Monday, July 18, 2011

My epic internship quest

Here's the story of how I spent four months of my life locating and applying for internships.

My initial plan was simple. Spend the summer doing a research internship at a major CS university to simulate pursuing a postgraduate degree. I had been receiving contradictory advice on whether I should attend grad school or go straight to work once I finish my Bachelor's degree. I thought I would settle the issue by experiencing research first-hand.

I applied to two REU programs: the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley – Information Technology for Sustainability at the University of California Berkeley. I sent seven inquiries by email to professors from both programs, receiving two positive responses. I spoke with Dr. Roy Campbell, a researcher at UIUC, and Leo Meyerovich, a grad student working with Dr. Ras Bodik at UC Berkeley. I submitted my applications successfully around the middle of February, although my UC Berkeley application was a day late.

During the application period, I stumbled upon another internship opportunity I couldn't ignore. Fog Creek Software in New York, NY was looking for a summer intern to help them build tools for programmers. The idea of working in New York under the venerable Joel Spolsky was irresistible. I didn't think I had a chance, so I drafted an email of application and sent it within two days. I didn't want to waste too much time on a fantasy.

When Fog Creek contacted me to set up a phone interview, I was both surprised and elated. I solved a few programming challenges from Project Euler to prepare for the programming examination, and I tried to anticipate the interview questions. Unfortunately, I forgot about most important question, "What programming projects have you done recently?" When the interviewer asked that question, my confidence was shattered, and I slipped into panic mode. During my programming test, I forgot how to use static variables, writing some terrible C. However, I spent my next class mentally debugging it, and I rewrote, tested, and resubmitted a not obviously broken version with a brief explanation later that evening.

At the end of the interview, I was told that I would be told whether I got the job within a couple days. I didn't hear back for about a week. At the time, I thought that meant that everybody at Fog Creek was too busy to bother sending me a rejection email, but in retrospect, I was probably a finalist who wasn't ruled out until the end.

Around this time I realized that what I wanted was an industry internship, so I refocused my efforts on finding an internship with a big tech company. I started gathering links and working on my resume.

Early in March, I heard about the Cascadia Fellowship, a program that matched technical students with Seattle-based startups. I answered a couple questions and provided a statement of intent. The following week, I received a mass-mailed rejection, in error, and then a personalized request for my resume and couple programming puzzles. Everything was due the following day. However, before the deadline, they sent me another impersonal rejection email. I ignored it and submitted my code before the deadline (barely). When I hadn't heard from them for a week, I asked if the second rejection was sent in error. I never received a response.

It was late in March now, and I didn't have an offer. I had narrowed down my list of major tech companies offering summer internships to Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and IBM. I missed the unpublished deadline for the Facebook software engineering internship, so that left Google, Microsoft, and IBM. I wrote a spartan list of reasons for Google to hire me and submitted my application. I filled out Microsoft's on-rails application, and submitted that next. Finally, I answered IBM's primarily experience-related application and turned it in.

After all this, I had only to apply to one more program: the Google Summer of Code. GSoC was my ultimate fail safe. I was accepted last year, and I felt that I had the process figured out. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time left to apply; I hadn't even looked at the list of mentoring organizations when the student application period began. I had eleven days to find at least two interesting organizations, pick interesting summer projects, and submit a detailed proposal to each, plus another two weeks to convince the organizations that I could complete my chosen projects.

I chose two organizations: Learning Unlimited, producers of a sophisticated Django-based web app; and Sencha Labs, developers of the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit. I thought that LU was a long shot, but I found the project more interesting than the JIT. I split my application time between designing a student registration system for LU and fixing bugs for JIT. I had some independent experience with JavaScript graphics, and the project I chose was well within my capability, but I got cocky. I didn't spent nearly enough time learning about the core library; I simply assumed I would get the project. I worked hard on the LU project because I wanted it more and it was far more demanding. In the end, I was rejected by both projects because I didn't focus on either one. If I had dedicated myself to either project, I would've gotten it.

After the GSoC application deadline but before the decision date, I received a surprising message from UIUC. Dr. Masooda Bashir informed me that two researchers were interested in working with me over the summer, Dr. Klara Nahrstedt and Dr. Roy Campbell. Dr. Nahrstedt asked me for my resume, but Dr. Campbell remained silent. I sent him an email asking what he would be working on over the summer, but I didn't receive a response.

At this point, I was frantic. I hadn't received a positive response from any of the companies I had applied to, and when I didn't receive a decision from Drs. Campbell and Nahrstedt, I assumed that I hadn't made it into the highly competitive ITI internship. I tried to start over, looking for less exclusive internships, because I didn't want to waste my summer taking classes.

It was the beginning of May now. I had almost given up, but I decided to ask Drs. Campbell and Nahrstedt for final decisions. When I asked them whether they were still interested in working with me, Dr. Nahrstedt told me that I hadn't made the cut, but Dr. Campbell responded with an enthusiastic "Yes!" It was almost too late to file the paperwork, but Dr. Bashir came through for me. I received the official offer letter May 4.

Now, I've spent half my summer working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I couldn't be happier. You could say that all my hard work paid off, or you could say that I got lucky at the last second. Either way, I'm just happy that I won't have to submit any more applications until the fall.