This past summer I lived in San Jose, California. There in the South Bay resides the headquarters of PayPal, global payments option turned platform for small businesses and financially underserved.
When I accepted the internship, I wasn’t quite sure what to be excited about. I thought the checkout space was largely solved and the company was resting on its laurels as a giant looking to ditch its association with eBay.
I joined PayPal primarily because I had just come from working at a startup and then an NGO. I wanted to understand the benefits — or spoils — of joining a large company.
Could I find opportunities in its scale without drowning in layers of bureaucracy?
Twelve weeks later can say that there is plenty to be excited about. With each passing week I became more surprised by how happy I was at PayPal.
Not only did I became increasingly attached to the company’s vision, but the people were lovely. I’m convinced that PayPal is not only a worthwhile opportunity for any student interested in starting their tech career, but also an experience unlike those provided by its peers.
1. Big fish, big pond
As a Data Science Intern in the Globalization team, I was given the task of making our global content processes more efficient. Aside from the technical challenges, I knew the largest hurdle was convincing people that my work mattered.
I had to answer a few crucial questions: who were the people that cared about my work? Who were the people I needed to learn from? Whom would I eventually impact if my project was deployed to production?
Sifting through the hierarchy and numerous teams to find the right people—often with overlapping responsibilities — was definitely a challenge. Luckily, PayPal provided strong support for its interns by allowing us to network with its leaders.
In particular, the Leadership Speaker Series was a weekly event where a different member of the executive team—from Bill Ready, who risked it all to take a bet on Venmo, to Dan Schulman, who built Virgin Mobile from the ground up with Richard Branson—devoted an hour to interns. Their stories and captivating experiences provided battle-tested pieces of advice.
My organization’s VP, Leah Sweet, made it clear to us how she paved her way to the top:
“To get the job you want, focus on understanding the role and its responsibilities, and work as if you already have the job.” — Leah Sweet
Leah’s advice empowered me to step into zones beyond my job title. I became focused on absorbing the details of each role related to my work. I met with people in charge of content creation, global product operations, quality assurance teams, technical product managers, linguistic engineers and language managers across PayPal’s global offices.
I took advantage of meeting with people who might not even have a sense of what “content adaptation” or “global ready” meant. Reaching out helped to clearly define my role, as I began to see how my piece fit into the puzzle. I met incredibly driven individuals, each eagerly available to share their domain-specific knowledge.
Speed Mentoring was another crucial event: a whirlwind hour of networking with directors, managers, and recent college grads. We were allotted 4 minutes at each table. The time crunch led to unfiltered advice: “don’t get too comfortable in one role, otherwise ten years will fly by” or “make your desires clear; don’t expect anything to be handed to you.” Opportunities for further conversation abound —I’m sure a few of the mentor’s slacks blew up :)
Speaking of Slack, with its status as a staple among tech organizations, anyone is readily available to you without the intimidation often associated with email. Combining a LinkedIn search and a quick Slack message enables you to speak with someone special each day at PayPal.
When I needed guidance on designing a machine learning model, I met with Vadim Kutsyy, who performed pioneering research on the Random Forest algorithm at Bell Labs. When I wanted to learn more about the patent process, I spoke with Titus Woo and learned about his five pending patents (in addition to his work redefining the engineering and deployment process). And if you want to talk for hours about JSON formatting, its founder Douglas Crockford works for PayPal.
In the end, your ability to meet people should not be determined by a company’s size. At PayPal, it felt refreshing rather than restricting to be among so many people. With the right mindset, the company’s scale can be used to your advantage. From a data science perspective, if you can identify new opportunities for organizing and leveraging PayPal’s unique data streams, the right people will get behind your work.
2. A 20 year-old startup
This summer was an exciting time to be at PayPal. The company saw consistent growth in every key aspect of its business, from Venmo to small business loans. Even so, PayPal still has a lot of growing to do. Its long history and departure from eBay means it has a fair amount of legacy (code) to shed.
Despite this, the potential for growth under its current trajectory was tangibly exciting; you really felt like you were at a newly emerging company because of its recent freedom.
At the same time PayPal has a level of scale no other payments platform has achieved. The growing pains associated with this challenge means that for those willing to take it on, your voice will be heard and your ideas valued.
CEO Dan Schulman continually encourages employees to be customer champions. In particular, what I found is that the employees making real change were champions of ambiguity.
The truly exceptional employees I met took personal ownership to drive their vision of the company with haste, without fear. Many other tech companies identify that and have attempted to hire away these influential employees, yet they stay for the unique opportunity to take part in transforming the way people move and make money.
PayPal’s innovation lab is a place serving to capture this opportunity and craft future-facing ideas.
Mike Todasco, director of innovation, runs a unique space that invites employees of all levels to make PayPal more creative. The ideas coming from brainstorm sessions often disregard current technological barriers and instead attempt to reimagine what products such as Venmo may look like years into the future.
As PayPal continues to expand the scope of payments, I firmly believe in its direction and vision for the future. If it continues to incentivize employee creativity, its innovations could solidify PayPal’s status as the leading global payments platform.
3. A culture to admire
Leadership at PayPal takes culture very seriously. Its core values are strong, and its mission is genuine.
Even on the last week of my internship, I was inspired by PayPal’s moves, from acquiring working capital service Swift Financial to shutting down the accounts of Neo-Nazi groups post-Charlottesville. I became convinced that the layers of corporate structure had little effect in diluting PayPal’s core values.
On a daily basis I worked with people who were incredibly focused on getting the job done but also eager to listen when you approached them. My coworkers were never intimidating and always helpful.
Feeding into work-life balance, I believe there exists a culture of making time for people. This plays a tremendous role in preventing isolation between groups(e.g. silos).
People on other teams welcomed any questions I had. Many took a personal commitment to their coworkers, while also maintaining a fruitful personal life.
While it’s important to make a good impression on your own boss and mesh well with your team, PayPal encourages you to do the same with other teams when possible. There is a strong push for movement across teams, to never stop growing. This created a dynamic where long-term employees had acquired deep knowledge of a variety of subjects.
Finally, the work culture was conducive to deriving happiness from progress. Even if I had a rough day or my progress was blocked by a bug, I allowed my experience to be defined by how much I learned from the process. And not all experiences where I learned were those where I succeeded.
To speak only about the professional connections I made would dismiss all the amazing personal friendships I left with. There were plenty of events offering a chance to meet other interns, my favorites being the Intern Summit and the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
One cannot understate the sense of community that underpins PayPal’s working environment. Looking back I am privileged to have connected with students from all over the world in an innovative environment that’s not one bit cut-throat. I wouldn’t exchange the memories I made for anything!
Don’t sleep on PayPal. Its acquisition history is telling of the mark it’s trying to make in the world. The combination of a humble, socially conscious culture and world class leadership gives PayPal the power to reach its aspirations. It can be a great platform for minds both young and experienced to step up and make financial services more accessible on a global scale.
This experience was truly unforgettable.