Interning at Branch
I just had the most educational, challenging, and enjoyable summer of my life and it’s all thanks to Branch, hackNY, and wonderful NYC. I thought about just blogging about my takeaways — the production code experience I gained, seeing a company launch a product, etc — but I’ve always been more of a “journey person”, so…
How I got here
Like many other college students, I began applying for internships around the end of Fall/start of Spring. I wasn’t really sure where/what company I wanted to intern at but I knew that I wanted to learn and make meaningful contributions. A few friends recommended working at a startup, given my priorities, so I checked out Made in NYC, NYC Startup List, AngelList, etc. I found a ton of interesting companies but was still more or less picking at random.
When a personal mentor of mine, Peter Boyce, recommended hackNY, I knew it would be a perfect fit.
“The summer Fellows program pairs quantitative and computational students with startups which can demonstrate a strong mentoring environment: a problem for a student to work on, a person to mentor them, and a place for them to work. Students enjoy free housing together and a pedagogical lecture series to introduce them to the ins and outs of joining and founding a startup.” — hackny.org
After chatting with hackNY evangelist, Peter Bell, when he gave a talk to HackHarvard and mentor, Aditya Mukerjee, about hackNY, I was sold on the program. I gladly accepted and eagerly awaited my startup pairing. A couple weeks later I got an email from Andrew Flockhart (a.k.a Flock):
“My name’s Andrew and I’m the engineer at Branch handling the hackNY program…”
We did a few coding exercises and talked about the internship. I also had a brief interview with Ian, Branch’s tech lead, before they decided to take me on.
Flock sent me some great resources (I still checkout this email regularly when I’m looking to brush-up) and I got to work. It was a little overwhelming at first because I was unfamiliar with parts of Branch’s stack (heroku, postgresql, angularJS, CoffeeScript, UnderscoreJS, Haml, Rails, and, now, Node.JS) but also exciting to get familiar with so many pragmatic tools.
Branch brought me out to NYC to have lunch with the team so that we could get acquainted before the program began and gave me access to their Github repo so I could poke around the code.
Flock recommended a few little projects I could try out if I wanted to familiarize myself with their codebase. With his help, I was even able to make a few small fixes before my first day. I haven’t worked at a large tech company so I can’t speak from experience, but I imagine it’s rare that interns are given the ability to push code to production on (or before) their first day. Albeit a small pull request, I felt empowered and part of the team.
To make the internship as beneficial as possible for Branch and me, the engineering team decided that I would split my time between pairing with the other engineers and independently working on tasks for the sprint instead of working on an “intern project” over the course of the summer. Branch’s unique culture and intern program really made for an unforgettable internship.
Here are a few things that I loved:
1) Branch has a kickass team. Seriously.
I don’t even know where to start. Josh is product genius (don’t believe me? even Ev thinks so…). Libby consistently helps the product and engineering teams make informed decisions based on user data, writes awesome content, and has played a huge role in building a community around Potluck.
In addition to great designers, they both double as PMs, engineers (writing some pretty cool Angular directives), and, in Julius’ case, calisthenics instructors during the morning team standup.
Hursh, Flock, and Ian make-up the phenomenal engineering team. The efficiency with which they collaborate on features and roll-out new product mocks is astonishing. It’s really a shame that the public doesn’t get to see over-half of the features the team builds because they don’t make the cut (i.e. they’re awesome features but the team wants something better for their users).
Did I mention they also had a flawless launch? Yeah… that’s because they’re awesome and Ian, their tech lead, has experience scaling apps as an early member of the Twitter engineering team (#NBD).
While most companies provide 1-on-1 mentorship for interns, I got to have 1-on-1s.
Everyone at Branch made themselves available to chat about whatever/whenever. I got to talk to Flock about his decision to join Branch as their first employee, Hursh about founding his first company/being a technical founder, and Josh about the differences between building a social app like Potluck vs. a media platform like Branch.
Ian had weekly 1-on-1s with me where we talked about the code I worked on in the previous week, things I should do better next week, and my future as an engineer in general. He gave me an inside look at what he looks at in potential hires, my strengths/weaknesses, and what I should do between now and graduation.
I even got to have a couple 1-on-1s with Branch investor, ex-Twitter exec, and Obvious co-founder, Jason Goldman, about how he invests in companies, managing teams, choosing a company to work for, and so much more.
I really appreciated that they not only cared about the work I was doing for Branch but the work I will do in the future, wherever that may be. Josh, for example, took me out to a great breakfast where we chatted about fundraising and a side project I’ve been working. He even went out of his way to put me in touch with a friend of his from Soundcloud to get some feedback/advice.
3) Branch’s culture
Branch has a flat and open culture that I found really encouraged freedom and creativity. Titles are forgotten and, regardless of primary area of responsibility, employees are encouraged to influence other areas of the product. Despite the fact that I was an intern, for example, I got to suggest features, propose changes, etc. Since most new features are the result of team discussion , everyone has ownership over the product.
Every morning started with team calisthenics, typically lead by Julius, followed by stand-up, where everyone briefly discusses what their plans for the day are. By having a team stand-up, everyone is aware of what is going on. If another engineer or designer mentioned plans to work on a feature I was interested in, I was welcome to pair with them on it.
There are occasionally other team-wide meetings throughout the week as things come up. Julius, for example, lead a design play to get us to think about Potluck differently. He started off by having us do some design exercises to get us in the right frame of mind and then split us into teams where we talked about what Potluck should be. When we came back together, we found that, through doing the exercise and working through ideas in teams, we came up with some out-of-the-box ideas. Some of these ideas resulted in new features, others didn’t but it was a great exercise nonetheless!
In another meeting we talked about using “house parties” as a metaphor for the product we’re trying to build with Potluck. I thought it was a unique approach and helped us to narrow down the scope of the product. Checkout Cemre’s blog post on how the metaphor influenced design decisions.
Another thing that I really liked about Branch’s culture was TED (Thursday Evening Dinner). Before TED, we’d have a team meeting where we talked about the positive and negative parts of the week and then a member of the team would make a presentation. Talking about my feelings for the week/areas for improvement in front of the team was super therapeutic. It was nice to admit areas where I needed to improve as well as things I was proud of. After the meeting was over, we had a team sponsored dinner for us to all hangout outside of work.
In the last few weeks of my internship, the team discussed alternatives to team dinner. We got to go to a great champagne tasting for example! Having events like this made the team really feel like a family.
I seriously would work at Branch just to learn from/work with Flock. He spent countless hours pairing with and mentoring me, ensuring that I internalized all the knowledge that was provided to me. I don’t think I would have gotten half as much out of this internship if it wasn’t for him. He has a real knack for teaching and anyone would be lucky to learn from him.
As an added bonus he is literally the “chillest” person I have ever met. Just being in a room with him reduces my stress levels. A chill, stress-reducing, code-slinging, mentoring boss… that’s what Flock is.
I am so glad that the folks at hackNY paired me with Branch; I couldn’t have hoped to work with a greater concentration of talented individuals. I’m not sure what the future of Branch is but there’s no doubt in my mind that this team is going to do some amazing things and I am so fortunate to have been a part of it.