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The Ultimate Engineering Internship

You’re approaching your final college year not having interned at Facebook, Amazon or Google. Are you considered an idiot? Is your career doomed?
Foreword
Someone asked me "I am entering my third year at a top tech college and have not interned at any major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, or Google. Should I start thinking I'm an idiot and quit everything I have been working on?" I replied with this personal story. Forbes published it .

More than a decade ago I found myself in a top Computer Science university program, not making headway with any major tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, or Google. (Facebook wasn't even born yet, and very few people had heard of Google. Microsoft was all the rage.) [1] Everyone I knew had some fancy internship with a big shot company. Competition was fierce.

I decided I had a key insight about engineering that nobody else did: it's better to have a monopoly on being right than a competition on being liked.

I applied, instead, to work as an intern in a hospital for kids[2]. Everyone else ignored this unsexy employer and spent months hearing back from the hot shots. The hospital contacted me the next day and said "please come and help us. Nobody else would."

For a sum total of a year, I had the perfect freedom to build whatever I wanted at the hospital, while my friends had to perform bottom of the barrel projects at Microsoft and Google. We all learned to be engineers. But I also learned to be a monopoly value provider. I learned to understand my customer uniquely. I became an entrepreneur.

After graduation, it took me one year to get a full-time position at Microsoft. And three years after that, while I was working at a small company, Google contacted me, asking if I wanted to work there. You read that right, they contacted me. I actually rejected Google twice because I was happy with my job. The third time they contacted me (in six months apart intervals) I took the job. And both sides were happy.

It's been a decade since I decided to go the opposite path from everyone else. Those friends who got internships into Microsoft and Google? They're still working there, pleasing bosses, and deeply afraid of ever trying anything else in life. They clung to an initial success, and competed with others to build a cage around themselves. I let go of it all a few years later, looking for a type of customer to whom I'd matter again. I'm now building a startup company that provides a unique service to a neglected industry[3], and I write to inspire engineers about the paths not taken.[4]

At its heart, engineering is about making decisions that are right, even if they seem unlikeable and unpopular. If you find yourself living with the results of other peoples' thinking, you're not really the type of engineer that a top company is attracted to.

That's the paradox: successful companies are not attracted to the kind of people who are attracted to the aura of success. They're attracted to people who recognize what's valuable to do, when it's unpopular from everyone else's perspective. So they tend to hire people who have done unconventional things.

The classical image of an engineer is the first person standing under a newly constructed bridge. Do you remember the last person under the same bridge? Sadly, nobody does.

Success is thinking for yourself.


Notes:

  1. University of Waterloo posted co-op positions in Needles Hall's first floor next to decades-old computer terminals. These terminals, on which we signed up for internships positions, used to connect to a core super-computer designed for hacking Cold-War-era encryptions. What used to be the building housing a massive super-computer is renovated today; it is called The Math Faculty. Peers and I spent many years inside it, learning Computer Science. I used to think it had the most bizarre and ugly architecture; I never understood that computers used to be literally the size of a building until after I graduated and looked back at the shape of the building, which looks like a CPU. It turns out that not only engineering interns, but also even engineering buildings, tend to be unpopular when they serve the right purpose.
  2. Hospital for Sick Children was where I first learned the large gap between what technology can do and what humanity needs. While I invented my first photo-sharing app there in 1999, the equipment to radio-scan a child's body cost millions of dollars. I changed my app to share radiology imaging instead of what came to be known many years later as selfies. This uncommon path became one of the most fundamental building blocks of my understanding of tech entrepreneurship.
  3. Our company, Sponsorbrite funds schools, teams, churches and non-profits using corporate interest and sponsorship dollars. It's the first startup to make fundraising a 100% free activity for social institutions, something that traditionally costs tens of thousands of dollars and incredible human energy.
  4. You can subscribe to my weekly essays, where you'll learn things that you don't yet know you'll need, or, you think you need, but you don't. I write when non-conformity smiles back at the norm, much like the intern in this story.
Amin A.

Written by

Amin Ariana

A software entrepreneur from San Francisco