The Ultimate Engineering Internship
You’re approaching your final college year not having interned at Facebook, Amazon or Google. Are you considered an idiot? Is your career doomed?
Someone asked me "I am entering my third year at a top tech college and have not interned at any major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, or Google. Should I start thinking I'm an idiot and quit everything I have been working on?" I replied with this personal story. Forbes published it .
More than a decade ago I found myself in a top Computer Science university program, not making headway with any major tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, or Google. (Facebook wasn't even born yet, and very few people had heard of Google. Microsoft was all the rage.)  Everyone I knew had some fancy internship with a big shot company. Competition was fierce.
I decided I had a key insight about engineering that nobody else did: it's better to have a monopoly on being right than a competition on being liked.
I applied, instead, to work as an intern in a hospital for kids. Everyone else ignored this unsexy employer and spent months hearing back from the hot shots. The hospital contacted me the next day and said "please come and help us. Nobody else would."
For a sum total of a year, I had the perfect freedom to build whatever I wanted at the hospital, while my friends had to perform bottom of the barrel projects at Microsoft and Google. We all learned to be engineers. But I also learned to be a monopoly value provider. I learned to understand my customer uniquely. I became an entrepreneur.
After graduation, it took me one year to get a full-time position at Microsoft. And three years after that, while I was working at a small company, Google contacted me, asking if I wanted to work there. You read that right, they contacted me. I actually rejected Google twice because I was happy with my job. The third time they contacted me (in six months apart intervals) I took the job. And both sides were happy.
It's been a decade since I decided to go the opposite path from everyone else. Those friends who got internships into Microsoft and Google? They're still working there, pleasing bosses, and deeply afraid of ever trying anything else in life. They clung to an initial success, and competed with others to build a cage around themselves. I let go of it all a few years later, looking for a type of customer to whom I'd matter again. I'm now building a startup company that provides a unique service to a neglected industry, and I write to inspire engineers about the paths not taken.
At its heart, engineering is about making decisions that are right, even if they seem unlikeable and unpopular. If you find yourself living with the results of other peoples' thinking, you're not really the type of engineer that a top company is attracted to.
That's the paradox: successful companies are not attracted to the kind of people who are attracted to the aura of success. They're attracted to people who recognize what's valuable to do, when it's unpopular from everyone else's perspective. So they tend to hire people who have done unconventional things.
The classical image of an engineer is the first person standing under a newly constructed bridge. Do you remember the last person under the same bridge? Sadly, nobody does.
Success is thinking for yourself.
- University of Waterloo posted co-op positions in Needles Hall's first floor next to decades-old computer terminals. These terminals, on which we signed up for internships positions, used to connect to a core super-computer designed for hacking Cold-War-era encryptions. What used to be the building housing a massive super-computer is renovated today; it is called The Math Faculty. Peers and I spent many years inside it, learning Computer Science. I used to think it had the most bizarre and ugly architecture; I never understood that computers used to be literally the size of a building until after I graduated and looked back at the shape of the building, which looks like a CPU. It turns out that not only engineering interns, but also even engineering buildings, tend to be unpopular when they serve the right purpose.
- Hospital for Sick Children was where I first learned the large gap between what technology can do and what humanity needs. While I invented my first photo-sharing app there in 1999, the equipment to radio-scan a child's body cost millions of dollars. I changed my app to share radiology imaging instead of what came to be known many years later as selfies. This uncommon path became one of the most fundamental building blocks of my understanding of tech entrepreneurship.
- Our company, Sponsorbrite funds schools, teams, churches and non-profits using corporate interest and sponsorship dollars. It's the first startup to make fundraising a 100% free activity for social institutions, something that traditionally costs tens of thousands of dollars and incredible human energy.
- You can subscribe to my weekly essays, where you'll learn things that you don't yet know you'll need, or, you think you need, but you don't. I write when non-conformity smiles back at the norm, much like the intern in this story.
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Readers shared their thoughts on this essay:
Hi Amin, very inspirational as always!
I can especially relate to this since my circumstances aren't so far off. I graduated from school last year and right before i got the degree i had two back to back internships.
Sure they weren't very glamour's but given my case- a language handicap (that's foreigners who only speak English in Europe) in a lonely Scandinavian capital- it was big deal. Not to discount the fact that i have seen nothing short of theatrics that students from similar backgrounds do getting into the building.
I, on the other hand went to very relevant places and rather easily; heck they even paid and alluded a desk down the line.
Then after a period of six months all the promises turned out to be mirages- I just wasn't ready in one case and the other, well i took a gamble on it, a guy with mild stuttering goes to make cross border sales calls, and floats or drowns, and in the movies they usually swim at the end. But not me.
I can talk all day detailing my emotional rollercoaster during that period. But sadly no concrete bread baking skills to fill the tummy.
But that's not the end. I graduated, acing my degree thesis, forgot all about the internships and was hired as the first employee to an app developing startup. They introduced me to the world of lean customer development, and it spoke to me, i woke up every morning more energised than the last and willing to bring change, to me and to the surroundings. It lasted for about two months.
Soon enough the funds dried, i would have worked there for free but the bills don't pay themselves. Plus there was the visa thing. It manifested in all different ways and after some turbulent eight months I learned a pivotal lesson- money is a thing- and was asked to step aside.
It was hard.
It took some time to accept it all. Then one day not so long ago I decided that there should be something more to fight for than a sense of security.
And what you illustrated over here, in my own way I also realized that paradox. As long I want 'it' it's not coming.
And thank god I realized it now not 10 years later. I consider the bed to be my enemy, i read, i learn, i try to code, and gather all the force i can muster and channel them inside.
Sorry if it's too long for a comment! but I'm digging my way out and I wanted share it over here :)
(edited to weed out the typos ;)
Nayeem, thanks for sharing the story. A larger myth plays into our lives that I want you to recognize. You remind me of the Jaguar Whisperer. I learned about him on the radio. I hope you'll read or hear his story: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/08/319420681/a-boy-and-his-jaguar-speak-to-children-who-feel-misunderstood
I listened to the interview, and could relate to what he says. Thank you for this!
I'm amazed at this unspoken "given" in the IT industry: one HAS to make it into one of the big names. For what? To look like success? To feel like success? Maybe I'm unusual, but it wouldn't even cross my mind to consider working at the big names. Perhaps that kind of kudos seems pointless to me :).
What I do like is you taking the unpopular sounding path. And not only that, the one you chose was deeply worthwhile. Something about you choosing to help out the hospital when, for whatever reason, few others would.
It would seem a distortion to me to equate working for the big names with success. Especially the question you were asked - to me the only idiocy the questioner displayed was that of considering they might be an idiot for not getting such internships.
Would anyone ever look back on these years, in their 90's and judge themselves an idiot for not getting to work at a big name company? Seriously?
I do believe however, that your choice of employer is one you'll always have pride in helping. It was a nice answer to a question that came from a very distorted view. Thank you :).
Great comment. It takes time to overcome the lure of mythical status. And perhaps the fastest way to overcome the myth of what's on top of the hill is to visit the top. But in the end, the largest mountain resides in one's mind.
You have given a very simple solution to a very complex question. If you fail going to Big Names - start from smaller ones, learn the basics and boom - You are the champion. This is not necessarily incorrect and I also have experienced that. However, in my opinion it is not all that easy. A name like Google comes with plethora of advantages for an individual which is nearly impossible in most of the relatively unknown places. Having said that, it is very much upon individual how to take things at both places.
A smaller name may offer you independence at first, you have groomed yourself well, and then once peak arrives you move to "the brand" (You have done the same) whereas, if you already started at "the brand" it is not always necessary to become kiss ass (if that is the case, Google/ MS/ Amazon never have produced innovative products).
With all this, I would say it doesn't matter you start with bigger name or a smaller one but it is you how and what you start. Your article is quite motivating but incomplete without clarifying this.
Thanks for the feedback, I'll consider adding another scene to clarify the point for this chapter. The premise shows in the last line: "success is thinking for yourself."
The fall of Rome and a bunch of "barbarians" taking over...
"It's better to have a monopoly on being right than a competition on being liked."
When I read this part I said to myself: "this is something I deeply believe in that also gets me into trouble." (Maybe it's a misperception though).
Fortunately, you convinced me -- throughout the rest of the story -- that unpopular decisions could benefit us.
I agree with you on the kind of people successful companies are attracted to but I don't think a company's values are transferred directly to its recruiters and managers. A manager would rather hire followers than "engineers".
Thanks Idin. You're exactly right; large company mindsets don't always effectively flow down to recruiters and managers. And large companies, like empires, eventually are run mostly by followers. That's the cycle of life. And it's how new and small kingdoms replace old empires. It's how most large companies are toppled by their former employees. (See my related essay, "The True Father of Silicon Valley", which explains how "engineers" in one company, who were asked to become "followers", quit and created what became all of Silicon Valley.)
You know, this is the first time I had a phrase click with why I needed to move from a company. I was doing fine, it was a small startup, we all mucked into most jobs in various ways and there were 4 of us. Three years on, there were more of us and now the boxes started. Y'know those narrow confined boxes we call roles. I was asked to be a follower, just the perfect phrase right here. I found out the hard way that there are two things I can't physically make myself take for long: be just a follower and play politics to get ahead.
That's life; we all have weaknesses :)
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