Why I Interned at a Startup Instead of a Tech Giant: The myth of the “good” job

The ZenHub team

There is hysteria sweeping over Computer Science students these days: a crippling obsession with getting a “good” job. It is impossible to talk to my peers without someone dropping the name of a company they would give up everything to work for — like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, or Amazon — that every other job would pale in comparison to.

A year ago, I was no exception to this hysteria. Having always succeeded in school, I was blessed with getting everything I wanted academically. Naturally, when I started looking for a summer internship, I wanted to get a job at one of these companies. I felt as though any other job would be a disappointment — just a filler until I could reapply the following year.

Student life

When I started applying for internships, I was so excited to be interviewing with all the companies I dreamt of working for. But after a few sub-par interviews, I found myself frustrated that my strong suits weren’t being highlighted in these companies’ interview processes. So I decided it was time to open my eyes to the hundreds of other tech companies out there. I begrudgingly took a look at the job board for co-op students, and blindly applied to the first company on the list: Axiom Zen, a Canadian venture studio. After a surprisingly gruelling interview process, I ended up accepting an internship at Axiom Zen, and was onboarded to their portfolio company ZenHub.

As it turns out, Axiom Zen isn’t just a good company, it’s an amazing one. They were named first among Canada’s Most Innovative Companies by Canadian Business in 2016. And while ZenHub might not have Google’s name recognition (yet!), that doesn’t matter to me anymore.

My experiences here have expanded my horizons and helped me see past the fallacy that name recognition correlates with job satisfaction. Instead, students should look for the three things I’ve found at ZenHub: impactful work, learning potential, and personal responsibility.

Impactful work

In my first weeks, to say I was stressed out would be an understatement. I was thrown into the deep end of a large project and as one co-worker accurately put it, it was sink or swim. I had three bugs assigned to me before I even left the first day. Not only did I not know ZenHub’s JavaScript code base, I barely knew JavaScript.

Seeing my bug fixes in production by day three was awesome: talk about impactful work early on! (Contrast this with an intern I met who was working at a big tech company; two months in, they had only shipped six lines of code.) Seeing the impact of my work early on was the push I needed to learn quickly.

Collaborating at ZenHub

Besides making an impact on ZenHub’s products, I’ve also had the opportunity to impact the community of women in Computer Science. I am the only female engineer in my small team. Right away, I wondered how I could help remedy the situation, and was mentally preparing to make my voice heard on the issue. Instead, the team approached me to share my thoughts on building a more diverse workplace, and invited me to help come up with strategies to attract more women. I was invited to share my voice before I even began to speak.

Learning potential

My main motivation for an internship was to learn quickly: after almost five years at a previous company, I needed something to force me out of my comfort zone. But during the chaos of applications, the allure of a big company somehow overtook this original goal. Working at ZenHub has reminded me how important learning is above all else.

Early on in my internship, I was introduced to Ramda, a JavaScript library, and fell in love with its functional programming style. Around the same time, I expressed my interest in public speaking. Pablo, our VP of Engineering, encouraged me to speak at a local meetup about functional programming. While this was a nice idea, I didn’t feel prepared to talk to fellow developers about a topic I barely knew! But fast forward a month later and, despite all my reservations, I applied to speak at GitHub HQ in San Francisco. Getting my talk accepted and actually delivering it was one of my proudest moments.

Giving the talk solidified all the reasons why I love my job. It enabled me to step far out of my comfort zone and allowed me to improve my public speaking — a skill I’d hoped to learn, but never imagined doing as a programming intern! The whole experience set a new bar for what I thought was possible during a summer internship.

Personal responsibility

From the moment I jumped on board at ZenHub, I was given a lot of responsibility. This was intimidating at first, but now I realize it’s a requirement for every future role I’ll take on. Sure, every job comes with responsibilities, but the scale at ZenHub was pretty dramatic. Every ZenHub developer does front-end, backend, and QA (and sometimes even blogs!).

At ZenHub, code reviews are the great equalizer. Everyone critiques each other’s code; not only was my code being torn to shreds, but I was doing the same to our VP of Engineering. Many developers would consider this a nightmare, but I look at our code reviews as a shining example of the responsibility we are afforded. Being able to review experienced developers’ code gives me a chance for revenge! No — in all seriousness, it exposes me to examples of what great coding looks like. I think it’s a great opportunity that I probably wouldn’t get at a larger company.

When I started on my quest for a job a year ago, this is definitely not where I pictured myself ending up. But boy, am I ever glad I’m here. I finished my internship feeling truly inspired by my work. I am no longer an intern at ZenHub — I’m an employee!

If you’re in computer science, take a step back and rethink your criteria for what you want in your next internship. When my peers ask me where I worked in the summer, I don’t talk about a name — I talk about a company that you may not have heard of, but that exceeded all my expectations for what a “good” job should be.

Sunrise hike with a few brave Axioms

ZenHub is part of the Axiom Zen Family. We’re always looking for curious people with the integrity needed to make an impact! If you’re interested, you can apply here.