It’s one of the many reasons I love the working culture at 10gen; where else would you find the CTO of the company happily sitting down to chat to the intern?
Eliot Horowitz, co-founder and CTO of 10gen, knows all too well the perks and pitfalls of intern life. Though now head of a 75-person engineering team, Eliot began his professional life when he was 19 years old, when he undertook a summer internship with DoubleClick, a company co-founded by Dwight Merriman, 10gen’s Chairman and fellow co-founder.
Before he jetted back to New York, I had the chance to ask Eliot about his time as an intern, and to enquire about any advice he would offer prospective and current interns of today:
C: What motivated you to pursue an internship in the first place – were you sure it was the right path for you, or did you have doubts along the way?
E: The reason I did it was that I was in the middle of deciding between a couple of different career choices, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I had to decide in the Fall, and there were two majors I was going to pursue. My internship helped me solidify my decision, which was great.
C: What do you feel the value of an internship is?
E: I think the value of internship for the intern is that they provide actual, real-world experience. When you’re in school, especially in computer science, everything you learn is far too theoretical. You’re given a conceptual task, and told to fill in its functions. In the real world, you actually have to complete that task.
My internships also definitely opened my eyes to what a ‘real’ company was like, as I’d never really been in that environment before.
For a company, one reason is that interns add a lot of enthusiasm and excitement to a team, and that can be really refreshing.
Two, within a tech company, it helps because it gives the engineers an outlet for ideas. Often engineers will have their own projects, but too little time to follow through on them, so it’s great for them to be able to say “hey, I have this crazy idea I’d like to spend two weeks on but I don’t have the time, so could you (the intern) research it and see if it makes sense or not?”
Three, in terms of hiring, it’s the best interview you can possibly have. If you get an intern you really like, you’re going to do all you can to try and hire them.
C: There’s been much controversy over the issue of the unpaid internship – what’s your personal opinion on the issue?
E: It’s actually not a big problem in the computer science field, where the majority are paid. I do believe internships should be paid though – after all, it’s work. Interns are bringing value to the company, and they absolutely should be paid.
The difference is, if it’s unpaid, it should be viewed as they’re only coming to observe. You can’t expect them to work for nothing.
C: What’s your strongest feeling when you look back at your internship days now – best time of your life, thank goodness that’s over or something in-between?
E: I really liked being an intern – I didn’t have any major responsibilities so I could just try different projects and go around asking people what they thought, and how I should do something. You know…their expectations were quite low so it really was very easy to exceed expectations and learn a lot! When you’re an intern you are supposed to not know anything – you’re a blank slate – and you can just learn so much.
C: If you had the choice now, would you go back to being an intern for a bit?
E: If I could pause my ‘real life’? Yes!
C: If you could offer one piece of advice to not only your past self, but current and prospective interns, what would it be?
E: Observe everything.
It’s not just a matter of gaining skills, but learning about how people interact in real life situations at work and figuring out what you want from a working environment; if you can say ‘I like the fact that there are flexible working hours’ or ‘I don’t like that there’s too much travel’, then you can actually make an important decision about what you want to do.
C: Finally, other than your work with 10gen and MongoDB, tell me about something you are passionate about?
[He struggles with this - 10gen is obviously all-encompassing]
E: Okay, I really like playing with robots.
I took a Lego robotics class with my daughter, and she learnt how to build one with me helping her. In fact, that was the inspiration for the 10gen All-Hands robot competition!