When the pandemic began in spring and her friends (and fellow Carnegie Mellon master's students) started to find out that their offers for summer internships were canceled, Mai Sha held her breath.
But then she got an email from the intern recruitment team at mobile productivity suite Quip and let out a sigh of relief. Her software engineering internship would still happen, albeit remotely, and she would still get a chance to be a part of the Quip team.
We interviewed Mai and her summer manager, Leslie Carr, a Senior Director of Engineering at Quip, to learn how Quip successfully took their internship program remote, how the Salesforce-owned cloud-based word processing app is maintaining its culture despite not working in the same building together, and what future interns can do to succeed.
Mai was first introduced to Quip at a Grace Hopper conference. "I thought it was impressive how they were bringing their customers a new way to work together," she remembers. She interviewed for a summer internship and during the process really connected with what she was seeing of Quip's company culture. "I could tell every interviewer was top-notch. They seemed pretty humble and extremely nice, and it felt like working with teammates at university, not like an interview," she says.
She liked the team, she liked the culture, and once she did her research, it turned out she liked the product, too: "I had some previous experience in version management in spreadsheets, so I know how much it can help, and Quip's product is an open workspace that also values privacy. It's a good balance."
Mai's summer boss, Leslie, joined Quip a couple of years prior for similar reasons. She'd actually first talked to the company three years before joining and remembers the team feeling "really, really welcoming," but she wasn't looking to make a move then. When she did, she did more due diligence and loved what she found. "I was actually pretty impressed by the number of women in the engineering management team," remembers Leslie. "It was really important to me to be at a place where I saw faces like mine. I also really liked their engineer-focused mindset; that aligned well with my values."
Getting to know a company remotely
It was tough for Leslie to transition that mindset and the culture she'd built on the engineering team to a remote environment. In the pre-pandemic times, she'd relied on informal social activities like boba runs, hallway check-ins, and walks around the park to check in on her team, including her summer interns. Without those touchpoints, she had to be much more deliberate about how to keep everyone engaged—particularly the interns, who would have only a couple of months to complete their projects and understand what it meant to work at Quip.
Leslie adapted her management style, moving from biweekly 1:1s that lasted an hour to weekly 30-minute check-ins with each person on her team and proactively setting up mentors and pairing sessions for interns like Mai.
And while those changes allowed Leslie to keep an eye on everyone and do her job, she notes that it was really Mai's proactive approach to remote work that allowed Mai to succeed even past her expectations.
"A lot of Mai's success was because she had such a good learning and growth mindset," explains Leslie. "She wasn't afraid to ask questions."
Mai kept a Quip document full of project updates that provided real-time transparency on where she was and what she was planning to do next. She reached out to her team members for help when she needed it and made sure to connect with people on projects unrelated to her own to learn more about the company culture. She worked with a small group of about 10 people and notes that she always felt part of the team. "I felt like I had a voice. The team always cultivated an environment that let us speak out and show off our work to everyone," she says.
"At Quip, it's a constructive process. Not only my manager and my mentor, but everyone else on the team helped me out. They didn't just teach me how to debug, but made sure that I totally understood it," explains Mai. That helpfulness extended to non-project tasks, too, she notes, like working on her interview or presentation skills.
While Mai ended up adapting quite well to a remote internship, she was nervous at first. "It was my first software engineering internship, and it's remote! I felt slow during the ramp-up period, and I doubted myself a bit, because sometimes I couldn't figure it out," she says. "But luckily, with work and help, by the end, I could even unblock others." By the end of the internship, she was even looking forward to Monday, she says, so that she could get back to work.
Advice for future interns
Leslie hopes Quip is back to in-person work and internships next year, but no matter where and how future internships happen, she's learned a few lessons from this summer's all-remote internship that she will apply in the future—and is happy to share with future Quip interns now.
"Don't be afraid to ask," she says. "There's still plenty of stuff that I have no idea about in engineering. But that's how we learn and grow." Mai, she notes, did a great job of asking for help when she needed it: "A couple of other interns who were afraid to ask questions were blocked for much longer than needed. Instead of being blocked for an hour, they were blocked for two days."
Mai takes that advice a step farther, sharing what worked for her. Aside from her doc of project updates, she had a separate doc of questions where she would tag her mentor so that they could go in and help her whenever they were free. She also made good use of the engineering team's chat channel, with its in-depth documentation of historical questions asked and answered, and stayed active in the intern chat room, too. She joined all the social events she could—from weekly coffee chats hosted by Salesforce to virtual escape room team events—to keep meeting new people, learning about different projects and ways of working at Quip, and practicing her communication skills.
"One of the biggest things I learned from this internship is to never stop learning!" says Mai, smiling. "There are so many things I don't understand, and I have a long way to go to become a great software engineer."
Leslie notes that it's that desire to constantly be learning that set Mai apart and that would serve future interns well, too. "Not only did Mai do a great job on her project and finish it ahead of schedule, but I was even more impressed with how she sort of joined like a normal team member afterward!" says Leslie, who explained that Mai jumped in to help another engineer write tests for his project. "We'd given her some feedback on getting better at testing before, and she took an area for improvement and turned it into a strength through being willing to just dive right in and explore that area. That was awesome."
Mai's final advice for future interns is simple: soak up as much as you can. "Stay curious," she says. "You can learn anything you want to here."
If you're interested in learning more about Quip, check out their PowerToFly profile here.
Contrast Security's summer engineering interns usually work from their kitted-out Baltimore, Maryland office, doing their projects side-by-side with full-time employees and enjoying onsite perks like free lunch.
As you may have guessed, that wasn't quite the case for 2020's summer interns.
With a pandemic closing offices and halting travel, Contrast Security, the world's leading provider of security technology for self-protecting software, had two options: to either cancel their internship program or to adapt it.
They knew that they wanted to keep their commitment to their incoming interns and provide a meaningful experience despite the challenges of doing so at a distance, so they dug in and figured out how to mentor, teach, evaluate, and build community remotely, while also conveying the Contrast Security values and culture over a shortened eight-week timeframe.
We talked to three members of the Contrast Security 2020 summer internship class about what it was like to do an engineering internship completely remotely and what advice they have for future interns. Read on for their wisdom.
On adjusting from coursework to real work
Even with a non-remote internship, working on projects with practical applications would've been something new for Melissa Shohet, a computer science and applied mathematics and statistics student at Johns Hopkins University and one of Contrast Security's summer interns. "When you write code for a homework assignment, it's rarely held to a standard higher than 'does it work?'" explains Melissa. "Efficiency and organization are rarely a factor, not to mention most coding assignments are not applicable to the real world."
Contrast Security's interns worked on real-life projects assigned and managed by a combination of the VP of Engineering, an agile project manager, and tech leads. Elizabeth Mathew, a recent computer science grad from John Hopkins University and summer intern, explains the difference between her coursework and her project work: "In school, I mostly just learned CS concepts in a variety of areas and never had experience with installing and using different types of software. Very rarely, if ever, would I source a .bash_profile, git branch off a main repo, or write some bash scripts in school. The hands-on experience I got as an intern makes me feel like a real software engineer. Also, I thought it was really cool that the interns could work so easily with AWS resources. We do not usually use technology like that while studying computer science."
Melissa agrees with Elizabeth on the benefits of getting on-the-ground experience in a real workplace. "[In our internship,] we were able to get used to using Docker, something I've been told is widely used in software engineering, yet untaught in school. We also rarely work in teams [in school], yet the world of software engineering is primarily team-based," she says.
Yashashri Pendse, a computer science student at the University of Maryland, says that those real-life skills are invaluable. "I'm a lot better at reading—reading documentation when learning to use a new sort of technology, reading logs when I'm trying to understand why I'm getting an error, and reading through and understanding other people's code. I learned how to work more independently and solve problems," she shares. "I learned so much more at this 8-week internship than I ever have during a semester, and so rapidly too. On the job, everything is much more hands-on. You're given tasks to do and mostly everything you learn is in relation to getting those tasks completed. So learning has more of a purpose, everything you learn directly helps you to be more productive."
On connecting with a supportive team, even remotely
After interviewing at Contrast Security's office months before her internship was set to begin, Elizabeth was excited about the culture of the place where she'd be spending her summer. "The interviewers were so encouraging," she says. "I could already tell that Contrast Security doesn't just focus on specific prior experiences of their engineers, but also on the engineer's potential and interests. I really liked the supportive and engaging work environment I felt while visiting the office."
Yashashri also chose to intern at Contrast Security because of the culture she experienced during her interviews—"everyone was so kind and welcoming," she remembers—and was happy to see that culture kept alive even through different means. "I think that Contrast made the best of a less-than-ideal situation," she says. "The people and the work the company does are awesome. I never thought it was possible for literally everyone at a company to be so wholesome. The vibes are immaculate."
Elizabeth was worried that a collaborative environment would be harder to tap into while working from home, but that wasn't quite the case. While there were times she was confused on how to start a new project, Elizabeth says she was always able to get the help she needed: "I loved how all the engineers at Contrast made an effort to always be available to help us interns. No matter who I reached out to across the company, everyone would respond so quickly and would hop on a Zoom call at a moment's notice to answer any questions."
Melissa had a similar experience. "I was really worried I wouldn't learn as much or get a good sense of Contrast Security as a company [by interning remotely]. It turns out both of those fears were unfounded," she says. "From the very beginning, the people were super friendly, and it really seemed like the kind of environment I wanted to work in. Every employee we met said that all we had to do was message them, and they'd be happy to help with anything. Not to mention we had not, one, not two, but three mentors, plus many other employees who really wanted to meet with us and try to teach us as much as they could. I couldn't have worked for a more supportive company."
On their best advice for other interns
Yashashri, Melissa, and Elizabeth were full of wisdom to share with future Contrast Security interns looking to make the most out of their summer experience. Here are their takeaways:
- "Be a sponge," says Yashashri. "Everyone at Contrast is so knowledgeable and there's so much to learn. Take advantage of that.
- "Don't be afraid to ask questions," says Melissa. "You're here to learn. Don't be scared if you don't know how to do something, because learning is the goal!
- "And try to ask those questions to different people each time," says Elizabeth. "This way you can always move forward with your work while meeting new people."
- "It's ok to be completely lost and feel as if you don't know anything. In fact, it's natural!" says Yashashri. "I learned that inexperience could provide valuable insight by giving a fresh perspective. I learned that everyone is always learning. I learned that being confused and lost shows that you are going down the right path because you realize you have more to learn and you now know where to look."
Despite the hard work, putting your all into the internship will be well worth it, says our panel. "Working at Contrast has been the most rewarding experience I have had so far in computer science," says Elizabeth. "The people at Contrast Security truly care about you and your interests, not just how well you may perform."
We'll let Melissa have the last word on what students interested in Contrast Security's internship program should do next: "Apply! You will learn so much, in a supportive and encouraging environment. The work you'll do is really interesting, you'll solve real world problems, and the people are fantastic!"