Saturday, January 18, 2014

Advice to a younger me

I was talking to an intern candidate to discuss whether our team would be a good match for the candidate. The candidate asked me a couple of questions: about work life, specific project details. And then, the candidate had a brilliant question. I wish I had asked that question when I was starting work as a software engineer. I mentioned that I had interned before, and it was a great learning experience. The candidate's question was:
After your internship, what advice would you give a younger yourself?

 This is both a brilliant and insightful question. Everyone talks about internships being a great learning opportunity. Well, what do you learn?

Everyone learns different things. Here is my attempt at an answer. I learned two broad things during my internship:

  1. Dealing with inadequacy: All through my internship, I was surrounded by people smarter than me. Co-workers, project managers, executives, ..., even my fellow interns were much, much smarter than me. It is difficult to quantify how much smarter, but in some cases, 10x or 100x would probably be right. In some discussions, I felt strange being in the same room with these people. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like a complete idiot.
    A big part of the internship was learning how to cope with that feeling. Learning that it was natural to feel silly and incapable. All these engineers had spent years perfecting their skills, and I was completely inexperienced. Of course they were better. I had to learn that there were some things I might be better at, if I worked hard.
    And I learned that I have some valuable skills, which others might lack. Maybe I am not as technically capable, but I am a strong listener. I can explain a situation clearly and patiently. Sometimes it was a little Linear Algebra. At others, it was shell scripting. But I had to remind myself that I understood some things betters than others.
    I had to learn how to cope with this again as I started a full-time job. I felt like I got in due to a recruiting error and had to remind myself that I was capable.
  2. Learning from others: It was clear that other engineers were more experienced. The other lesson from the internship was how to learn from others. How do you ask for help? How do you suggest you are lost? How do you solicit feedback? If you had an hour of the best engineer's time, how would you use it effectively?  Once you are surrounded by shocking brilliance: how best do you imbibe it?
I haven't conquered these two issues yet. I wish I could feel adequate. I wish I could learn better from others. The internship got me started.