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Why You Should Intern At A Startup

Davis Keene·May 18, 2020

“Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you.” –Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO

The college tech internship is something that most engineering students will face at least once in their undergraduate education. Companies need developers and engineers that aren't full time, and most students can't afford to work full time while pursuing their degree. It's a match made in heaven. At career fairs, many times you'll take a look at someone's resume and catch a good case of "Impostor Syndrome" as you see name brands appear left and right. The senior in front of you in line to talk to Microsoft has worked at SpaceX, Google and Facebook. You think to yourself, they must be a genuis! And while it's true that working for large tech companies offers you unique experiences in their own right, I want to make the case for working at startups, and normalizing such in competitive tech fields.

Silo Mentality at Large Companies

For the average college-level intern, curiosity is an important aspect of growth. Computer Science is a broader field than you'd think, ranging from User Interfaces, Data Science, Software Engineering, Cybersecurity, and many more fields. Dipping your toes into all aspects of CS ensures that you're going to enter the workforce knowing what subset you're passionate about, without worrying that you'll be stuck doing something you don't enjoy.

Unsurprisingly, large tech companies are well structured, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. If you work for a company like Apple, it's likely you'll be placed into a specific team, and work on a project of their choosing. While this is all fine and good for people who have already found their niche within CS, an intern may be taken back by just how closed off internal company systems are from each other. Moreover, working on a particular team (which are often just intern projects) means that you'll be disconnected from the technology at large. You may spend months working on a project, just to have your work published in a blog post that gets less views than this one.

Startups need all hands on deck, which usually means that you'll be working on some of the main components of the company's product from day one. You'll have the freedom to work on multiple different projects across all fields, and through these experiences you'll be able to really identify which fields you excel in, and which ones you don't.

Real Responsibility

All startups recognize that time is money. As an intern for a startup, the projects you get to work on will likely be impacting real customers, effective immediately. Projects at startups differ from those at large companies mainly by their scope. To add a new feature, an intern often has to understand the full product tech stack, the workflow that goes into local development, being present during team specific code reviews and learn a wide variety of tools and utilities.

It's often intimidating to be thrust into a situation like this, but taking these challenges head on with a small team gives you a taste of how these features are rolled out in large companies too. The difference is, where a larger company would say you were a small part of a small project, your startup will say you were a large contributor of a large feature. Ownership of these projects won't just help you add impressive-sounding sentences to your resume, but will also give you the confidence to take on large responsibility roles down the road, which is a well sought after trait for many high paying leadership jobs.

Something that sticks with me is a conversation I had at my last interview. At this startup, the hiring manager asked me if I was "comfortable wearing many hats". It was at this point I realized that to be a developer for a startup meant that you're expected to be a jack of all trades and take responsibility for your accomplishments (and failures), which inspired me to push further into the startup scene in the Greater Boston Area.

Valuable Connections That Last

Chances are that if your startup has well-known investors, is growing at a steady rate and has a good product-market fit, then it'll eventually turn into a large company. The benefit to that is you'll get to know everyone on a team of 30-50 people now, and by the time the company grows even more those contacts will become good friends and even better business contacts.

For example, my boss at my first startup wrote several of my supplemental letters of recommendation for college applications, and I still talk with him every few months just to see how their company is doing. Startup co-workers now can serve as mentors for you down the road, and can even give you advice on where to take other positions, or hopefully take you back with loving arms if you're looking for a full time position out of college.

Finding The Right Fit

All of this being said, the value of an internship at a startup is a function of how much work you put into it, and how ready the company is to give you a positive working environment. Finding an internship that's right for you may be difficult, and sometimes all of the responsibility and overhead that comes with working at a startup can create more challenges than you'd expect. When looking for a startup, make sure that their investors are reputable and have backed other successful companies before. Check that their burn rate is steady and that they aren't in jeopardy of losing funding. Investigate and see if their product has a good product-market fit. See if their mission statement resonates with you.

Closing Remarks

Working at a startup is a valuable experience that can provide you with some of the best lessons of corporate structure, product development and responsibility that large tech firms simply cannot offer. My personal experiences with startups have been incredible so far, which is why I'm in organizations at my school like Founders and working at companies like Jellyfish, both of which promote success in startups. They give me the opportunity to work on software solutions and accelerate company growth.

In the past, interning for a startup meant working as an unpaid employee who would perform the daily coffee run and get minimal work in. But this has become the exception, not the rule. If you can show your responsibility and knowledge through your own projects developed at startups, Fortune 100 companies will be sure to take notice. And the pay that these internships provide are often financially sound.

If you're like me, being in the startup scene may convince you that starting your own business is the best way to make an immediate impact. I hope that no matter what you do, you'll consider giving startups a chance to change your life and provide you with invaluable life skills that will be useful for the rest of your career.