Feb 10, 2011
Among computer science students at MIT, there is constant chatter about landing an internship at Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. The mailing list for jobs is constantly bombarded with emails from these companies and more, stating that the application process is beginning or that the deadline is fast approaching. But why apply for these internships? Good companies are hiring top talent all the time, and taking an internship does not necessarily give you an extra edge in the hiring process. In fact, the chances are, if you can land a job following an internship, you can likely acquire the job without the internship.
Instead, why not find an internship at a startup? They are also always hiring, but a lot more fun and a tremendous learning experience for anyone who has ever considered starting their own company. In the case of startups, “always hiring” actually translates to “always looking for help,” which means the work you do is guaranteed to influence that startup. I had an excellent experience with a startup two summers ago, and now I highly recommended similar experiences to friends and family. I’ve listed my favorite four takeaways below.
· Working with a team in a business environment. Schools offer group projects as a way to prepare students for working with others. Unfortunately, school projects don’t have a hierarchy; nobody has a boss, nobody is managing, the teacher just gives an assignment and the students divvy up the work. This is unlike a true business environment and is unlike any startup after it grows past its co-founders. The lessons I learned from having a boss made it much easier for me to manage others.
· Technical lessons from more experienced developers. This applies directly for programmers, but can be adapted to just about any role. There is a lot to learn from experience, and those that have been in the business longer have insurmountable advice to offer. Think about it, all of the lessons you learn are from people that have better knowledge of a subject than you do. Normally, these lessons are in textbooks or on the internet, but an internship is like 1 on 1 tutoring that you don’t have to pay for (you might even get paid).
· Experiencing a different way of doing things. Once you find a good way to do something, you probably just stick with it. Obviously it works, but it may not be the best way. Or, in cases where there is not a distinct best, there may still be a way you like better. Unfortunately, after you find a way to do something it can be difficult to explore other options, especially if you are working alone. Internships force you into a new environment where people do things differently. I would never say the internship is always right, but I can confidently say that I have inherited many ways of doing things from my internship.
· Meeting new people. Some of it’s networking, some of it’s making new friends. Either way, it’s great to meet new people. This is something you should get out of any internship, but I am sure it is a bit more intimate within a startup.
Of course there are always downsides, and in this case it will probably be with your stipend. Feel this out on your own, but I think anything where you are not losing money is a good deal (try to get food and transportation). Depending on the maturity of the startup, you may be able to get equity or a larger stipend. Finding a pro-rated full time salary is going to be exceedingly difficult, but try not to make this a game-killer.
The last and most important point is that you should find a startup you will enjoy working for. I overlooked this and got very lucky for my internship, but future experience has taught me to put more thought into the company I will be joining. Ideally, you should pinpoint a startup or a person that you would like to work with. After that, just find a way to make contact (a simple email should work fine) to get the ball rolling. Expressing interest in the product will give you a huge advantage, and sending a generic cover letter is not doing anyone a favor. Once you land a position, be sure to approach the internship with an open mind. Startup environments vary greatly, and they are nothing like a normal job.