Landing an internship at Airbnb

Kaleb Zenk
Apr 19, 2018 · 10 min read

The details: I’m currently a senior marketing communication and English literature major at Pacific Union College. As those who attend PUC know well, this place is an enigma, and explaining it to strangers is out of the ordinary — but, we’ve learned how to add a punch in its description: “It’s a liberal arts college tucked away in the Napa Valley.” Rated as the #1 most beautiful campus in U.S. News some time ago, it’s a truly a beautiful campus, nestled in a quaint forest just slightly north of Napa.

Ironically enough, PUC is a Christian university — surrounded plentifully by vineyards (endless amounts of booze). You may look, the administration of this fine institution says, but you cannot touch — an oath I did not swear upon, nor do I plan on doing so.

Side Note: The grape variety of Syrah produces the most beautiful, delectable and delicious wine that will ever graze the back of your throat. If Jesus turned water into wine, it was definitely a Syrah, and it was assuredly blessed. AMEN. Many will argue Jesus was a grape juice kind of guy, but I don’t believe it for a second.

I digress, but for wine, I will most definitely make an exception.

A little background: I was destined to be a nurse by my parents’ standards. “How’d that anatomy test go? What were your TEAS scores like? Take extra credits to get into nursing school. You won’t make money being an English major. You won’t be satisfied going after your passions. Life is about hard work.”

And life has been much harder since choosing to be a writer; since coming out of the closet; and by not going to church every week. In fact, it still hurts I couldn’t be exactly what my parents expected of me. Being a writer and being gay is where my true and unique empathy lies, and it’s where I know I can honestly help others the most.

You see, nursing is amazing! The opportunity to aid in the healing process of those who have survived pain and suffering is unique and should be cherished. The ability to watch and be an active part of someone’s healing process is a cathartic and important career path. It’s hard work, and I respect all who are passionate enough to power through nursing school. Many, if not all nurses, have found their passion and unique empathy, but I did not.

Especially after exiting an anatomy exam. I have muscles and bones, cool. I don’t need to remember all of them. My bones were meant to write.

Cue the intern application process.

I knew deep down in my heart I wanted to write (okay, this is obvious) — had things gone differently before my acceptance into Airbnb, I would probably be working as an unpaid intern in a nonprofit organization —and dare I say, I’m going to financially meet my goals! A higher power, and whether that be God or Beyoncé — I hope it was Beyoncé — led me to an organization that cared deeply for its customers. Led through inclusion and a sense of belonging, Airbnb was the place that captured my unique spirit of kindness and empathy. I say this preemptively, of course, but I can only hope.

A gay boy’s dream and a wet dream (sorry) for a content strategist in the making, this opportunity has been substantially greater than what I had accepted as inception for my career. For exactly 12 weeks, I will be working with one of the coolest, most down-to-earth teams currently killing the content strategy game.

So, you may be wondering what the process for me was like, or you already bounced: WE HAVE ANALYTICS SHOWING US WHO LEFT A PAGE EARLY — All jokes aside, content strategists know exactly how people consume their content, respectively.

I searched Google, Reddit, and Quora high and low for others’ experiences during the interview process at Airbnb, and although I didn’t find much, what I did find was reassuring: I found positivity. People at Airbnb are caring, kind, and respectful — a strange and unfamiliar narrative for Silicon Valley at large. Forget the perks because employees at Airbnb embrace the mission of belonging anywhere.

The process

The interview process is blurry, mainly because it was finals week when I skipped classes to attend three Google Hangout interviews. My kindhearted professors (most of them) understood my passion and the importance of landing an internship at Airbnb.

It was daunting, but I had endured similar stress before (like coming out of the closet), and coming out somehow was the best decision I had ever made. This was a close second, for sure.

The call

It all begins somewhere — and as many other interns would attest — the opportunity arises out of the blue.

I am reluctant to answer the phone (it’s a millennial thing), but I decided to pick this one up. A sudden spik in adrenaline filled my body as the recruiter on the end of the telephone said:

“Hi there, I’m from Airbnb, and we’ve reviewed the resumé you submitted. The content strategy team is impressed with it! They would like to move forward with you in the hiring process. How does that sound?

Melodic, angelic, glorious, 155 BPM, mac-n-cheese, Christmas morning, bae telling you he loves you for the first time, competing for the highest grade on a paper, a night out in SF …

GURL, it sounds better than anything I’ve seen, felt, and smelled in my whole entire life.

“Yeah, that opportunity sounds amazing,” I replied, attempting to keep my cool and maintain every thread of professionalism in the tone of my voice.

“Fantastic, we’ll set up a 30-minute interview with one of the content strategists on the team.”

CLICK.

Preparation for the interview

This is where the sharp focus and keen attention to learning Airbnb in its entirety occurred. Had I known everything I needed to know about Airbnb after this out-of-the-blue phone call? Absolutely not.

I searched for every resource on the internet to learn more about Airbnb. I stumbled upon a book titled, The Airbnb Story, and voraciously consumed every word as if my life depended upon it (I hyperbolize). From the company’s conception to its present valuation of $31 billion, I came to a deep understanding of this company and its history. And if I were to tell you one important lesson I learned during this strenuous process, it’s that understanding something deeply arises either feelings of love or hate. I loved Airbnb.

Was I taking this too seriously? Perhaps. Although, I wanted to work somewhere I knew I could belong. Rated as the #1 place to work for LGBTQIA identifying individuals, Airbnb became my dream, and in a matter of a week or two, it came true.

This opportunity could change my life, and I didn’t want to ruin it by coming off as an egotist, or that I knew everything; I needed to focus on being humble and open to growth.

The first interview

The time had been set for 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. I made a folder on my desktop dedicated to all the resources and information I had learned about Airbnb, and memorized them thoroughly so that if need be, I could regurgitate the information as though I sounded like an intellectual — but it was more than that — I feld like this company cared for the betterment of society. But also, I’m literally competing against some of the top applicants in the WORLD. How did I stand out, and what made me a unique candidate?

Five minutes before the phone call, I put some essential oils into the diffuser and tried to find my inner calm. With every piece of information I learned that had brought me to this stage in life, the one true thing that carried me through this whole entire process was honesty.

Be honest

I had learned in practice interviews how to respond to questions, how to use non-verbal language techniques to have a better read on the situation; dressing to the nines to appear more professional than the next person.

I let all of those learned behaviors slide. Those learned behaviors didn’t make me truly unique, and in an education system where the masses are learning similar behaviors, risks must be taken to stand out in a hyper-competitive environment.

I dressed down, I started the conversation casually, and I was nice and approachable. Imagine.

Nobody will hire you if they can’t take you out to coffee. Embrace the coffee aesthetic and lifestyle. Be casual and approachable.

The internship exercise

I thought to call someone on the phone had gone out of style, but I was wrong — very wrong. My life was dependent upon receiving a phone call from UNKNOWN. It’d make a great title for a Lifetime movie that middle-aged wine moms would revel about.

Two days after the first interview, a recruiter followed up with me via a phone call and notified me that the content strategist with whom I had my first interview with wanted to move forward with my application. The next challenge, and the hardest one yet, was to finish an internship exercise with an expiration date of four days.

With generous amounts of time on my hands, I spent morning till night diligently focusing on the internship exercise — and to my surprise, it was fun, yet extremely tedious. What did the exercise entail you may be asking?

I was asked to recommend a change to the website by creating a completely new Airbnb Experience.

“Dogs, Drinking, and Dancing”

With little knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and the guidance from my partner who knew Photoshop well, I created a masterpiece. It was a fastidious process from which I learned much about myself and how I maneuver the creative process. With shoulders tensed and eyes winced, I nervously sent off the exercise in a .pdf file — If I remember correctly, I versioned up seven times.

There was no time to be self-deprecating; I either performed well or I had become lackadaisical. Either way, it was over with, and I felt confident.

(Translated closely to what the email said, for privacy’s sake)

Hi Kaleb,

Hope your week is ending nicely! I wanted to share the exciting news that I just heard back from the team and they were impressed with your take-home challenge — congratulations!

The final step is two 1:1 interviews with members of the content strategy team (lasting 30 minutes each) and one core values interview (also 30 minutes). The cross-functional interview is more of a holistic conversation to consider how you’ll be successful at Airbnb outside of just the team and role you’re interviewing for. It’s important to think about how the product is changing the world, how it affects hosts and guest, and the possibilities ahead. This conversation will also be based on why you’d want to work at Airbnb, role and team aside, with a greater focus on the mission. Before this interview, I recommend doing some research on Airbnb.

YES, I READ THE BOOK. I had indeed done my research and was well on my way to making this internship a reality.

The final interviews

Scheduled on a Thursday afternoon, I was prepared to tackle three 30-minute interviews with the content strategy manager, another content strategist, and lastly an interview with a top-of-the-class Harvard Lawyer.

“They’re just people, Kaleb. They’re smart yes, but so are you. Just be honest, do your best, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work out, be thankful in making it as far as you have. Not many will have made the cut to have interviews with busy, full-time employees at a multi-billion dollar company. You made it this far.”

So cliché, but those words circled back into my head several times and ultimately assuaged my fears.

In all honesty, I was refreshed after all three interviews. Each one exceeded the allotted 30 minutes — that’s a good sign, right?

Firstly, they went so well due to having an arsenal of questions and conversation points that I had intentionally lined up. Secondly, I felt like I was having a natural conversation with individuals I wanted to learn more about and know better. I sensed the empathy, kindness, and altruism that is so unique at the company. I felt at home.

The wait

The next phase was mentally exhausting. Was I or was I not going to be an intern at Airbnb for the summer, and what is taking SO LONG. Okay, so it had been a few days, but each moment closely translated to a lifetime of overthinking, anxiousness, and excitement. Is this where my life will take a big turn?

Hi Kaleb,

I hope your week is going well and thanks for your patience! I’d love to hop on a call next week to discuss feedback and timing. I’m free on Monday between 10:30 -11:30 am PST, or Tuesday the same time. Let me know what works for you.

WHAT DOES FEEDBACK AND TIMING MEAN, AND I HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL THE WEEKEND IS OVER? I applaud this email for several reasons: the strategy behind it is impeccable. The ambiguity and wording are so perfect, that someone with a Ph.D. in deciphering codes would never be able to break the meaning of this message.

Feedback meant criticism, which is an element in learning that I highly value. I wanted to know how well I did and perhaps learn from my mistakes, if I had made a mistake.

Timing, on the other hand, left me uncertain of what was going to happen: It either meant “When can you start,” or “Now is not the time because we’ve already filled the position. I’m sorry. K bye.”

With thoughts of doubt weighing on my heart and mind, I tried to remain calm to the best of my ability.

The last call

Monday at 11:30 a.m. I answered the phone excitedly, eagerly awaiting the final news.

“Congratulations, Kaleb. After the team met with each other, they are excited to have you on their team. They would like to make an offer, and whether you choose to accept or decline it, you’ll have seven days to make up your mind.”

“May I accept the offer this very moment?” I asked with my heart pounding, while I was also excitedly texting my significant other of the news.

“Of course you can, we’re very glad you’ve decided to join the Airbnb family,” my recruiter said.

Conclusion

Do not let your little fears belittle big you. Go out and get what you want with the pure and authentic honesty that is in each of you.

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