As resourceful undergraduates, most of us are trying to hedge out the risk of unemployment post-graduation in every possible way; some call it Northwestern’s careerist culture. We choose interesting courses that seem useful and seek summer internships with big name companies to make our resumes stand out in the future.
Startups don’t care too much about big names and prestige. For them, it is all about what you have accomplished in the past. If you build a skill set that’s in demand in your industry and accumulate relevant experience, you will probably find a job right after graduation. Defining what a relevant skill set entails for you is key when searching for internships, because learning something new is why you should want to intern at any company in the first place. Since software is eating the world, I decided that for me, learning to code was essential. Corporations are not flexible enough to train someone only to see him go a month or two later, so a startup was the way to go.
This summer I interned at an early stage startup in Silicon Valley called Juntos Finanzas, a company that builds SMS-based financial tools for the developing world. The company empowers its users to save through the use of technology and behavioral economic theory. Still unsure of where the company was headed, and with little domain knowledge (other than the many years I have lived in Costa Rica) I walked in the door the first day with basic programming knowledge, eager to learn more.
In a matter of a couple of months I changed from a technology enthusiast into a web developer, incrementally designing and deploying new features for the company’s product. With the help of a great mentor, hours of frustration in front of my computer turned into beautiful d3.js dashboards and interactive tools that the Juntos team now uses to track their user experience and product development analytics, even after my return to Evanston. I can now proudly say that I have enough Ruby on Rails experience under my belt to build my own projects, which I plan to do as soon as I cook up an idea as intellectually challenging and satisfying as the kind of work I did during my internship.
If you are interested in technology, programming skills are what you need, and startups are the place to find them. The same is true for other industries: pin down the skills you need and do your research to find interesting people in the industry to get in touch with. Don’t be afraid to email them and ask about their work and how they got there. Chances are that if you network with the right people you will be able to get an internship at their company, and hopefully build a skill set relevant to whatever it is that you want to do further down the line.
The rate at which I was learning at Juntos is not comparable to what I learn on any usual week at Northwestern, even with our fast-paced quarter system. As the quarter wraps up, I still feel that taking useful classes in engineering and economics is not enough to thrive in this competitive environment. My summer experience made me understand the importance of shifting focus between theory and practice, something inherent in moving from academia to industry, and I look forward to once again working in the startup world with people as passionate and interesting as those at Juntos.
Image credit: Jens Schott Knudsen