Last year, I wrote about my internship story because I felt it was such an impactful experience for me. It was simply a story of how working hard and being out in Silicon Valley can lead to very serendipitous occurrences. I don’t think I could have built Mixpanel without the knowledge and connections I gained at Slide. I learned so much about product, how to “get things done” at a real company, and met really close friends that I will take with me forever in life. I was also fortunate enough to work closely with Max, who has been an invaluable mentor and investor for our business.
The point of that post, of course, was to find ourselves interns. We wanted to get a lot of work done, but we also genuinely wanted to give them an extremely meaningful experience like my own. We’d publicly promised them one, so we set out to make good on it. At the end of the summer I asked them to write about what it was like to intern at Mixpanel. I hope those of you that are considering interning at a startup vs. a big company will benefit.
What was it like to intern at a startup?
Carl S: “When I was interning at Mixpanel I felt encouraged to take ownership of what I was working on. In this way I was able to explore my own limits, and feel proud of everything I deployed. Mixpanel makes work feel like that personal project you can’t stop hacking on.”
Eric M: “Memorable is a good word to describe interning at Mixpanel. I’d never interned at a startup prior to Mixpanel, and the experience of working at a startup is something everyone should experience for themselves. I definitely worked harder than I would have interning at another company, but I also learned so much more because of this. Some of my favorite parts of interning at Mixpanel were the flexible hours, the awesome team, the interesting problems, and just being in San Francisco.”
Anlu W: “Compared to my previous internship at a larger, well known software company, Mixpanel was significantly more painful. But in a good way. The reason for this is because of something I’ll call Startup Work.
Startup Work is exactly that. Startup Work is work that needs to be done, and done well, whether you like it or not. Startup Work doesn’t always divide up nicely into short projects that wrap up nicely. Startup Work has very little coddling, very few safeguards, and if you do Startup Work badly, ultimately it will kick your ass.
From what I’ve seen, internships (especially at larger companies) don’t usually give you Startup Work. What most other companies give you is work that feels like 20% time projects, done in the interim periods between tech talks, meetings with your team, trips to cafeterias, and whatever it is that you do in your spare time. A typical internship project at a large company is like doing a puzzle: You look at the picture, find all your pieces, put them all together, polish it up and say, “I’m done!”
But Startup Work is like being a contractor building a house, except the budget wasn’t large enough to hire enough contractors so you have to work on multiple parts at once. You don’t really have any expert contractors who are masters of building a specific part either, because it’s not cost effective. There’s no point in having a marble fireplace if a wall falls over every other day. There’s no blueprint for the house either, just some general guidelines, so you try and figure it out as you go, and more often than not you messed up the structure of a load bearing wall so you have to knock it all down and build it again. Oh, did I mention your house has to stay standing the entire time?
There’s a few reasons that companies don’t give you Startup Work. The first reason is that there isn’t that much Startup Work to be done anymore (implied by the name, I suppose). The majority of the house was built ages ago, and people are just renovating it now, and if the foundation needs to be touched up then they have their expert contractors who are master foundation-toucher-uppers to do all that. If you’re a luckier intern, you’ll get to remodel the kitchen.
The second is that fundamentally, internships are a recruiting tool, not a method for broadening your horizons, increasing your knowledge, and impacting the world, although they are marketed this way and the diligent intern will certainly get some of that out of their experience. The typical internship is meant for you to see through rose colored glasses what its like to work at a specific company, and they will do their best to coddle you (booze cruise!) and recruit you and make you one of them (provided that you don’t completely suck of course).
Now I’m not saying that these types of internships aren’t valuable, or that they won’t make you learn anything. They will. And most students will probably be quite happy with them. But doing Startup Work is different. And if you come out of the other end smiling, I believe you’ll be a much better developer.
As for Mixpanel, all the work that I did was Startup Work. And I found it vastly more preferable to the work that I did at the previous larger software company.”
What was the most impactful thing you learned after interning at a startup?
Carl S: “In school you are encouraged (or forced) to work with other students to finish your projects. This usually fails in horrible ways and leaves everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. At Mixpanel, teams are different. I learned that a team is like your family, they are there for you when you need encouragement, they help you load balance the really difficult stuff; and when your ready to really kill it, a good team lets you take the reigns. Teams aren’t what you see in school, and Mixpanel provided me with a truly solid team.”
Eric M: “To me, interning wasn’t some much about learning a single lesson as picking up a ton of intangible things. It is hard to choose what has been the most impactful thing I’ve learned, but its been eye-opening just to take part in building a successful product. I guess the most important thing I’ve learned is that there are no magic bullets: creating a product worth using is not easy.”
Anlu W: “The most impactful thing was probably learning how to scale a web service to handle as many requests as Mixpanel does. This was something that I would’ve had no idea how to do prior to interning at Mixpanel, but now after a few short months, I feel like I have a decent grasp on the subject.
Startup-wise, I learned about the importance of distribution. Just about every successful company killed the distribution problem in some way or another.”
For future interns, why should they intern at a startup over another company?
Eric M: “Something unique about interning at Mixpanel is how much responsibility the interns are given. During my internship, there were 4 full time employees and 3 interns. As interns, we took responsibility over new features, interviewed applicants, raced against deadlines, broke things, and did everything that the rest of the team did. Interning at Mixpanel has given me a much better idea of what’s involved with working at (or starting) a startup than a typical internship where the interns are assigned low priority tasks with minimal expectations.”
Anlu W: “I don’t think this is the right question. The question really should be, why should you do Startup Work at Mixpanel instead of somewhere else? You might not want to do Startup Work, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just then there isn’t a huge reason to intern at Mixpanel over another company.
The answer to the actual question is that there aren’t really a lot of other startups at our stage that do the things we do at the scale that we do. The things that engineers at Mixpanel had built were incredibly impressive, and I learned a lot from them. It is also awesome to deploy code to something that processes billions of actions a month. Also slightly nerve-wracking, I suppose.”
What else did you take away with you?
Carl S: “That I always want to work for a company that will buy me liquorice even if I am one of the only people who will eat it.”
Anlu W: “Taking something away implies that I’ve left, but luckily I am still here working at Mixpanel!”
Wrapping it up
If you’re interested in having a similar experience with Mixpanel, email email@example.com — We’d love to have you.
Originally published at https://engineering.mixpanel.com on November 15, 2011.