Monday, July 11, 2016

How to Get an Internship

Update: 9/3/2016 - Denis Tarasov of HSE in Moscow, Russia has kindly translated this article into Russian - read it here. I welcome translations into other languages!

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post about my various internship experiences. It ended up being quite popular with recruiters, and actually helped me to land my full-time job at Google.

I've also been getting emails from students seeking internship advice. Every time I get one of these, my ego approximately doubles in size. Thank you.

In this post, I'll share my strategy for landing tech internships. I've wanted to write this for some time now, but I've been hesitant to posture some kind of "magic recipe" when a lot of my own success was mostly due to luck.

I'm just another fresh graduate trying to figure things out, and here's what I believe in:

#1 Work on Side Projects

You don't need to be at Google to work on the kinds of problems that Google interns do, nor do you need to work at a hedge fund to learn about finance. Pursue those interests on your own!

Want to try animation? Here are some project ideas:

  • Make a 30 second short film in Autodesk Maya (free for students) or Blender 3D (free for everybody)
  • Do a 11 Second Club animation. 
  • Make something cool with Pixar's own Renderman software (free for non-commercial use). I'll bet less than 1% of the resumes that Pixar receives from students list experience with Renderman.
  • Draw something on ShaderToy.
  • Implement a physically-based rendering algorithm.

Want to be a software engineer?
  • Make an Android / iOS app from scratch (Android learning curve is easier). 
  • Learn how to use Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud Platform
  • Open source your work. A Managing Director at D. E. Shaw once told me that "Github is the new resume".
  • Check out Show HN to see what projects other folks are working on.


  • Participate in a Kaggle competition. Get your first-hand experience with overfitting.
  • Do some financial market research on Quantopian. This is the kind of work that real quants do all day. 
  • Contribute to open source projects like Beaker and Satellite. Who knows, you might even impress someone inside the company.

Working on side projects accomplishes several objectives simultaneously:
  • It builds your brand (see #2).
  • It shows the hiring committee that you are willing to hone your craft on your own time, instead of merely trading your time for their money and status.
  • It's a low-risk way to find out if you're actually interested in the field.
  • In the process of building stuff, you might re-discover important theoretical and engineering challenges that professionals grapple with. In my sophomore year, I wrote a Bitcoin- arbitrage bot in Python. Bitcoin exchanges list the price and volume of all open limit orders in the book, while actual financial markets do not. This results in a very fundamental difference in the way Market Impact is treated, and gave me something interesting to talk about during my Two Sigma interviews. What I learned was super elementary, but still more practical experience than most candidates.

Don't worry about your projects being impressive or even novel - just focus on improving your skills and exercising your creativity. A little bit of experience using a company's products and technologies will give you a huge edge over other candidates.

Start as early as you can. The job application process doesn't begin during the fall recruiting season; it begins as soon as you want it to.

#2 Make Your Own Website

Here's a secret: the more you market yourself, the more recruiters will reach out to you. Building your own personal website will make you extremely visible.

Your website is basically a resume in long-form, but also functions as your personal brand. Here are some screenshots of other people's sites:

Your website should accomplish several things:
  • Make it easy for recruiters to come across your portfolio via Google Search.
  • Reveal your personality in ways that a 1-page resume cannot. In particular, it's a great opportunity to showcase aesthetic sense and visual creativity.
  • You should add an attractive profile picture of yourself. Putting a candid, smiling face will help people recognize you and put a face to your list of impressive accomplishments.
Platforms like Github Pages, Google App Engine, Wordpress, Weebly let you set up a website for free. Domain names are cheap - as little as $10 a year.

In addition to showcasing your coding projects, you should list a description of your work in a way that is accessible to people who can't read code. Better yet, write blog posts and tutorials for your projects - what you did and how you did it. Your site will get a lot more visibility if people find it useful.

The story you tell through your website - the first impression that you make - is of utmost importance. Do it right, and recruiters will come like ants to a picnic. 

#3 Study CS

If you're not sure what you want to do in the long term, choose skills and experiences that give you the most flexibility in the future. I recommend studying some kind of math + CS degree (if you're more interested in research roles) or a illustration + CS double major (if you're more interested in joining the entertainment industry).

I started my undergraduate education thinking I would study neuroscience, because "I could learn CS by myself." This was a big mistake:

  • My resume got passed over in resume screens because I listed "neuroscience" as my major. I eventually got through by begging a Google recruiter to give me a chance with the phone interview. Afterwards, I switched to Applied Math-CS.
  • Getting good at CS requires lots of practice. School is a good place to do it.
  • Neuroscience in the classroom has not caught up to neuroscience in the lab. Cutting edge research is pretty much optogenetics or computational (which is more CS + math + physics than neuroscience anyway).

More on the last point: I discovered that neuroscience students who knew how to program in MATLAB got to work directly on high-level research questions and interpret experimental data. Students who didn't ended up doing grunt work in the lab - dissecting tiny brains, pipetting liquids, and relying on others to code analysis routines for them.

Neuroscience is not the only field that is being disrupted by technology; we will be seeing more "software-defined research" in the coming years. For better or worse, the scientists, doctors, lawyers of the future will all be programmers.

Why is math important? Math gives you additional flexibility to break into hard-tech research roles, if you so desire. It's really hard to transition directly into an industry research team (such as Google Research or Microsoft Research) with only a CS undergrad degree.

Even though I was able to get more exposure to math at my Two Sigma internship, I was unsuccessful at getting a quant research internship because my background typecasts me into software engineering roles. It is also my own grievous fault for not being better at math.

If you want to work in film or games or even a product management role at a tech company, then studying math makes less sense; you should study illustration instead. I've noticed that at Pixar, many Technical Directors want to contribute more to story and art direction, but find themselves pigeonholed into specific roles (they have one "car guy", one "vegetation shading girl", and so on).

Being good at illustration will help you break into more creative roles like Art Director or Story Artist. It's also flexible - illustrators are needed everywhere, from design to comics to games. Illustration + CS is a potent skillset.

Candidly, math is safer, more flexible, and more lucrative than illustration. It is also future-proof in ways that other valuable degrees (such as design, law, and business) are not. That said, I find art incredibly valuable and continue practicing it as a hobby.

In any case, study CS. It will feed you and pay off your student debts and open so many doors. Don't be discouraged if you find CS difficult, or if your classmates seem to be way better at it than you. It wasn't until my third attempt to learn programming that things started to stick in my head.

Stick with CS, and the sky's the limit.

#4 Seek Diverse, Contrarian Experiences

Your coursework, extracurriculars, and internship experiences will have a big impact on your creative process. Diverse experiences enable you to approach problems differently than others, which will make you unique and harder to replace.

Pursue courses outside your major and let them inspire your projects. I don't mean this in the sense of "combining fields for the sake of mixing your interests together," like some contrived Egyptology-Physics senior thesis (just a hypothetical example, no offense to those who do this).

Instead, ideas from one field might lead to a real competitive advantage in another. For instance:

  • It's been said that Reed College's Calligraphy Class was a formative experience in Steve Jobs's design-minded vision for Apple products.

  • John Lasseter and Ed Catmull believed that 3D computer graphics was not just a fancy artistic medium, but the future of animation itself. They were right.

Pixar's The Adventures of AndrĂ© and Wally B.
  • Here is an elegant and beautiful explanation of a Math proof using interpretive dance. Sometimes difficult concepts become strikingly clear when the right diagram is drawn.

Here's a personal anecdote: I did several years of computational neuroscience research in college, which shaped the way I think about debugging complicated simulations in Machine Learning. Inspired by this, I pitched a project idea to a ML professor at my school. He thought it was a terrible idea. I went ahead and built it anyway, and it actually got me my current job. 

Diverse experiences help you to discover original or even contrarian ideas. Find something that only you believe to be true. If you're right, the upside is enormous. 

#5 Plan your next 10 years

Everybody's got dreams.

Some people dream of creating Strong AI, some want to make it to the Forbes 30 under 30 list, some want to be parents by the age of 32, some just want to make it to tomorrow.

It's really important, even as a college student applying for internships, to reflect on what you want and where you want to be in the long-term. Time is so precious; don't waste any time at a job that isn't growing the skills you want. It's okay to be unsure of what you want to do with your life, but at least write down a list of life/career trajectories that you think will make you happy.

Every so often, re-evaluate your long-term goals and whether the position you're in is taking you there or growing the skills that you want. Some questions to ask yourself:
  • How will I pay off my student debt?
  • Can I see myself doing pure software engineering (frontend, backend, mobile apps) for the remainder of my career? 
  • How long do I see myself working at my current employer?
  • Do I want to transition into more math-y roles like ML research or quantitative finance?
  • Do I want to transition into a product management or leadership role?
  • Do I want to start my own company someday? Am I okay exchanging coding and making stuff, for the privilege of running a company?
  • Do I want to become a Venture Capitalist someday?
  • If I plan to have kids by the time I'm 32 - where do I want to be? Who do I want to be with?
  • If I keep doing this, will I be happy in ten years? 

Finally, when making plans, don't take your physical, mental, or financial health for granted - have a backup plan in case your best laid plans go awry.

######################### PART 2 ##########################

95% of playing the internship game is what I've listed above. The remaining 5% is the actual interview process.

#6 Skip the Resume Screen

The first stage of most internship applications is a resume screen. The recruiter, who must sift through a huge stack of applications, glances at your resume for about six seconds, then either recycles it or sends you a follow up email.

SIX SECONDS! That's just enough time do pattern matching for brand-name schools, tech company names, and what programming languages you know. The recruiter will also make a snap judgment just based on how neat and pretty your resume looks. Consequently, resume screens are pretty noisy when it comes to judging inexperienced college students.

Fortunately, there are a couple ways to skip the resume screen entirely:
  • If you get a referral from someone inside the company, recruiters will consider your application more carefully. If your resume is not horrible to look at, you'll almost certainly make it to the next stage. I was lucky enough to get referrals for Pixar and Two Sigma. However, these are stories for another day ;)
  • If you are an underrepresented minority (URM) in Technology, companies are bending over backwards to get you to pass their interviews. At conferences like Grace Hopper, you can actually get a free pass out of the resume screening and the phone screen, and do on-the-spot whiteboard interviews with companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, etc. This improves the odds of landing an internship dramatically. A classmate of mine actually got an internship offer from Apple, on the spot, with only her resume (no interview or anything).  Reach out to your computer science department and ask if they would sponsor your attendance.
  • Reach out to engineers directly through your school alumni network, and ask them to refer you. Don't be shy - it's very little work on their part and they will get nice a referral bonus if you succeed. The worst thing that could happen is that they ignore you, which doesn't cost you anything.

It goes without saying that your resume should be on point: everything perfectly aligned and legible with zero typos. Tailor each resume for the company that you are applying to.

Tech companies that visit college campuses will often hold resume review sessions for students (Yelp, Microsoft, Google do this). This is super useful, and you should use this resource even if it's with a company you don't want to work for. Not surprisingly, tech recruiters give better industry-specific advice than college career counselors. 

If at all possible, skip the resume screen. In fact, if you have an offer deadline coming up, companies will often fast-track you straight to the on-site interview. The resume screen and phone interviews are just qualifiers for the on-site, which pretty much solely determines whether you make it in or not. Don't go through the front door.

#7 Phone and On-Site Interviews

After the noisy resume screen, you are the master of your own fate. Typically there are one or two phone interviews followed by an on-site 5-hour interview. The phone interviews are like miniature versions of on-site interviews, where you write code on a Google Doc or Etherpad.

All that matters at this point is how well you solve the coding challenges. If you do solve the problems quickly and correctly, and your behavior doesn't set off any red flags, you'll probably get the job.

My experience is that difficulty of the interview is roughly correlated with firm's selectivity and salary. The hardest interviews I've had were with Google Deepmind, D. E. Shaw, Two Sigma, Quora, and Vatic Labs (startups interviews tend to be pretty rigorous because their hiring decisions are riskier).

Google and Facebook were about medium in difficulty. I didn't interview for Pixar's software engineering role, so that interview was all behavioral and very easy. I've heard that Jane Street interviews are the hardest technically (apparently very popular among MIT students).

Cracking the Coding Interview is the only book you'll ever need. The practice problems are about the right level of difficulty for all software engineering roles I've ever interviewed with, and the advice is superb.

Finance firms like D.E. Shaw and Jane Street like to ask more math-oriented questions. I recommend these three books (in decreasing order of difficulty):

Preparing for whiteboard interviews is like studying for the SATs - a complete waste of time, but important enough that you gotta do it. There are some startups that are trying to disrupt the broken interview system, but I am uncertain if they will ever be successful.

On the behavioral side: be humble, be confident, smile a lot, ask good questions. Wear smart casual. Here's a trick to smiling often: every few seconds, imagine that the interviewer just extended you a job offer.

"Congratulations, you got the job!"
"Congratulations, you got the job!"

#8 Be Old

It's WAY easier to get internships as a rising junior or senior in college.

Interning at Google/Facebook as a first-year is pretty rare, so don't beat yourself up if you don't get an internship right away. A lot of tech companies screen out first-years as a matter of policy.

Some finance firms only hire rising college seniors as interns because they're fiercely protective of their IP and don't want other firms poaching their interns next summer.

The school you go to matters, but if you take the time to build a personal brand and list of side projects, it matters less and less. The same goes for age.

#9 I got the internship. What do I do?

Congrats! Your internship is an opportunity, not an entitlement.

These companies are investing in your personal growth and learning, so you should work hard and learn as much as possible. You owe it to the company whose name pads your resume, you owe it to the people who vouched for you in the hiring process, and most of all, you owe it to the candidates who were just as qualified as you, but didn't get the job.

My internship offers were all very competitive so I didn't negotiate (I was also saving that social capital for full-time negotiation). You can try to negotiate your internship offers if you want, though.

#10 I didn't get an internship this summer. What do I do?

Great! You can spend the summer working on exactly what you want to work on. Most interns don't even get this luxury.

  • Create deadlines for yourself as if a manager assigned them to you. 
  • Have meetings with your imaginary manager where you discuss your progress. 
  • Show up to "work" on time.
  • Get some unemployed friends together and work in a team. Heck, not having a job lined up is the perfect opportunity to start your own company.
  • Write a blog post about it. Show your future employers what a fucking awesome employee you would be if you had the opportunity.

If money is an issue, there are still a few options. You can seek out an UTRA with your university, take up a low-stress part-time job (summer RA, babysitting).

#11 Closing Thoughts

  • Build your own personal brand through side projects, website, writing.
  • Optimize your career decisions for learning and personal growth. 
  • Work really hard.

Best of luck, and thank you for reading.


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