Week 9: How to get an Internship

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Internship / Saturday

Today, I want to try something a bit different from the usual roundup of things I learned during my internship. I want to share some more tactical and actionable advice. I want to write down some advice for students younger than me who haven’t gone through the internship-seeking phase. This is specifically geared for university students in their sophomore year because it tends to be a year in the middle where you’re left to dry in the open – there are no guidelines or set tracks that you can follow. But the principles are generally applicable.

Define your objectives and think through tradeoffs

What are you looking to get out of the summer? This can things like making an impact, a valuable brand name on your resume (I think people who look down on this kind of reason are silly and see the world as they want it to be, not how it actually is), figuring out how to deal with office politics, learn how a business operates, etc. Once you have 2-3 big ticket items that you want to gain, your choices are restricted which helps narrow your search.

It’s also a good time to think about tradeoffs. For example, you’re less likely to make a huge impact as a sophomore summer intern at a huge multi-billion dollar company. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely. So if making an impact is important to you this summer, you might want to look for positions at smaller companies. On the other hand, if getting paid a healthy salary/wage is something you don’t have the luxury to compromise on, then a bigger company is probably a safer bet.

Develop real skills – even if you don’t use them

Being able to write a long script in R or Python is impressive – even if you don’t write a single line of code the entire summer. This is the power of signaling.

Before I talk about this more, I want to put a disclaimer here that if you just wrote only a few scripts in R or any other coding language and can’t answer questions at a reasonable level – something like “How do I transpose a dataframe?” or “How do I run a linear regression on two variables and plot the results using ggplot2?” – you don’t know R. If you advertise this and you get caught with lying on your resume, there can be far reaching consequences. I’m only saying that because I’ve seen a few people do this. Don’t play dice with your career. 

Having experience in something like R is a signal to a potential employer that you can learn complex things. It doesn’t have to be R – it can be some Adobe software or Salesforce. Something tangible that is not obvious the first time you use it.

It just makes you stand out. That’s all there is to it.

Be in the know

For your end of sophomore year summer internship, you need to hustle – at least a bit. You need to keep your ears to the ground and surround yourself with people who know what’s going on around campus. This ensures that you are aware of opportunities coming up like a position opening up for a lab, a professor looking for an assistant, a startup that just got a round of funding, a company that started a diversity program focused on sophomores, etc.

If you are a natural introvert, you can replicate this to some extent by getting on as many student organization and department mailing lists as possible and checking your university career center website for internship postings.

Take advantage of company programs and conferences

Finally, there are a few companies that offer sophomore internship programs. If your end goal right out of college is a corporate job of some sort, this is pretty ideal. I’ve had a few of my friends take advantage of sophomore diversity programs – these are obviously great for increasing your probability of success simply in terms of number of people you’re competing with. Even if you just go through the motions and are unsuccessful, you might end up meeting a couple of people during the process who can help you in the coming years. It’ll also introduce you to your peers who are interested in the same industry.

On a similar note, look for specific conferences that could apply to you. I know about the Grace Hopper conference which is focused on women in computing. If you can figure out a way to attend a conference like this (they tend to be pretty competitive), you’re going into the room knowing that they’re looking for a person with your background. Again, this increases your probability of success. I think both Priya and Rafah talked to the companies they ended up working for at Grace Hopper.

Hopefully this helps. As always, feel free to reach out to me in the comments or by email at sidhartha dot jha7 at gmail dot com.


Thanks for reading through to the end of the second last week of A Summer of Learning! As we race towards the finish line, I’m very excited about next week. I tackle one of my favorite books and personality and I will also reflect a bit on the process of writing the blog this summer. Until then, enjoy the weekend!

Summer in Chicago: Happy Place

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Chicago / Friday

This week, I want to mention about a place that I wish I visited instead of one I did visit. It’s the Happy Place – described as “an adult pop-up funhouse”.

Here are my thoughts on it: I’m upset I didn’t go. And with only a week left in Chicago before I leave town, I don’t think I’ll be able to able to visit it this summer.

It looks super fun 😦

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All photos courtesy of Faculty Productions

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Different types of innovation

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Miscellanous / Thursday

At the end of Rafah’s post last week, I wrote down that it gave me some thoughts for future posts. This is that post.

Rafah’s role as Technical Program Manager at Salesforce showed her a different kind of role – one that largely consists of coordinating various efforts and aligning different people towards a given goal. In her own words:

If a TPM (any project manager, really) is doing a good job, you probably won’t know what they did, because they removed all the roadblocks in your way before you got there, and they secured support for you so naturally that you didn’t notice it was there.

This got me thinking about how we think about progress and innovation. Usually we are one of two things in mind when we think about innovation:

1) Incremental Progress

Incremental progress towards a goal looks like this:

incremental

You have some goal and you towards it for a long time. This is typical of things like building a career, writing a report, etc.

Bread and butter stuff.

2) Moonshots

This is Silicon Valley–unicorn–100 hour work week–Adderall fueled innovation. It’s a idea of putting 20 coders in a room and locking them up until they have solved the problem. Here’s what it looks like:

moonshot

Self-driving cars have seen something like a moonshot in the last few years. Stripe is a moonshot. The Apollo program was a – literal – moonshot.

Again, fairly celebrated in the media and something we’re familiar with as a concept.

There is however a third kind of innovation that is much more like what Rafah was talking about. It’s a kind of innovation that doesn’t involve big breakthroughs or incremental iterations. It’s mechanisms are not covered by the media because they are more opaque in nature. It involves a relentless focus on operations. It’s the innovation of coordination.

3) Coordination

Innovation through coordination looks something like this:

coordination

The biggest contemporary example would be Amazon or Uber. Their success didn’t involve any major technical breakthroughs – sure, there was some new things on the technological layer but it wasn’t the big missing piece from the industry. They consisted of bringing together different parts of the marketplace.

Why are they rare? I suspect it’s because they require last upfront capital investments. It’s much better from an short term ROI standpoint to do make a $500,000 investment in a fancy emoji app than have to make a $5 million investment in building/renting out logistics centers. I could be wrong.

Why are they not talked about? It’s because much of the magic is invisible, as Rafah pointed out. It requires good operational excellence which is hard to define but can be roughly thought off as optimal use of the capital available that digs in the moat required. This can be building network effects by acquiring a large number of users in the case of Uber or investing in logistics in the case of Amazon.

My thoughts on this piece are evolving so I will come back and add/subtract things.

James Belleque: The Importance of Organic Learning

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guestpost / Wednesday

James is one of my closest friends at NU and had one of the coolest summers out of everyone who posted on this blog – he spent two months studying Mandarin in Shanghai! I’ll let him tell you about what he learned.


While being immersed, breathe deep

I had the opportunity to spend two months living in Shanghai and take Chinese language classes at Fudan University. This was my first time in China, or any other Asian country, so it was a very new experience. Everything was new, the language to the food to the sewage system. Put this on top of not knowing anyone in my program beforehand, and barely an academic year of the language, it created a feeling of being underwater, completely out of my element. The solution to this, I found, was to breathe in deeply and immerse yourself even more in the norms and mores of the culture. Once this happened, I was much more comfortable and better able to learn.

Learning happens best organically

Personally, I learn things best in a less academic environment and in a more casual, organic ones. Spending eight weeks abroad attempting to learn the language, I found that I was learning almost as much outside of the classroom as I was in the classroom. The drawback to accelerated language programs is that they don’t allow for a ton of time to absorb what you’re learning. Contrasting that with the organic environment of a foreign country, where you might get to talking to a taxi driver, or get into an argument with a shopkeeper, or are trying to ask for a check at a restaurant, and you have a two very different ways to learn a language. The usefulness in the future of knowing the Chinese word for invest compared with knowing the way to asking for a check. Trying to read notices and signs is often much better than reading through a ponderous textbook dialogue.

Improve parts of yourself you don’t always work on

Another thing that I learned this summer was that there are sometimes areas of yourself that you don’t think to work on, and that sometimes need work. This can include image projection, social skills, and how to communicate in personal relationships, all areas I feel I grew this summer. There is something exciting about a new social environment, and sometimes that excitement can lead to being influenced into a caricature of a part of your personality that the group seems to accept. I learned, as cliché as it sounds, that you have to be yourself and not bow to group pressure. This small group environment also helped with the dealing the unique dynamics that accompany such groups. Living, eating, and going to school with the same 25 or so people in your group leads to a high level of closeness and therefore friction. This means that the airing of grievances and mature communication becomes even more important, or it can lead to group-wide problems. This also extends into individual relationships. I learned a lot from some relationships that occurred during this time. Communication is key of course, but also that balancing your time between studying (or working, whatever the case may be) and spending time with the other person, regardless if it is a friendship or romantic relationship.

All in all, I grew and learned a lot this summer, including some street smarts and other common sense. Of course, learning is never really over. My thanks to Sid for letting me contribute some of my thoughts.


Thanks James for sharing your learnings from this summer. I liked that these were focused on some personal challenges you faced – they offer a good lens for our own challenges. Thanks again!

Lessons from So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

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Books / Tuesday

Whenever I have a conversation with someone I haven’t met before and find that we have a connection, I’ll invariably end up asking them about what books they would suggest I read. Today’s book has by far been the one that gets recommended the most – So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and also has a really popular blog. He’s also written multiple bestsellers.

I read this book in the winter but I thought it would be good to summarize some of the learnings here. Here’s what I picked up from it:

Ability > Passion

The word passion has only recently gained a positive connotation. It’s origins were much less popular. It comes from the Latin word “pati” which means to suffer. As an emotion, we have mostly looked down upon it in the past.

Newport argues for this view of passions, one of a desire backed by nothing real. Instead, he advocates for the cause of ability. Ability doesn’t follow passion, instead passion is a by-product of ability. When you’re good at something, you enjoy doing it more. In Newport’s words:

The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Or:

In other words, working right trumps finding the right work.

That’s some sobering news for the passion parade. It’s also closely linked to the next learning that stuck to me.

Deliberate practice

Newport brings up a story from when he and his friend were learning to play (sorry for the long edited excerpt):

Jordan Tice and I both started playing guitar at the age of twelve. I played every day—sometimes rocking blues solos to Hendrix recordings for hours at a time. I had reached the level of expertise you would expect from someone who had played an instrument seriously for the last six years.

But this is what I find fascinating: Compared to Jordan Tice’s ability at this same age, I was mediocre.

Jordan picked up guitar at the same point in his life as I did. But by the time he graduated high school, he had been touring the mid-Atlantic with a group of professional bluegrass musicians and had signed his first record deal.

The difference in our abilities by the age of eighteen had less to do with the number of hours we practiced—though he probably racked up more total practice hours than I did, we weren’t all that far apart—and more to do with what we did with those hours.

One of my most vivid memories of Rocking Chair, for example, was my discomfort playing anything I didn’t know real well. There’s a mental strain that accompanies feeling your way though a tune that’s not ingrained in muscle memory, and I hated that feeling.

Compare this to Jordan’s earliest experiences with the guitar. His first teacher was a friend from his parents’ church. As Jordan remembers, their lessons focused on picking out the leads from Allman Brothers records. “So he would write out the lead and then you would go memorize them?” I asked. “No, we would just figure them out by ear,” Jordan replied. To the high school version of myself, the idea of learning complicated lead parts by ear would have been way past my threshold of mental strain and patience.

This, then, explains why Jordan left me in the dust. I played. But he practiced.

So Newport brings up the important concept of deliberate practice. It’s one thing to go through the motions every single day – yes, that will lead to some level of proficiency, but the ability to have full awareness of what you’re doing and why is critical for mastery.

This reminded me most of how students prepare for SAT/ACT or any standardized testing. They learn long vocabulary lists, take tens of practice tests, and stress out over the whole process.

In my experience, my friends who did the best on the exams were ones who skipped any type of content memorization and took a single practice test to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. They then used that information to practice on specific sections and types of questions. That was deliberate practice and it reflected in their scores.

Iteration

This is less of a direct concept from the book but more of thought I kept having when I was reading it.

If I could make a single tweak to the education system that I am a part of, it would be to have multiple iterations on the same assignment. This is because most of the time, you’re required to do multiple iterations on your work. You start off with the kernel of an idea, you then expand it to suit your needs. Or you start off with a collection of similar ideas and a bunch of data and you cull them down to find the core insights you need.

It would be good for students to go through the same exercise. I often find my first attempt is optimized for a high grade, not for the best work.

This is obviously not a fully fleshed out idea – it clearly needs more iterations!

Lessons from Ben Thompson of Stratechery

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lessonsfrom / Monday

I’ve mentioned Ben Thompson on multiple posts throughout the summer and he is one of the few people who has disproportionately shaped my thinking in an extremely small amount of time (I started reading his tech analysis blog Stratechery this February). So I thought it was only fair that I focus on his work and career in a single post. Bonus points because he’s a Northwestern Kellogg MBA alum – Go Cats’!

If this post can convince anyone to subscribe to his daily insights (for $10/month or $100/year), I would feel like I have given back to him in a small way. In any case, check out his free, once-a-week articles at stratechery.com.

Let’s dive into the lessons from his success:

Develop a worldview

In the deluge of tech news sites, Ben’s distinct worldview on the tech world is refreshing. It’s not just tech news, it’s tech news through an extremely educated and honed worldview.

Let’s take his idea of aggregators – companies with a direct relationship with the user, zero marginal cost, and self-reinforcing loops on demand and supply. This is a broad idea and through it you can analyze all of the influential tech companies. He also backs up all his analysis through data from filings, so it’s not just wishy-washy theoretical stuff.

This is truly unique and differentiated – it is no surprise that he is read by some of the most influential people in tech.

Scaling

While Ben doesn’t share exact subscriber numbers, what he has build with Stratechery is an extremely scalable business. If you want to get his daily updates, you pay $10/month or $100/year. Even if we work with an extremely conservative subscriber count of 1000 people (the real number is probably a little less than an order of magnitude higher), we have a very comfortable living!

Since the marginal cost to serve another customer is virtually zero, every additional customer is pure profit.

What I like about his model is that he gives the common reader two free entry points – one is his weekly articles on a big concept or IPO and the second is his Exponent podcast with James Allworth. This allows a steady stream of new customers who aren’t convinced about paying $10/month to dip their toes in the water.

If it’s not obvious already, this is a really good business model.

That’s really it

This combination of a unique worldview + a scalable model is so foolproof that you don’t really need anything else. All the other things – the technicalities of setting up a blog/podcast, the raw information, etc. – are abundant today.

 

 

 

 

Week 8: Lessons from my Internship

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Internship / Saturday

This was busy, busy week at work and so lots of lessons to be learned. This will also be a short post because although I moved last weekend, there is still a lot of unpacking and miscellaneous work to be done. With that in mind, let’s dive into the lessons:

Compress to Impress

When communicating a new analysis you did that going to change things and lead to a tangible impact to the business, it can be tempting to labor over the details to gain legitimacy. However, you must realize that who you are communicating to just doesn’t have the kind of time. So be succinct in your explanation.

Use your ecosystem

I’ve talked about this before but this week was a good reminder. I reached out to a few alumni to talk about my work and future career paths. I got a response from every single one. This is one of the few unfair advantages of being a student – alumni will almost always be ready to talk to you. I suspect this goes away once you graduate. I might be wrong.

Appreciate, admire, and learn

When you work in a small team, you get to learn how each member contributes to the whole picture. You learn to appreciate that contribution and admire their abilities to do what they are uniquely good at. It comes from hundreds and thousands of hours of experiences. It can be difficult to learn their skills just by observing them. But try to get some meta-takeaways. How do they talk to people outside the team vs. inside?How do they break up their days to avoid burnout? How do they navigate a disagreement in the team? There are lessons to be learned from these.


Thank you for being with me for Week 8 of A Summer of Learning! As we move towards the end of this summer, I am extremely grateful for your attention. I am especially grateful for all your comments offline. I’m excited about next week, there are some unconventional things in stock for you!