Internships; a competitive advantage

Guest blog post written by Todd Davies, Computer Science graduate from The University of Manchester

Imagine an opportunity where you spend a summer travelling around, meeting amazing, clever and inspiring people on a daily basis, get to work on interesting and impactful projects, yet all the while getting paid for your trouble. In case you hadn’t guessed from the title of the post, I’m talking about internships.

On being asked to write a post about my internship as a Software Engineer at Google, I realised that merely describing what spending four months at a major tech company is like just wouldn’t do. I did other internships before going to Google, and my experiences at each have all contributed to who I am; I suppose it’s unsurprising that I feel moulded in this way, considering that these programmes are designed to grow and nurture students into somebody efficacious and employable.

As far as I can see, employers are looking for three things in new graduates; qualifications, qualities and experience. Since I’m writing to students at The University of Manchester, I’m going to assume that you’ll be suitably qualified when it’s time to look for graduate roles; a strong set of A-levels, and an Honours degree (let’s assume everything goes well) will make up the backbone of a strong graduate job application. However, the other two dimensions of an ideal candidate – qualities and experience – have a far more ephemeral path to fulfilment, with no ‘set formula’ (ie. work hard and pass your exams) like getting qualifications has.

Recommended for decomposing hard problems.

It’s easy to consider soft skills as easily acquired, less important trivialities in the grand scheme of things; boiling down to a good phone manner, grammatically correct emails and the ability to hold a conversation at the water cooler. Yet I think the phrase encapsulates far more than just being able to communicate. I was exposed to office politics for the first time on a previous internship, where I witnessed a meeting in which software engineers from two teams literally argued over which data format to use when encoding messages and where project allocation could be a function of your manager’s standing with
your department’s VP. At Google, I realised how a seemingly large and intractable problem could be decomposed into small, independent and manageable chunks to be solved one at a time. While rarely revelatory, these skills can only really be learnt by doing, and if you’ve acquired them as an intern, then you can really hit the ground running after graduation.

While I don’t consider myself an extrovert by any means, meeting new, interesting people is certainly a hobby of mine. I’ve found internships to be an excellent way of expanding my social horizons outside an immediate peer group. I’ve been lucky enough to intern with people from a diverse set of backgrounds, and can now count students and alumni of Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge, Imperial, MIT and many more universities of note as my friends, plus I’ve had the chance to work with people with all sorts of amazing interests, such as those who compete in ballroom dancing, Sudoku and Rubik’s Cube speed-solving world championships (those are not the same person). If the phase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” holds any merit, then growing your ‘network’ as early as possible in your career should see a very good return on investment in the future.

But let’s not forget, the internship programmes of most companies are designed to be fun, and since they’re aimed at students, tend to involve plenty of opportunities for travelling, partying and other pastimes favoured among our generation. Morgan Stanley put on regular drinks events for us in Canary Wharf, as well as the promise of a month of expenses-paid training in New York should we accept offers to become full-time employees. I was actually taken for interviews in NYC by Palantir off the back of a small phone interview and them seeing that I’d interned at Google. Speaking of Google, since I was based in the Munich office, travel was inherent in those internships too; I visited their Zurich, Dublin and Prague offices and had my weekends (plus seven days holiday) free to roam around Europe as I wished. Of course, there are lots of other (free) perks to working at Google, from having delicious food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) every day, on-site massages, off-site events (including three days in an Austrian ski resort with my team, including e-mountain biking and white-water rafting), cool offices, awesome co-workers and the fact that the code I wrote is being used to help serve web-pages and services to millions, if not billions of people.

E-mountain biking in the Alps with my team Google.

I now have a graduate role as a Software Engineer at Google (starting in December), and while I passed my interviews, according to my recruiter, what really convinced their hiring committee to extend me an offer was the work I did on my internships there. Without an internship, perhaps my interviews alone wouldn’t have passed muster with no feedback from my peers to support them. Internships really are a competitive advantage!

Lastly, I want to point out that while applying for (and undertaking) internships at big companies may seem really quite daunting, there is absolutely nothing to lose (except perhaps time) from having a go; I have been rejected from more internships and jobs than I’ve been successful, and there’s really nothing to fear from the pain of rejection.

If you have any questions for Todd, you can contact him on Twitter, @Todd__Davies.

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