How Does It Feel to Intern at a Startup?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Neel Hajare, student at MIT:

It feels empowering.

I’ve interned at Quora (50 employees as of summer 2012), HubSpot(100 employees as of January 2010), KAYAK (100 employees as of summer 2010), TripAdvisor (300 employees as of January 2011), and Facebook (2,500 employees as of summer 2011).

Generally speaking, at larger companies there’s more structure, organization, and definition of specific roles. At smaller companies, there’s more responsibility, more urgency, less oversight, and less distinction between intern and full-time employee.

As a concrete example, at Quora, I deployed a change to the site on my very first day (added myself to http://www.quora.com/about/team). At HubSpot and Kayak, I deployed changes within the first week. At TripAdvisor and Facebook, I deployed changes with the first few weeks. However, like I mentioned, with this power comes responsibility—at Quora, HubSpot, and Kayak, actions I took directly resulted in new bugs being introduced in the product, whereas at TripAdvisor and Facebook, there was enough oversight and process in place that my mistakes were caught before they made it out to users.

As far as the intern/full-time boundary goes, at Quora, I feel like there’s barely any distinction. At HubSpot and Kayak, there was minimal distinction. At TripAdvisor and Facebook, I was clearly an intern.

With regard to the learning experience, I feel like I definitely learned a great deal during each of my internships. I think the “amount learned” increases slightly as company size drops, since you are asked to take care of a wider range of tasks and are exposed to more of the operations of the company as a whole. However, the amount learned that will be practical in the future is much more at a startup. At larger companies, you spend a lot of time learning how things work at that company. You learn about the processes that they have in place to keep an organization running (which is specific to that company) rather than learning more generalizable skills.

At HubSpot, I learned how to create a virtual machine and set it up with an operating system, Web server, database, etc. At Facebook, I learned a procedure for how to create a personal sandbox of the product to develop with. At Kayak, I learned how to use CVS. At HubSpot, I learned how to use SVN. At Quora, I learned how to use Git. At TripAdvisor, I learned how to use TripAdvisor’s specific SVN customizations. At Facebook, I learned how to use their own hybrid SVN and Git setup. At Facebook, I learned how to fetch data out of Facebook’s particular abstractions for storing data. At the other companies, I learned how to use commonly available tools. The list goes on and on…

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