On Interning

It is hunt-for-an-internship season at our Institute, as I suppose is the case all over the country.

The process is trickier than usual, because of the pandemic, and for that reason I wanted to put up a small outline of my thoughts about internships.

  1. At the start of your career, optimize for learning, rather than branding. This means that in your internship, and your first job, you should optimize for firms where you are likely to learn a lot, rather than firms that are prestigious. Prestigious firms are likely to be more bureaucratic, and more about status. This means that the junior employees aren’t likely to get a lot of crucial, really important work. The pay will be better, the Friday parties will definitely be better, but the opportunity cost will be high as well.
  2. Learning how to document the work you’ve done is a very, very underrated skill, especially in internships. One way to be really and truly remembered at the end of your internship is by handing your mentor a docket of what you did, what you wish you had done, and a documentation of all the processes you learnt about.
  3. Best of all, include a section for the next intern in this team. Include stuff like who to meet in payroll, where is the best chai to be had, who in IT is especially helpful etc, along with the obvious stuff. Not only is paying it forward a good idea in and of itself, but that next intern is automatically a friend for life.
  4. Go for all the chai and sutta beaks that you are invited to, even if you don’t smoke or drink chai. Relaxed conversations with your mentors or seniors is invaluable, and soak in all the info you possibly can.
  5. Learn Excel. Here’s a laundry list to get you started: HLOOKUP, VLOOKUP, INDEX, MATCH, OFFSET, SUM, SUMPRODUCT, COUNTIF (and all the variants). Pivots, filters, data analysis add-in, solver add-in, charts, trace precedents, what-if analysis, data tables, goal seek, data validation. You must know all of this in and out, and be able to know what you can use when. YouTube videos, websites will help, but the best way to learn is to sit with a colleague and ask her to help you out. I cannot emphasize this enough – you need to know Excel. It doesn’t matter which role, which team, which department. You. Must. Know. Excel.
  6. Whatever productivity suite your organization is using, soak yourself in it. GSuite, MS Office or anything else. Know the ins and outs of the email system, the calendar tool and the internal messaging tool. Invest the time to make yourself a ninja in it. Trust me, it is worth the effort.
  7. Seek out a mentor in the organization if one isn’t allotted to you. Set up weekly lunch/tea meetings with the mentor, and have her tell you stories about stressful times in the office.
  8. Continue to learn whatever tools you got access to at the workplace. It could be Tableau, Crystal Ball, R, Jupyter notebooks or anything else. Again, soak yourself in the tool, and start on the path of becoming a ninja in it. This will take time, but it is worth your while.
  9. Learn the big picture. Ask your mentor how whatever project you are working on fits into the larger objectives of the workplace. My very first manager told me something I have never forgotten: every single thing you do in the workplace is either raising revenues for the firm, or is cutting costs for the firm, or is improving speed-to-market. If what you’re doing is achieving neither of these three, then it is a waste of time. Ask, until you are clear about the answer, how your project fits into this simple model.
  10. Lastly, about landing an internship. Do not send out blanket emails to contacts on LinkedIn, or elsewhere. Shortlist not less than ten, but not more than twenty people, and write them a personalized note. These folks should have skillsets you want to possess – it doesn’t matter where they work. The note should include a specific question about this skillset. If they answer – and to such specific notes they usually will – take their advice to heart. Incorporate it into a project you are working on. Send them this project, and ask for feedback. Then ask if they can help you land a gig. All the notes I get on LinkedIn just ask for a gig. That’s a waste of a potential networking opportunity.

Prepping for Placements in 2020

The million dollar question. This comes from a student at one of the colleges I taught at recently.

“How do you think the placement season will be? How can we train ourselves during this time to have better chances?”

  1. Things are going to be really bad this year. There’s no point in beating around the bush. You’ll be lucky to get placed, and even luckier to get a really good, high paying job. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but it is best we go into this season eyes wide open.
  2. That being said, let’s think about the second question more carefully, because there are things that I would recommend:
    1. I say this every placement season, but it is even more important this year. First, beware the streetlight effect. Second, never play cricket with Sachin Tendulkar.
    2. What is the streetlight effect? Here’s Wikipedia on the subject, but the gist is people search in the easiest, most obvious place. In an interview, that place is your CV.
    3. When, in an interview, you hand the interviewer your CV, it is literally the most perfect example there can be of the streetlight effect. The interviewer doesn’t know you from Adam (or Eve), and will therefore begin to ask you questions basis stuff you’ve written in your CV.
    4. Therefore, possess the ability to speak – thoroughly, meaningfully and concisely – about every single word on your CV.
      1. Thoroughly means you should know, and I mean really know, every single project, subject and achievement you have listed. No faffing!
      2. Meaningfully means you should be able to answer how a business might benefit because of the work you have done, or the topic you have learnt, or the internship you did. “I did XYZ in my internship” is a bad answer. “The business was able to achieve ABC, because of  I doing XYZ” is a good answer.
      3. Concisely means you should leave the interviewer with the feeling that you know what you’re talking about, but you shouldn’t overburden the listener with an endless stream of sentences. Practice by saying what you want to about a project, and then try to repeat the explanation in literally half the time. Keep at it!
    5. So if you are going to be subjected to the streetlight effect during an interview, be prepared for it. Or, and even better, give the interviewer something other than your CV to talk about.
    6. Which brings me to the most important thing you can do right now, and it not training yourself. It is training others.
      1. You’re not going to be the only one saying I did a course on Coursera | I learnt MS Excel | I did project XYZ with firm PQR
      2. But you could end up being the only one saying I taught kids in my society math using videos from 3Blue1Brown | I taught my batchmates Excel, and so learnt it better | I mentored a bunch of people online on <insert subject of your choice here>
      3. I’ll say this more concisely. Try and utilize this time to do, not learn. It is vastly underrated.
    7. Which brings me to my final point, about never playing cricket with Sachin Tendulkar. Here’s what I mean: if I ever met Sachin, and got to be in a contest with him, I would have to be stark raving mad to choose a contest involving bat and ball. But I’m fairly confident I can beat him in, say, a quiz on economics.
      What is the point? The point is that in an interview about analytics, for example, good luck trying to be better than the interviewer on machine learning algorithms. That is literally that person’s job! With your experience, learning and age, it’s like playing cricket with Sachin. But what if the interviewer learns that you put up videos on, say, photography, and you have been doing so for three months? And that of the 100 videos you shared, 50 got more than 10,000 views? And that you got to interact with people the world over as a consequence? You didn’t learn a course. Instead, you put yourself out there, you shipped a product that other people could benefit from, you were a mentor to other people. Now Sachin is playing your sport – and your chances just got a whole lot better. (Example: my CV is this blog, not a piece of paper)
  3. So my advice would be to identify a skill at which you are genuinely good, and to teach other people that skill, in public. Blogs, YouTube videos, Zoom sessions, whatever. Make that your CV, and crack that interview.

I hope this helps! Thank you to said student for asking the question, and if anybody has any follow-up queries, don’t hesitate to write in.