Why I intern at startups while school is on

Jan 27, 2020

Work

In this fantastic podcast, Sam Altman talks about founders with ‘deferred life plans’. Founders who want to do X, and then do the Y they’ve always wanted to do.

A common criticism of people in Silicon Valley, who I think have great futures in their past, are people who say some version of the following sentence. My life’s work is to build rockets, so I’m going to make a hundred million dollars in the next four years, trading crypto currency with my crypto hedge fund, because I don’t want to think about the money problem anymore, and then I’m going to build rockets.

His advice essentially boils down to- know what you really want to do. And then do it. If what you really want to do is make a boatload of money, do that. If you want to make a rocket company, don’t wait to make $100 million, just make a rocket company.

This applies to all areas of life. People are very good at convincing themselves that what they truly want to do is impossible. They assume that there is some insurmountable step they must achieve before finally working on what they know is right. This thinking is dangerous. Of the set of things we think are impossible, there’s a large subset of things that we’ve merely convinced ourselves are impossible.

And why startups? The world is sustained by the majority but created by the early movers. You get the highest leverage to change things from fields where the potential for growth is the highest. Startups are right at the intersection of early movers and rapid growth. If something needs to be changed in the world, it's more likely to get improve faster in a startup than a government office, or worse, by just waiting for it to change.

And when considering this, when I was 14, I realised I'd have to wait a long time to get started with startups. I'd have to

  1. Finish my iGCSEs (9-10th grade)
  2. Finish IB (11th-12th)
  3. Do 4 years of college
  4. Maybe do a masters degree
  5. And then begin.

But after questioning my assumptions, I realised that perhaps I won't have to wait so long. I had assumed startups would only accept people trained for several years in university, but that wasn't completely true. Even as a teenager, there was surely some marginal value I could provide. And in exchange for this marginal value, I could get to understand how startups actually worked.

Becoming good at something

All the greatest composers took at least a decade to create their best work. This is what made me even more convinced I had to start early. It takes a long time to fully internalise the subtleties of a field. By starting early, I could make all the usual mistakes before others made their first. And made mistakes I did. I've seen or personally experienced all of:

  • Making derivative X for Ys
  • NDAs for ideas
  • Going to many conferences
  • Not talking to users
  • Working with bad cofounders
  • Not iterating
  • Not being confident in the product (Iterating too much)
  • Relying on deals with large companies
  • Being too slow
  • Entering status games

Furthermore, network effects are often understated. Since they compound, it’s extremely important to start early. By establishing a network of people in Silicon Valley now, I set myself up for the future. Should I want to start a company, I'll know a lot more people to pitch an idea to. Should I want funding, I can get a warm introduction instead of a cold one.

And the question is obviously- am I skilled enough? Is this marginal value really enough to deserve being an intern on a startup team? I'd say not necessarily, and I'm extremely grateful to the founders who've taken a chance on me. But it's through these chances that I got to learn many new things.

Since I’m just an intern, and since I’m so young, I don’t apply the same career advice that’s usually given to adults to myself. I’m using this time as more of an exploratory and understanding period. Which means that instead of being hyper skilled at something before I applied, I applied with knowledge that I already had, and tried to learn as much as possible on the job. (I was also partially inspired by Leonardo, who applied to the leader of Milan with a huge list of his skills, most of which he didn’t actually have. He learnt them when they were needed)

For my first internship, I did multiple iOS development courses and practiced Swift during computer science lessons on my own. I learnt python from scratch, and figured out how to make web scrapers. I then learnt some basic NLP to apply heuristics to determine the quality of the text (it was a review aggregation company).

I did several machine learning courses over the summer between grade 10 and 11. Then, for my second internship, at a AI for motor insurance startup, I went deeper into understanding tensorflow, learnt how to properly visualise CNNs, and created end to end transfer learning models.

My rate of learning spiked when I worked at these startups. I doubt I would have learnt as fast or as much if it wasn’t for the pressure of having to deliver. There’s barely any overlap between what I learn in school and the real world (my computer science syllabus states that blu-ray disks are the hot new thing). Now, I know what working for extremely early stage startups is really like.

Be engaged

"What about grades?" you're probably thinking. How could I possibly balance the two? The answer is- I didn't. I was lucky enough to be able to get good grades with minimal work until 10th grade. In my final two years of school, I had a choice. I could put in 100% and get 7s throughout the year (we're graded on a 1-7 scale). Or, I could put in minimal effort when exams weren't on, get borderline 6s/7s, and spend most of my time on interesting things.

And if I wasn’t working on interesting things, I’d be miserable. I’m no old and wise individual, but it seems obvious to me that unless we work on something that’s viscerally important and interesting to us, we won’t be happy. Even if we meditate, or convince ourselves that it’s advantageous, or say we have to do it because it’s our duty.

Which is why I spend my time with startups. Sometimes, it feels like my plate is too full, but I power through. It’s hard, but I enjoy it. And if we’re living life doing things we don’t enjoy, then we better change it ASAP.