate headquarters. While sitting at my desk, I put my feet up on some wires and cables and such. A few hours later, the servers in the building went down, and the 3,000 employees in the building could not log into the database and it may have been tied into all the hotels, reservations etc. While researching the issue, an Engineer went into my cubicle and flipped a power strip under my desk which, apparently, had all the servers plugged into it on the other side of the wall. Basically, my foot hit the power switch and downed all the servers.
18. Burning wires
In my first high school coding job — I guess that made me a tech intern — I burned down the office due to a cabling mistake. The building survived but inside it was a total loss: displaced 100+ people and destroyed lots of files, records, artwork, and a lot of the CEO’s memorabilia. He never blamed me, but I think he knew it was my fault.
It was my third or fourth most costly professional mistake. The others were mere judgment matters, not catastrophes. After a couple decades in Silicon Valley, I’ve finally created more wealth than I’ve destroyed, so I guess the world and I are even now.
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