Interning At A Start-Up -- Part 2

Last week I introduced myself and provided some general advice. This week in my presentation to C.S. students is the core question - what's it like to work at a start-up.

So what is it like? It is one of the most exhilarating challenging difficult frustrating and ultimately rewarding jobs you will ever have. If you like it, you'll find yourself unable to go work anywhere else. If you don't like the environment, then it'll be painfully awful.

One historian titled the onset of the industrial revolution in Europe with a single word - Acceleration. Tremendous advancement comes not from a single discovery, but in a rapid acceleration in learning and applying that knowledge. We're in one of those periods.


And in times of rapid change comes a lot of opportunity. Change can make you uncomfortable or it can get you excited. Either way, you can take advantage of it. And that fundamentally is what a start-up is. A means to take advantage of change.

The first thing to realize is you will fail - a lot. The number and size of the mistakes I've made in my jobs is awful. You will too. And the more you push, the bigger and more mistakes you will make.

And when you make those mistakes, everyone will see them. There's no hiding them. The best thing to do when it happens is own up to it and figure out the best way to fix it. And keep in mind one important thing, a large part of success is making fewer mistakes than others. Your competitors are all making big mistakes too. Usually much bigger ones.

A hedgehog knows one thing very well. A fox knows many things. At a start-up you need to be a fox. My success at Windward is in large part my programming skills. But at times my marketing skills have been key. My sales ability, which is poor, has been essential. It's useful to be very good at your core job. But it's critical that you're competent at a wide number of other jobs.

It will take everything you've got. One of our interns was given his first task the second day. By the end of the day he knew he couldn't do it and went home almost in tears ready to give up. But that night he decided that he was not going to let this beat him. He came back in and over the next 2 weeks figured it out. And became, by my count, one of 3 people in the world who understood a totally undocumented API.

Working at a start-up is like going on Outward Bound. It won't push you to your limits, it will push you beyond them as you discover your actual limits are far beyond what you think they are.

What to do in School

So you're in school and you want to go be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Good - that's the kind of goal that drives you to success.

Step 1 is you need to intern at start-ups while you're in school. During the school year if you can. During the summer you must. An internship is job experience for you. It's a detailed interview process for the company.

Interning one summer at a large company like Facebook, Microsoft, etc. is also good experience. But the rest at start-ups. (One of the interns at Windward spent this past summer at Google - and he kept getting jobs completed in about 1/2 the time they expected. That's the prep you get at a top start-up.)

You'll learn a lot, you'll meet new friends, and you'll have an incredible sense of accomplishment. On the flip side, without internship experience, how will start-ups be able to evaluate if they want to hire you? That's their #1 measure.

Next create your own software products. Small games on Android are fine. Or a website for a club you're in. Part of this is to show where your interests lie and part is to show you love programming. If at all possible do some that require serious multi-threaded programming as you learn a lot doing that.

Third is participating in hackathons. These are really useful as they show that you can work in a collaborative environment with your teammates. And, if the projects in the hackathons differ enough, it shows a wide variety of products you created. Finally, and this is oh so important in the start-up world, you've shipped products! That's gigantic.

And finally comes the GPA. Your parents like a high GPA. Big corporations like a high GPA. But in the start-up world, while some do look at this, most have learned that it has almost no correlation with success and ignore it. At Windward we don't ask it of applicants.

Next week - What Matters