Learning from Leaders

As a student looking for internships, two points that mattered most to me were finding a place with great mentors and finding a place where I could build strong relationships.

Two months into my internship at Wealthfront, I’ve looked back to evaluate whether I achieved my goals. To me, the most beneficial aspect of the intern program has been our discussions with the experienced executives at the company. These weekly Exec/Intern Q&A discussions have given interns the opportunity to gain some insight on topics ranging from finance and entrepreneurship to career choices and family. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the past two months.

Importance of Learning

Learning on the job is a main focus of any successful internship. However, I learned this summer that learning shouldn’t stop there. In fact, learning is at the center of the decision-making process here and a central tenet for the whole company. When it comes to deciding the next big initiative, the most important question to answer is what can be learned from the project. This follows the principle of the scientific method where a hypothesis must be established. The hypothesis tells us what we want to learn from an experiment or initiative. According to Avery Moon, VP Research and Engineering, “the only failed project is the one where nothing was learned.”

In order to learn from a hypothesis, we need a way to measure the success of a project. Taking a Bayesian approach, if the hypothesis is the prior, then there must be a measurable observation that helps to form a stronger posterior. This approach makes tracking metrics and collecting data essential for successful learning. Every engineer at Wealthfront is encouraged to create dashboards and metrics to follow the impact of their projects on the overall growth and success of the company. Without keeping track of these metrics, it can be hard to know why something went wrong or why something went well.

The executives pointed out the same approach can be applied to personal learning as well. Maintaining a journal is an effective way to qualitatively evaluate ourselves. It forces us to remember events and thoughts of the day. As a result, we can understand which areas of our life have room for improvement and which areas we have success. Tracking quantitative metrics can be more difficult in our day-to-day lives, but there are certain situations where it makes a lot of sense. One simple example is logging workouts. Keeping track of a workout can show us where we are improving and encourage continuous progress. If we’re able to keep track of the results our personal experiments (whether quantitatively or qualitatively), we can better understand both our mistakes and successes.

Making Career Choices

A major benefit of speaking to executives is that they have many years of experience in their field and many stories and anecdotes as a result. During the discussions, they gave us advice about how to think about our career choices.

Wealthfront CEO Adam Nash described the benefits of personal success in his own words by saying that being successful earlier in our career gives us the power to do what we want to do in the future and find more success. This not only includes financial gain but also includes the benefits of building relationships with extremely smart people at successful hypergrowth companies early in our career.

Adam had a lot to say about what motivated him as he made career and life decisions. One strategy I took away is to focus on the type of life you want in five years (or any similar time period) and consider what steps or experiences you might need to get there. This will give you a better idea of what you need to do in the next two years to get to where you want to be in five years. He described these short periods as two-year tours of duty with an option (think player options for professional athletes) for another two years. At the same time, Andy Johns, Director of Growth, emphasized the importance of seizing new, unexpected opportunities as they come and being willing to change paths.

Fellow intern Clay Jones summarized the value of hearing about these executives’ career choices:

“The valuable insight from our discussions was hearing the paths different executives took to get to the position they hold at Wealthfront. In school or the news, you don’t get the full story of how someone came into a position you might want to have some day. It takes a huge amount of intelligence, time and effort to get the skills needed for these positions. Some folks can get through school only thinking about the job they might get on the other side. Working your way to an executive position at a company like Wealthfront takes more; it takes a passion to fix something about the world on a large scale.”

Entrepreneurship

While the executives’ experiences in entrepreneurship have been varied, there were some common takeaways.

One was that startups come with an substantial amount of risk. According to the founders Andy Rachleff and Dan Carroll, the acceptance of taking risk (and the potential of failure that comes with it) is what makes Silicon Valley such a breeding ground for startups. At the same time, this risk becomes harder to bear as our career progresses. When we grow older and our responsibilities increase, there is a potential to be able to tolerate less risk and this is something to be cognizant of whether we want to start our own companies or work at very early-stage startups.

Andy and Dan both stressed the importance of product/market fit on the long-term success of a company. This doesn’t necessarily mean optimizing for the biggest possible market but rather focusing first on the right market for your initial product and growing both the product and market afterwards. When starting a company, it’s important to find out what you uniquely offer that customers desperately want. Inherent in this process is the focus on learning that is a key part of the lean startup methodology.

Final Thoughts

These meetings with executives have often left me asking more questions about myself than when I came in. Each of them has given me invaluable advice and made me consider new perspectives. The insight they give me on the business and industry only added to the value of these discussions. It is opportunities like these to speak with great leaders that make internships worthwhile for me.