Day in the Life of a Startup Intern
Blog post by ELP Student Parker Trombley (Aerospace Engineering | Class of 2021) Interning at ASX | Airspace Experience Technologies in Detroit
Why Are You Here?
Whether you are interning at a startup because you couldn’t get a job anywhere else or because you want to be an entrepreneur someday, it is an awesome opportunity that should be completely taken advantage of. As a college student looking for experience, I think that a startup can be one of the best places to be because you can get the experience of a large company but the responsibility and mentorship that sometimes only a small company can offer. Not every startup has the same advantages, but play it right and you can walk away with great technical experience, entrepreneurship exposure, and connections to use later on in your career.
Starting Your Day Early
If you’re interning at a startup, you probably are – or were recently – a college student. If you’re a college student, the relationship between you and your phone’s alarm clock is probably about as healthy as that dead plant your roommate got to “liven up the place.” With that being said, the summer is your chance to actually create the rumored sleep schedule that ceases to exist during the semester. Waking up early saves money and helps actually get your day started because it means making a decent breakfast and pot of coffee instead of either going out and buying those or skipping the breakfast all together. Coffee can never be skipped.
Being the first person to work every morning is the single most advantageous thing I’ve done so far. I work at a startup on the second floor of a city airport, so opening up the office in the morning gives me a sense of ownership of my role in the startup. It also gives me time to set up my desk and then spend a few minutes drinking my morning coffee and gawk at whatever private jets and personal planes are sitting outside the office window that morning. As an Aerospace Engineering student, working at an electric aircraft startup at an airport is like Maya the pooch doing food reviews – I’m beyond happy to just be here.
Going In With a Plan
Working at a small startup means that everybody has a lot of responsibility, so generally time is spread thin and it’s unreasonable to think that somebody is going to hold your hand every step of the way. Your boss is probably either busy or out of the office most of the time, so you need to keep a higher level understanding of the project you are working on so if you finish whatever tasks you were given, you can judge what needs to be done next and get started right away. Doing this has helped build trust with my boss and coworkers because they know that they don’t need to micromanage everything I do, but they can still rely on me to get things done according to their plans when necessary.
To help make sure that I don’t get stuck without work to do I like to keep a list of tasks I’ve been given, and tasks that I would like to look into if I get the time. There always needs to be a timeline with the tasks given so that I don’t get caught up in unnecessary details or technicalities – you need to know when to dive deep and when to just get something done. Also, you can never sink into a day-to-day mindset, I like to think in layers when it comes to what I need to do. I start with thinking about what needs to get done this week in the scope of the larger project timeline, and then break that down into what needs to be done daily to achieve it. If that leaves open space in my schedule, then I think about which aspects of those tasks I can really focus on or maybe even think of completely separate tasks that might not directly contribute to those weekly goals. For example, maybe I need to run through some rough calculations to get a performance estimate, but I know further down the road there will need to be a more accurate analysis done, so I can use my extra time to start learning an analysis tool that can be used later.
Ditching the Plan
Now that we have a plan for what we need to get done and how we will get there, it’s time to be ready to ditch it. Startups move fast, and change faster, meaning that those weekly goals are constantly changing. An urgent project that you just spent all day working on could suddenly be placed on the backburner and there’s a new project that you need to start immediately. This can be frustrating after a while because you were putting a ton of time and effort into a project you cared about and with no warning it can be cancelled completely. While it might seem like that time was wasted, you need to remember that everything you are doing at your startup internship is about building skills and getting experience, so that time is never actually wasted.
This actually adds excitement to an internship in my opinion, because you never know what’s coming on a daily basis. You might have a pretty good idea on what to expect, but things are constantly changing so it’s impossible to get bored. It can get pretty easy to become stressed out because if this happens a lot, it can start to feel like you never actually get anything done, but it’s all about looking forward and if something isn’t currently on your desk, don’t let it live in your head.
Saving Some Coffee for Later
Remember during the semester how you were complaining about how pointless a class was and that you just want to be working on something at a job that actually has some meaning? Well, working late is the perfect time to remember that, so you can push through. Startups move fast and moving fast means short deadlines. Short deadlines mean more work, and startups have less people to get that work done. Put this all together and you get some late nights at the office. If you’re following the early morning rule, then it’s probably time for some more coffee.
Working late sounds frustrating and exhausting, and it can be, but these are the times where you build the most respect from the people you work with and when you learn the most. Generally, if there is a big rush to get something done, there’s going to be some roadblocks. If everyone is working late, then ideas to overcome those issues can come from anywhere – now is your best chance to speak up. Being new and young at work can be intimidating, and that leads to swallowing some ideas. If you have a hard time sharing your ideas under normal circumstances, late work days are your best opportunities to step up to the plate and show what you can come up with. If it doesn’t work, that’s fine because everyone was already stuck on the problem for a reason, and if it does work, then that can give you the confidence to continue to contribute more and more on daily project ideas. Do this a few times, and you’ll have people coming to you – the intern – for advice.
Letting it Out
All of this waking up early, going in with a plan, ditching those plans, getting a ton of different work thrown at you, and working late to try and finish projects sounds like it can get super stressful, and it definitely can. The more responsibility you get, the more important your work is, and the more stressful that work becomes. After work, it’s all about that self-care (RIP Mac). Whether it’s exercise, video games, online poker, or whatever it is you do, there needs to be something to do on your downtime to let that stress out. I’m sure you’ve heard about this for classes, but it applies to your job, too.
If you think you don’t need this and you can just focus on work 24/7, you will crash. I am extremely guilty of having that 24/7 work attitude, and it can be necessary at times, but it’s not sustainable. For example, toward the end of freshman year I lived on that attitude and one day woke up with shingles at 19 years old. No sleep and no mental rest completely dropped my immune system and took me from feeling like I could get anything done to feeling like an old man that couldn’t roll over in my sleep because any contact on the rash hurt too much. This is probably a little extreme, but it gets the point across – work hard but don’t forget to take care of yourself.
This is all a taste of what working at a startup can be like, and I hope that there were some good takeaways to use in your own internship. Some things might sound pretty stressful, but play it right and your job will be fun and challenging, in the best way possible. If it’s not, then you still learned something by figuring out what it is that you don’t want to do. Interning at a startup is a unique opportunity that not everybody gets that chance to do, so take the time to figure out what you want to get out of it and shape your attitude and summer plans to make that happen. Startups move fast, but keep your head on straight and you can move faster!