An intern’s take on the startup world

Summer Internship — 14 Week Sprint

My love for summer transcends over any other season! It’s that time to replace my cluttered desk of textbooks and notes with the excitement of endless opportunities. You might be curious about the roots of my excitement, well who wouldn’t be? It summer after all, a time to roam freely in the warm bright outdoors and stay up watching movies. Well not for me, I believe summers are a great opportunity to showcase what one had learned during the school year and apply it to an internship experience. Without further ado, here is my guide on how I survived in a healthcare startup as a Software Engineer intern.

As the word “startup” registers in your mind, you might perceive the notion of me sitting in a high-tech office with foosball tables and personal on-demand chefs catering to all of my food cravings. Well none of that was true, instead I worked out of a small studio apartment in Toronto with a brilliant team of engineers and marketers. The hackathon-style vibe instilled a new perspective in me of how a startup should really be about a group of individuals working together to create a product whom they really care about. The experience was 100% genuine, thus there was no need for distractions of materialistic office perks. In no time, the adrenaline rush swept me away as I spent the next fourteen weeks in an agile sprint delivering major achievements one after the other.

Working at a startup has been one of the better experiences I have encountered throughout my undergrad. The fast and exciting nature, sucks you into the zone and puts your skills to the test. But this rollercoaster ride isn’t always so easy and smooth. Such a time will comes where mundane tasks will finally overtake you, surrounding you with debugging problems that no one has ever heard of (yes, not even Stack Overflow). Overcoming these challenges while programming for more than eight hours a day, has been the main contributor for allowing oneself to mature as a developer. So you might ask, why would any sane person would want to go through all of this? The answer lives inside each and every one of us that have that desire to be in a creative and productive state of mind. For normal folks, it may be that passion or hobby that they wish to take on. Or those programmers who are constantly doing personal projects and attending hackathons on the weekends. Whatever it may be, it is that calling that allows you to get out of bed each morning and pushes you towards your craft.

A day in the life of an intern at a startup would simply start with a cup of coffee and a notebook to quickly jot down on what needs to be accomplished on that particular day. After settling down, a stand-up would be conducted with the CTO or mentor addressing the progress of each task with a quick demo of your achievements of the previous day. This often leads to an one-on-one interaction to further detail the requirements of either a design enhancement, bug fix or the implementation of a new prototype. Normally this would be the perfect time to put some intense music on and start coding away on shipping the next best thing. Despite being enclosed in a small room, the hackathon-style spirit would inspire to share regular discussions and opportunities to show what is being hacked. As the day comes to an end, you attain the bragging rights to show off your achievements on Toggl, close off stories on Pivotal Tracker and git push the changes onto GitHub. The nights dwells on as you head to bed, but for the offshore development team the day is just started as they continue to work on the product giving it a whopping 24-hour support. The sun begins to rise on your end, a new upcoming build heads your way and the fun starts all over again. It is important to know that startups come in different sizes and shapes, so discover which culture works out for you. If this is something you can see yourself doing, why not dedicate your next work term at a startup and dive into the endless opportunities that it can offer.

Bits and pieces of how to survive at a startup as an intern:

1. Face it head on

  • Live the hackathon model — it is perfectly normal to be unsure how to solve a problem. Break it down into steps and only proceed when the previous step is functioning. When things start to get messy, align yourself towards the bigger picture.

2. Tax your work

  • As instructed by a veteran product manager, alway add 30% downtime to your estimates on sprints and new features as a buffer. You are working with software, bugs are bound to be discovered in the wild.

3. You must give to receive

  • The success of a startup heavily relies on how much you invest in your colleagues. Whether you are a developer or marketer, lend your hands and ears to tackle problems. You are sailing the same ship.

4. Wear multiple hats

  • I wish every so often, the developers would be able to switch roles with the marketers and vice versa to learn all aspects of the work. I can guarantee that you would not be writing the same quality of code, if you involve yourself in sales calls and handling customer support.

5. It’s better if you break it than them

  • General rule of the game — Kill the bugs before they attack your paying users. It is essential to rigorously TEST your code. If you find it boring, outsource a small portion to automated testing frameworks.

Hi there, thanks for making it to the bottom! A little more about me, I am a third year Software Engineering (Embedded Systems) Co-op student at McMaster University. I strive to build, break and innovate Software Engineering projects for my fellow peers. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or message me if you have any questions about internships or anything.