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What Should You Look for in an Internship at a Startup

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Your primary focus should not be finding an internship, any internship. Your focus should be on finding one that is a good fit for you. Spending your summer at an internship that's a poor fit is a waste of time and a suck-o experience. On the flip side, spending the summer at one that's a good fit makes for a wonderful experience.

Here's what to do to find an internship at a startup that pays off -- a fun summer, an interesting summer, and a giant step toward a great job upon graduating.

Do You Want to Work at a Startup?

The first question you need to ask yourself is do you want to work at a startup. It tends to be quite different from a regular company and you need to think about if you will like it. So let's talk about what's different.

You will fail. At most companies you operate with a net. There are systems and processes in place to make sure you don't do anything wrong. At a startup you are given responsibility for tasks and there is no one checking your work. There is no system to stop you from making a big mistake. And you are constantly being pushed to get tasks completed. So sometimes you will fail. Everyone does.

Everyone will see. At most companies your efforts are seen by a few of your peers and your manager -- that's it. At a startup everyone sees what you do (and don't) accomplish. When it's a great success that transparency is wonderful. When something goes wrong, then the transparency is not so hot. But at the end of the day everyone knows and appreciates what you've accomplished.

It's up to you. What you do, how you do it, the million decisions that go into any effort -- that's all up to you. You can (and should) ask for help, guidance, and assistance as needed. But you own the work and your efforts, design, code, etc. determine if your piece is a success. Responsibility and ownership are satisfying, but also scary at times.

Generalists, not specialists. There are always too few people at a startup. So you will be given tasks that you have no training for. The trick is to figure it out and do a good enough job. (A very important skill to learn is sometimes an A effort is required, but for some tasks a C effort is more appropriate.)

What to Look For at a Startup

How good is the team there. You need to find a good match. If your ability is significantly above the people at a company, you will find the work boring and you won't learn much. On the flip side, if your ability is significantly below that of the people at the company, you will find the work frustrating, painful, and again you won't learn much. You want to find a company where the team is just a bit better than you (that is the best learning environment). On the flip side a company wants to hire interns that are a bit better than their team (that's how they raise the average).

The culture. You need to find a culture that you like. Some (fortunately very few) companies are toxic. Make sure the people there appear to like each other and get along with each other. Also look for things you have in common. If you like computer games and one company has regular internal game tournaments, that's a good fit. If everyone bicycle rides and you'd rather get a beer, you may not click with the others. Don't look for a perfect fit, but do look for some commonality.

Their goal. Do they discuss the cool product they are creating with a goal of delivering that product to the world? Or do they discuss their next round of funding with a goal of being acquired. The startups focused on the payoff, ironically, tend to fail (and are not as enjoyable a place to work). Apple, Microsoft (in the old days), Google, Facebook, etc. focused on creating great products.

Free soda pop. This seems like a small thing but it is a very powerful indicator. I have worked at one company that did not provide free soda and another that did so only after being forced to. In both cases the companies did not value their programmers.

What Not to Look For

What product area they are in. Let's take an example -- do you have any interest in designing a new messaging architecture and implementing it? No? Too boring? Because that's what Twitter was. You never know where a given product will lead. And you never know what you will find interesting.

What technology they use. If you want to do mobile then yes you'll learn if you really like it working on mobile software. But if you work on big data server software that will give you the opportunity to discover if you find that interesting and challenging. Your interests should guide what you go look for, but they should not limit your choices.

The pay. Yes you need decent pay as an intern, both because beer costs money and it shows that a company values you. But the crucial thing you want to gain from an internship is to learn. Learn what it's like to work at one, learn if it's for you, learn new technology, learn marketing or sales or operations. You are not so much selecting a job as you are selecting an educational experience.

What You Will Gain

  1. If the startup world is for you.
  2. Learn new technology, new frameworks, new software.
  3. Gain knowledge in marketing, sales, operations, and/or how to rock at Civilization IV.
  4. You'll be pushed to your limits, and then far beyond. And that will teach you what you can truly accomplish.
  5. A well deserved sense of pride for the work you designed and created.

One Piece of Advice

The primary metric at a startup is accomplishing what needs to be done. Don't focus on why something cannot be accomplished, focus on how to accomplish it. If that means a different approach, explain that, and the reasoning behind it. The ultimate compliment at a startup is you give him/her a project and regardless of how difficult -- it gets done.

With that said, ignore limits, but don't ignore physics. If something truly is impossible, at least with the time/resources allotted, then say so (but make sure you offer alternatives).

Why Startups Rock!

I have spent most of my life working at startups. Yes it is harder work than you will find at a large company. No it doesn't pay as well as a large company (unless the stock pays off -- then Oh Baby!). But the work is interesting. What you do matters. You're part of a team accomplishing things that a team 20X the size at a large company can't even approach. And, all of that makes work so compelling that you love it.

Why do big companies pay more than startups? To make up for the fact that working there sucks.