The Unanticipated Intern Experience

September 18, 2014

Two hours after I walked through the front door at Wealthfront, I pushed code to production. Two weeks after that I took part in conference calls to outside business partners. Two weeks after that I planned a critical feature with product managers. Two weeks after that I debated UI elements with the lead designers at Wealthfront. Two weeks after that I wrote analytics code for the new features. It’s more than I bargained for as a software engineer intern, and more than most would expect even as a full time engineer in Silicon Valley. But at Wealthfront it happens by design. Flat teams commissioned to self-organize as they see fit pull interns along simultaneously in the directions of engineering fundamentals, client-centric design and strategic business plans.

But as challenging and eye opening as it’s been to sweep through the process of planning and designing a feature, that’s only half the story of my time here. I worked as an engineer, after all, and perhaps the most memorable and valuable experience was the responsibility for prototyping, architecting, and building product-critical features. Sure, plenty of companies let interns take charge of projects and some companies let interns get their hands on critical products. Some even let interns build projects that may one day affect customers.

What sets Wealthfront apart is a willingness to give new employees full responsibility for projects that will immediately affect customers within days, if not hours. I spent much of the summer working on a feature to save clients time and effort as they set up their account. That’s an obvious win for clients, and an equally obvious asset for Wealthfront. More importantly, the changes are a key enabler of future, even larger improvements to the whole client experience. Just as I was not siloed into a narrow role as a developer, I was also not siloed into a narrowly useful project.

Maximize your importance
Before thinking about specializing, every intern or full-time employee coming out of school is going to have to grapple with the gap between their experience and the new scale, breadth, and pace of a real software company. There are both technical and operational differences between how we learn to work in school and how employees work in Silicon Valley software companies.

It was immediately obvious that there were parts of the technology stack I was unfamiliar with and a couple programming styles I hadn’t seen before. But interestingly enough, I found the technical gap easy to bridge. Reading through the codebase and asking coworkers a handful of questions was more than sufficient to fill in the gaps, probably because I already had a mental framework for understanding software. The difficult part was adjusting to the fact that, for the first time, it took more to manage a project than an assignment handout, a group text thread and a git repo. Knowing your own code and understanding a variety of job titles isn’t enough, it takes observation and effort to understand how to integrate in and work with a highly horizontally mobile team.

Developing that framework is one of the largest benefits I did not expect to gain. It will pay dividends in my ability to evaluate companies, onboard onto new teams and contribute to their work processes.

The more exciting difference between school and real world software projects is simpler: The stakes are higher. Instead of working for a letter grade and having one or two users, there’s more than a billion dollars and tens of thousands of customers who depend on your code. Obviously, that changes both your mindset and your workflow. Not only is this an important lesson to learn in an environment surrounded by mentors and extensive testing, it’s also satisfyingly meaningful. For those of us fresh out of the classroom, finding a place where our work genuinely matters will affect our mindset and productivity much more than any technology or workflow.

Learn faster, learn smarter
While the potential meaningfulness of your work may not always be feasible to evaluate as a prospective intern or employee, there are a couple factors that are both visible to interviewees and fundamental for a new employee’s learning.

The single most important driver of my technical development this summer was feedback from both code reviews and test results. Maximizing learning, then, necessitates maximizing my exposure to feedback. Short of demanding more feedback (which has obvious drawbacks), the most practical way of doing this is maximizing the speed of the feedback loop for my work. I have worked in tech companies with development cycles ranging in length from 6 weeks to, thanks to Wealthfront, about 6 minutes. Often faster, since robust test suites at every level give reliable feedback for code correctness within seconds. Access to team-wide code review and deployment within minutes is a fast track for not only code, but also skill development.

Students looking to intern often wisely look for an internship where they believe they’ll work under and learn from the best people they can. What we don’t often realize is that the amount you learn from leaders is not just a function of the quality of the leaders, but also of the transparency and communication between you and those you work for. Employees always know what decisions are made. In good organizations, they know why these decisions are made. At Wealthfront, I know how they are made. Data-driven culture and its child principle of data democratization certainly make this easier, but there’s also a human aspect to this culture. I speak daily with a mentor and more than weekly with our VP of Engineering. Sometimes we talk about a javascript implementation and sometimes about types of stock and funding rounds.

Structure speaks louder than words
It’s hard, especially as a prospective intern, to determine whether a company will offer you the kind of learning opportunity you seek. I do now recognize, though, that the potential for learning as an intern at Wealthfront didn’t come from a proclaimed focus on interns but instead is deliberate residue of the larger design of how Wealthfront engineering works. The flat and integrated team structure enabled the breadth and pace of my experience. The robust test structure and lack of hierarchy enabled the level of responsibility and ownership other interns and I had. The unrelenting focus on automated testing and continuous deployment enabled the feedback loop. These characteristics are the result of both intention and expertise, and the opportunities I had could not occur without them.

The knowledge of how to recognize these characteristics in future companies might just be the most valuable lesson I’ve learned at Wealthfront.