Jump in at the Deep End
Blog post by Isha Bhatt (Electrical Engineering | 2021) Interning at SkySpecs
It’s the way to go, especially if you’re interning at a startup. Things move really fast. So, while you’re here, keep your eyes and ears open to a whirlwind of new experiences. You’ll work with extremely creative and hardworking individuals and teams, feel the weight of difficult engineering and business problems, and have fun while you’re at it. Expect to be thrown into the fire as soon as you step in the door, in the best possible way.
For starters, when you start your internship, your supervisor (shout out, Ben Marchionna, the BEST supervisor on the planet!) won’t show up to your desk and hand you a summer-long project and expect you to sit at your desk and silently work on it for three months. In fact, if you’re a hardware engineer like me, your desk may well just be a place to store your backpack while you design and build electronics for the drone in the lab. Stay alert. Actively seek out project opportunities to build something from scratch that will be valuable to the company in its development stages and in the long run.
Jumping in not only shows your co-workers that you are a valuable asset to the team, you tend to learn a lot in that process by doing rather than observing. You begin to master the art of problem-solving. With lots of engineering and business decisions to be made at a startup, you have both a lot of freedom and responsibility. There have been times when many of my co-workers are traveling and I may not have an immediate contact for all of my questions. When I do run into a small problem or roadblock along the way, I have to be creative and test different scenarios as I move forward in a project. If I do hit a dead end, I’ll then know which solution doesn’t work, and eventually converge to something that does. Of course, you learn a lot by asking questions of your co-workers, but there’s definitely a steep learning curve worth experiencing with problem-solving under little guidance.
Even when you’ve learned how to take initiative and problem-solve, you sometimes want to evaluate whether owning a difficult task is a calculated risk or is overstepping your realm of work. The fundamental differences between these two are your unique skill set and the time available to complete a task.
If you have an idea of the tools you’ll need and how to use them to problem-solve, go ahead and own that task by all means. That is what I would consider a calculated risk. You may run into blockers along the way, but you will at least know how to use the tools to get to a solution. However, to jump from designing a circuit board to tackling a web development task when you have little to no experience in software development might be difficult to do for an upcoming deadline. Certainly, you have both the time and ability to broaden your expertise over several months or weeks, but maybe don’t take on a task that you don’t immediately have the skill set or resources to complete on a close deadline.
With all that said about working hard, definitely jump in on having fun while working at a startup. Attend birthday and lunch events. Join your co-workers on company sporting adventures for some friendly competition. Go out to eat with your team or other co-workers once a week or so. If you’re at a drone company like I am, learn to fly a drone and race one another in an obstacle course for a break or during off hours. If not, learn to fly them anyway because flying drones is so much fun!
Take the time to speak with every employee. Yes. Every. Single. One. That’s one cool perk you get while you’re here. If you’re at an early stage startup with less than 20 people, that’s even easier. For someone who’s working at a mid-stage to late-stage startup, you may have to put a little more effort, but it’s still possible and worth it.
Many of those conversations you have early on in your internship can turn into strong bonds during the summer. Seriously invest in those relationships, because they help you in your professional endeavors. It will teach you how to build a better life by freely embracing the risk, uncertainty, and tenacity you would experience at a startup.
When you are in college, you have many ways to get engineering or business experience. Working on research, in a project team, and in a large corporate setting all have many benefits and learning curves to them for college students. I’ve had some exposure to all three and have found immense value in each of those experiences. That said, working at a startup is an experience unlike any other.
If you are a college student, I highly recommend spending at least one summer taking a very deep dive into the startup world. You’ll soak in a ton of experience in a short period of time and meet amazing people. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get to fly a drone or two.