I rejected my software engineering internship offer from one of the Big Five companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google). Many of my friends were shocked when I told them that I accepted my offer at Robinhood instead.
Like my friends, I used to think that the Big Five were unquestionably the best companies for software engineers. When applying to internships, my only goal was to get an offer at one of these places, and every other company I applied to was a backup — including Robinhood. This article explains what changed my mind.
Robinhood is a member of the small suite of highly selective, hyper-growth, late-stage startups. I wrote this because I want to encourage the hungriest software engineering students to find and apply to the companies in this group.
Not qualified yet? I worked at Wendy’s three years ago because I couldn’t get a software engineering internship. Watch a lot of motivational videos, find reasons to believe in yourself, hold yourself accountable, and don’t give up for a few years.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” — Abraham Lincoln
By focusing on learning and personal growth at the start of our careers, we will develop the skills to reach our peak potentials in the future. Here are the three reasons I thought an internship at Robinhood would teach me more than an internship at a massive tech company:
Prediction 1 — People & Mission
I wanted to surround myself with humble, hungry people that were smarter than me in some way. What initially piqued my interest in Robinhood was that two of my close friends who interned at the Big Five told me they were rejected from Robinhood the next year. Curious about this company, I looked at many Robinhood employees’ LinkedIn profiles and found that many engineers had left the Big Five to join Robinhood.
My Robinhood mentor was 21 but already had a Bachelor’s and Master’s in CS from Stanford and had worked at Robinhood for two years. Around 40% of the 22 interns were attending Stanford or MIT. Since I was the only intern from UCLA, I felt like I had to represent my university. Most engineers on my team had previously worked at one of the Big Five. Some of them told me that, at other places, they felt like a “cog in a machine” and did not feel like they were working towards a greater purpose. They came to Robinhood because they believed in the company’s mission: “Democratize finance for all.”
In the last century, people who could invest in the stock market were able to make much more money than people who couldn’t invest in it, as seen in the graph below. Before Robinhood existed, only rich people could effectively use the stock market. Robinhood changed this by removing stock-trading fees, empowering less wealthy people with the ability to make money just like the rich.
The founders repeat the mission every single week at the all-hands meeting. It’s a very mission-driven company. During my internship, I got to work towards something meaningful to me with kind, intelligent co-workers that were doing the same.
Prediction 2 — Large Scope
My Robinhood recruiter told me that every intern plays a leading role in a very impactful project. These projects usually affect 100% of users or make massive improvements to Robinhood’s underlying computer systems. Consequently, the successful execution of a Robinhood internship project requires a strong and diverse skillset that includes leadership, great interpersonal communication, and diligence. Interns are not expected to have all of the engineering knowledge coming in, but are expected to learn very quickly. I was warned that the fast pace, large responsibility, and high expectations from interns make the Robinhood internship more stressful than other internships.
When I was given my internship project, I was confused why Robinhood gave such an important task to a college kid who was 20 years old. I had no experience designing backend systems for millions of users, so the first few weeks were pretty overwhelming. This drove me to work harder and become smarter with my time.
The first half of my internship project was to scope out the engineering design for a new API. This API would be used by every user on the home screen of the Robinhood mobile app and website. It had to aggregate tons of data across a few backend services, and every user would pull from it every few seconds, so I had to weigh many tradeoffs. I formulated a solution by working with engineers across three different teams. Because I was new, this initially required a lot of guidance from my mentor. I presented the solution as an 18-page design document in a formal meeting to get the buy-in of all relevant stakeholders.
Then, the software development work began. I had to implement the full API (plus integration tests) from scratch using a web app framework that I had no experience with. After deploying it to production, I had to load test it before we could safely release it to 100% of Robinhood users. Throughout this process, I needed to frequently collaborate with my team’s PM, designer, data analyst, and frontend engineer.
Prediction 3 — Diverse Opportunities
I knew that regardless of where I interned, I was going to work way more hours than expected. I wanted the company I worked at to reward my effort with many new opportunities to grow. Also, I wanted to take many opportunities outside of my job description.
- Recognition: Every week at Robinhood’s all-hands meetings, several engineers present something awesome that their team accomplished. Many of these engineers are under age 25 because Robinhood hires many new grads. A few interns, including myself, were selected to present their internship projects at the all-hands meeting in front of all 1,000 employees.
- Mentorship: Every week, members of the leadership team met with the interns and gave us their background and advice. We could ask whatever questions we wanted to the founders, CFO, COO, etc. and they encouraged us to follow up with them. At first I thought this offer was just a standard formality, but when I reached out to the Head/VP of Engineering, we actually set up a one-on-one meeting.
- Product: I worked really hard to finish my intern project early and then asked my manager for new opportunities. She let me listen in on a three-day user research study, and together we set up an extra project for me. I got to pitch a new idea I had about my internship project to Robinhood’s Product team, and then converted the idea into a formal product spec.
- You won’t get the big name recognition from non-technical people like you would at FB or Google. I’ve actually started to really appreciate this because it keeps my ego in check.
- Documentation is very weak at many younger companies like Robinhood, which made initial onboarding difficult for me.
- The Big Five are better if you want to specialize in one specific area, like natural language processing.
Small, Important Points
- Robinhood also provides many cool benefits. For example, they let us custom design our own Nike shoes for free. The most difficult hour of my internship was when we worked out with an Olympian, remotely. There were other optional activities too, like cooking with a professional chef.
- I always thought that the Big Five are the highest paying companies. This is not always true. However, compensation should not matter too much because we should be focused on personal growth right now. Most tech companies pay a lot anyways.
- I was surprised that I got to know people very well through my laptop screen during the remote internship.
- People across many divisions of Robinhood (e.g. Biz Ops) gave me a warm welcome, which I found surprising for a structured company with over 1,000 employees. They wanted to get to know me and help me have a great experience at Robinhood.
- Lee Byron, the creator of GraphQL, joined Robinhood for similar reasons — Goodbye Facebook, Hello Robinhood.
The company mission, the people, and the challenges I faced at Robinhood were compelling. I signed my return offer to work there full-time after college as a Software Engineer (Backend). I’m looking forward to learning from and with everyone at Robinhood as we help our users financially prepare themselves for their futures.