The COVID crisis has forced many companies to cut their traditional paid internship programs this summer. In response, Triplebyte is launching the “Just in Time” Externship Program to match promising software engineering students with alternative mentorship and hands-on work opportunities at tech companies. As part of a kickoff for the program, Triplebyte’s VP of People, Alison Baritot, recently hosted a webinar with Tido Carriero, Chief Product Development Officer at Segment and coordinating partner for “Just in Time,” to discuss the value of internships, but also how students can make the most of their time between semesters without one.
Below is a shortened and edited version of that conversation, including extra audience questions answered after the live webinar concluded. Watch the entire thing here.
You can go here to read more about or sign up for the “Just in Time” Externship Program.
Alison Baritot, VP of People at Triplebyte: When Tido and I first started talking about an effort [to help computer science students this summer], it was obviously premised upon the fact that the world is in a crazy place right now. And a lot of companies are having to do things that we haven't expected. Some of that is including canceling internship programs or scaling back internship programs. Tido, I know you wanted to start by give some context from your network and what you're seeing in the market and how this economy is impacting interns.
Tido Carriero, Chief Product Development Officer at Segment: Almost every company in the world has been affected by COVID, some more than others. You have things like the travel industry, which is being decimated right now, and you have SaaS (software as a service) companies, which is where Segment falls and is maybe poised to eventually be positive. In both cases, what's happened is revenues are either falling in the short term or there's just lack of certainty around revenues [moving forward]. It means that financial plans for companies basically went out the window about eight weeks ago or 10 weeks ago and sort of all of this madness erupted. It's truly unprecedented. I've never seen anything like this in my career, and it really has been quite a bit of scrambling.
What I'm hearing more and more from peers is that finance departments come to the budget owners and say, “Hey, engineering needs to shrink costs by X amount.” And so then you kind of have this tough decision, which is, “Am I going to lay off current employees? Am I going to have way less hiring than I had initially planned? Am I going to cut expenses like an intern program?” And unfortunately, sort of during wartime, something like an intern program feels much easier to cut than doing something like a layoff.
AB: Right, a lot of folks on this call, we anticipate, might be in this boat of either having their internship canceled or not having gotten one this year. So, from your intern experience, what are the things that they might be missing out on? What are the key learnings that you can get from an internship program?
TC: I think it’s this concept of real-world experience. What that tends to mean is collaborating on large code bases where you are not the primary author of most of the code. When I did my internships and first got into the industry, it just felt very unfamiliar because I had done large, reasonably complex pieces of software, but I had always written pretty much all of it or at least partnered with one other person. A lot of the real-world is, like, you've been asked to fix something in a seven year-old-codebase that no one's cared about. And you need to carefully figure out with a scalpel how to carve out the piece that matters the most and safely sort of resuscitate it to a better world. And then there's a lot of testing and a lot of thinking about what the software needs to do and all of the edge cases before it goes to production. Universities are trying to get you closer to this stuff, but I still think there's a pretty big gap between a real-world project and a lot of academia. That's really the role internships can play.
But the great news, though, is it doesn't have to come just from internships. For instance, all of the open source software that's now sitting up on GitHub — and believe me, there are plenty of issues that need to be solved in those open source packages — that actually provides a very, very similar experience and can provide a very similar set of skills. So that could be a great option — getting involved in some kind of real project with traction where you are a contributing member and not the primary author. That is a big piece of the skill-set.
AB: And how about the mentorship you can get from an internship?
TC: I think it's critical. I mean, everyone definitely learns a little bit differently. Some people really lean on mentorship, and other people like to learn a little bit more by doing. There’s no right or wrong way, but when I think back on my own internships, I think of the two primary mentors I had. And I had really picked those particular internships to work with those particular mentors, and I was really, really excited about learning from very strong mentors.
By the way, that could be a mentor at a company, but that could also be a mentor who is a friend that you really look up to and want to do a side project with. That mentor could also be someone in an open source repo that you want to contribute to, and that person says, “Hey, if you write the code, I'll definitely review it carefully and I'll have some time to really think through it.” I do think it can feel very lonely getting to know code bases if you don't have a lifeline who you can ask questions to. I think the mentor plays a really, really critical role there.
AB: When you get into hiring new grads in the next year or two years, maybe you'll see a lot of gaps on resumes from this summer. There might not be jobs or internships there. And how do you think you'll look at that? How do you think other hiring managers should look at that? And how can candidates make it really clear from a job search perspective that they were working on their skills this summer
TC: Yeah, I mean this summer is obviously completely unprecedented. It's not like we have a playbook that we can all look up and be like, “Okay, well if a global pandemic happens, and there's a gap here, do this.” So I apologize, I don't know exactly how it's gonna play out. But maybe the framework or kind of philosophy I'd use to approach the problem, at least, would be just trying to figure out how this person — who may have gotten in a really unlucky situation where COVID has eliminated their internship — was resilient. I do think having your story of you responded to this and how you decided to do this other thing and what skills you wanted to invest in will be important for a strong interview in the future.
Audience question: How valuable are coding competitions or rankings on coding websites? What are different coding websites you might recommend?
TC: When I'm looking at a resume, I'm primarily looking for areas that people are passionate about. I've definitely worked with some incredible competitive programmers who are so passionate and so next-level at this, and that's really cool to see. I don't think it's necessarily a badge that I'm like,” Oh, yes, this is totally critical for me. I'm really, really excited if they hit a certain score.” I don't actually think the platform itself matters a ton, but I do think it’s great if you get to a certain level of passion and really pour your heart and soul into it. So I wouldn't push yourself to do it unless you're really into it already. Instead, I would find the thing you're really excited about.
Audience question: So how would you compare the value of something like working on an open source project compared to making an app or program just to display your skills or experience from entrepreneurial endeavors?
TC: At the end of the day, what companies are hiring software engineers to do is sort of drive business impact. And that is like the thing we're most passionate about when we're hiring a Segment. So the way I would apply that to this more general question is, I'm looking for things with traction. So I think that means if you have a cool idea, even if it's simple and not incredibly technically complex, but it’s solving a real problem. And maybe it's a website that only a couple hundred people are using every month, but behind it is someone who's passionate about that, that could be a great sign to me.Same for entrepreneurial: What was the thesis? If it didn't work out, that's okay. I don't expect every entrepreneurial idea to work out, but how good was the thinking that went into it?
Audience question: How can you find open source projects that interest you? or How can you find a project of any type that might interest you?
TC: I think GitHub is the clear central location of, realistically, all the open source projects in the world. GitHub probably has its own tooling for searching for popular and active projects. But I also think if you Google around for a little bit by picking something that you're interested in, say computer vision, you can try to figure out what the main libraries are that do interesting computer vision type algorithms. And chances are there's probably an open source repo somewhere up on GitHub for them.
Whenever you hit a GitHub repo with maybe more than 1,000 stars, you'll just see lots of issues that are open. Clicking into that issues list and trying to start understanding what people are using this package for and how can I improve it, that can be a really good starting point. Alternatively, reaching out to the owners of it and sort of asking them, ”Hey, I really would love to take on week- or two-week-long projects. These are my rough skills, how could I impact this project positively?”
And then, for entrepreneurial or other projects, think about apps you wish existed. It could be like a multiplayer game that you're excited about. It could be a service that would make your life simpler somehow. Things along those lines make for great projects. I think there's really like much less of a playbook for those kinds of side projects. Often talking with three or four friends that you'd be excited to work with something on and just doing a couple of open-ended brainstorming sessions on cool things you could do. That's how a lot of startups start, and I think meaningful summer-long projects can start that way, too.
Audience question: How do you compare the value of creative-thinking/business-impact/etc as opposed to ability to perform in coding interviews/algorithm design?
TC: The way I think about this is that I'm looking for a
baseline set of skills around coding, algorithms, and design. For a new graduate, I'm looking for proficiency in a language of a candidate's choice and a basic understanding of their tools. After I see that, I'm really looking for a
spike in ONE area — could be creative thinking, business impact, incredible GPA at a great school, incredible internships, competition programmer, etc.
Audience question: In my college, everyone seems to be focusing on artificial intelligence (AI). But in my opinion, I think people are over-excited about it. What is your opinion on AI and specializing in it?
TC: Wow, the flame wars! I like it. You know, it's been really interesting. I think every technology has had kind of this hype cycle (to borrow language from Gartner's concept of a Hype Cycle). I would say the AI hype cycle was probably the most crazy intense five or 10 years ago, and I would say that the more recent hype cycle is blockchain, if I had to pick one in the last year or two. I do think these technologies, AI or blockchain or other things, can be used in very powerful ways. What you want to look out for is what people are actually trying to do with the technology. There's plenty of incredible things happening in AI that are really exciting. Self driving cars. Also. I'm kind of a nerd, but I thought I was super cool when computers started beating people at chess and Go. So I do think there are like real applications that are exciting. I do think when something is in the middle of a hype cycle — which I think AI is coming down from the peak, as I said, and blockchain may still be on its way up — people try to start applying technology in ways that don't make sense and get really excited about it, but they don't actually have substance behind their idea. And so my recommendation would be to try to understand what someone's actually trying to apply the technology toward. I think that can be that can really sort of answer the question.
Audience question: How would you recommend someone focus on a certain role? Or over another? I guess so this is Matt's question. So would you suggest somebody focus on data science or full-stack dev? What are your thoughts on that?
TC: This may sound like a broken record a little bit. But at this point, I do think it really boils down to what you're passionate about and the things that really excite you. So, unfortunately, I'm going to give you somewhat of a non answer here. I will say, on the engineering spectrum, some of the back-end, distributed systems, and full-stack tends to be a little bit more valuable in some ways than maybe super front-end skills. Front-end skills are quite valuable, but they also often need to be paired a little bit with some design and kind of UI thinking. So if you're kind of on the edge spectrum and you're leading like front-end or back-end, I could gently nudge you toward back-end to give you a slightly more useful answer, but I don't think you can go wrong. Really, passion and cool projects outweigh particular skill-sets.
Audience question: Would you recommend a summary on a resume or a summary objective? If so how should we go about it and what info would be good to put there?
TC: I don't think it's a necessary component for a resume. If you have something you really want to say (something fun/funny, something impactful, something you're really proud of, something that shows off your personality, etc.), then I think it could be a good way to make a bit of a splash. That said, I really don't think it's necessary so don't force it if you're not feeling it! (Instead, focus on making sure each project/job listed speaks of the impact it had/why it was cool.)
Audience question: When is a good time to stop applying to internships and start applying to actual full time positions? How would I know it's time?
TC: If you've already graduated, then start applying now! There are companies that are still hiring. If this is the summer before your senior year, we'd recommend working on internships for a while longer. (And apply to our externship program!). Given how much everything changed recently, some companies may still bring interns on, at least for short internships. We'd recommend turning to your full-time search when Fall approaches (late August, early September).