My SWE Internship at Pixvana—a VC-Backed XR Startup
Sharing my journey to a company that taught me about engineering, leadership, and startup life
Hello! My name is Kassen and I am currently a sophomore at Duke University. I am pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science & Cultural Anthropology with a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (It’s a mouthful, I know). Outside of class, I love playing acoustic guitar, reading Ocean Vuong, and listening to podcasts.
I completed my first ever summer internship in 2019 at an early stage startup called Pixvana in Seattle. Pixvana’s mission is to “realize the potential of XR storytelling.” Before this internship, the extent of my exposure and interest in video software was limited — I had tried an Oculus VR headset a couple of times and edited a few travel videos in iMovie, but nothing that was specifically relevant to Pixvana’s product focus: software that creates and delivers virtual, augmented, and mixed reality experiences in the cloud.
I discovered Pixvana through DTech, also known as the Duke Technology Scholars program. I was extremely fortunate to come across a startup that is not only backed by large venture firms such as Madrona Venture Group, Vulcan Capital, and M12, but as I would later discover, also full of great passion and great leadership.
As a freshman, I didn’t even know I was interested in computer science as a career option until I was a couple months into my Intro to CS class. I didn’t realize that software engineering internships were a possibility for me until November of my freshman fall, and by that time, it was pretty much too late for me to apply to companies that had freshman-specific summer programs. I applied to almost every opportunity I came across, but I rarely received any responses, and the ones I did were rejections. I didn’t blame them; the only thing tech-related I had on my resume was a nonprofit side project I and a few of my peers had worked on the summer before college.
Over winter break, I had finally received a response from a mid-sized, Chicago-based telecommunications company. My interview process for this company started out great, but ended up being close to three months long with five or six interviews overall. It resulted in an offer to be a front end engineering intern. The offer letter actually misspelled my name…but nevertheless, it was my first offer!
As for Pixvana, I had submitted my resume to them via the DTech program at Duke and was notified about an interview in February. After my interview, I received an offer from them to be an engineering intern within a week! If I remember correctly, I spent about two weeks debating between these two companies, and ultimately went with Pixvana because I felt that they valued and respected me more. They told me that they loved the passion I had for helping others and how much I was willing to learn and take on new challenges. My to-be manager gave me plenty of options for possible projects that spanned front end, back end, and even machine learning. I thought to myself, when would I receive the opportunity again to work for a legitimate startup that is willing to let me learn and contribute in the ways that I want to?
Looking back, the primary reason I was considering the other company was that it was larger in size and that I knew successful Duke engineering students who had interned there before, whereas Pixvana was a 30-person company, and I didn’t know anyone who had interned there before. Even though it was clear that Pixvana would provide a more enriching experience for me, I was doubtful because I had never heard of the company before and less certain about where I would be after the summer is over. Nonetheless, I took the offer.
Living in a DTech house in Madison Valley, my commute to Pixvana in Fremont was about 45 minutes each way. I’d wake up at 7:15, grab breakfast, and catch the 8 bus at the stop right across the street. I’d usually arrive at the office 15 to 30 minutes til 9, my scheduled starting hour.
On my first day, my mentor showed me around the open office and introduced me to every single person at the company. I walked past racks of Oculus Go and Rift headsets to meet my manager (who was also the engineering manager), the engineering team, the marketing and sales team, everyone on the in-house video production team, the product manager, and the CEO (who is one of my biggest inspirations to date)! I basically spent the entire day setting up my desk, learning about their tech stack, creating accounts for tools, and understanding their code base. I also got to put on a Go headset and watch some videos the production team had created on Pixvana’s company values.
Coming into the internship, I had told my manager that I was interested in working on a mix of front end and back end, and would honestly be down to learn and work on anything. The nice thing about working at a startup is that almost all of the work they give you is actually something they need completed. I spent the first couple of weeks working on front end features using React.js and Redux.js and then moved into back end Java development, creating an internal micro-service using Spring Boot and the MVC framework to streamline the process of sharing and accessing pieces of video content across different VR headsets. Throughout my 13 weeks there, my long-term project was to source thousands of images and feed them to an image classification model. Once this model was trained adequately, I hooked it up into the pipeline so that SPIN Studio, Pixvana’s primary product, could automatically detect the type of content a user uploads into the platform (without the user having the manually set those details).
Every day, I’d arrive at work at 9 AM at the latest, and leave at 5 PM at the earliest. Sometimes my mentor and a few other coworkers would walk to the Miir flagship store one block away to get morning coffee, and I’d work on whatever project I’d be focusing on that week until lunchtime. Sometimes I’d go to Pho or Royal Grinders with coworkers; twice a week we’d have company-catered lunch where everyone would sit at the meeting room table and one person would present a talk on anything they were interested in: a recent family vacation, how kombucha is made, etc. One time, we all spent an hour eating lemons and vinegar after my manager brought some miracle berry tablets to work.
After lunch, I’d be back at my desk coding until 3 PM: scrum time. The engineering team (and sometimes the PM or production lead) would stand in the meeting room and report on what they worked on and/or accomplished that day. We’d all say whether we were blocked by anyone else’s work and what our plans were for the rest of the day. It was a great way to take a break and check in with everyone, and I loved hearing about the unique challenges that people were facing on job every day.
Every Friday afternoon, we’d have an all-hands wrap meeting to end the week. Engineers would demo new features, sales and marketing would report analytical data and new content, and the production team would tell us about what they shot that week and release links to new XR experiences they had been working on. The PM would give product updates, and our CEO would end wrap by discussing financials, speak to the direction of the company, and tell us about new people he was meeting with and where he was traveling to meet them. Each week, there was something new — the pace and nature of Pixvana (and many other startups), is that things change, and they change quickly.
Throughout the summer, I got lunch one-on-one with almost everyone at Pixvana. I learned about their experiences and they learned about mine. My manager, mentor, and coworkers pushed me to learn about new technologies and meet new people; my manager even allowed me to skip a morning of work to travel downtown and meet one of Pixvana’s board members for coffee. One of the best things about working at Pixvana was the level of skill and talent that everyone there had, and how humble they were about it. Most of the engineers had come from companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe, and taken large pay cuts to work on products they were passionate about here. Everyone was so encouraging, kind, and down-to-Earth. It was incredibly inspirational to be around people who learned from each other and pushed each other to be better. Everyone wanted to use feedback to constantly improve themselves and the company with regards to everything: communication, code, and even how they interviewed new candidates like me. Not only did I learn about software engineering and the structure of an early stage startup, but I learned about leadership, transparency, and the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. I loved the fast pace and the relatively large impact I had as an intern; by the end of the summer, all of my work had been pushed into production.
One of my favorite memories was when the Oculus Quest launched — it was just shortly after I had arrived at Pixvana. I arrived at work about half an hour early, and the order of fifty or so Quests had come in the day before. One of our senior engineers asked me if I wanted to check out the Quest, and he helped me set it up so I could play a few games. Some people say that VR is dead, and while I disagree, you do have to admit that being inside a headset is pretty awesome.
Outside the Internship
As a part of the DTech program, I attended two to three DTech events each week, commuting around the Seattle area to visit companies, attend plays, or have dinner with the other girls in the program with me. On the weekends, my friends and I would explore Seattle’s amazing food and drink offerings and visit places like local farmer’s markets, the University of Washington, Capitol Hill, Gasworks Park, and Ballard. I went to the Capitol Hill Block Party to see artists like Peach Pit, Big Wild, and Mitski, and also got to see Beast Coast’s first show as a part of their summer tour. Seattle was also where I got my first cartilage piercing and got into Soulcycle (I know) and CorePower Yoga. Lots of fun things to do in the Pacific Northwest!
I truly feel like interning at a startup was the perfect summer opportunity as a young college student. At first, I was doubtful of how much I would benefit from this internship because of how niche the XR space is and how small of a company Pixvana was, but I learned so much more than I could have ever imagined.
The best advice I can give to anyone reading this and/or searching for summer opportunities is to spend at least one summer interning at a startup. My internship was extremely hands-on and flexible, allowing me to contribute to and explore the company in ways that I would imagine are close to impossible to achieve at a large tech conglomerate. I don’t think Pixvana is hiring at the moment, but 1) it doesn’t hurt to ask, and 2) I am confident that there are many more startups out there that can provide similar learning experiences. Startups have a lot up their sleeve, and you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn and grow as a person over just a couple of months.
You can find me @kassenq on Twitter and Instagram. This article was written as a part of Interns, a project out of Future Careers to provide unbiased, transparent views of student internship experiences and make new cities feel less lonely.