CONTACT: David F. Salisbury, News Service (650) 725-1944;
Engineering interns chronicle their experiences at high-tech startups
I get hit with a wall from the moment I walk in. Pete needs an FM broadcast board to play with and I don't really have a board that has FM working. Elaine needs more corrections to the board markups I gave her. Tracy is asking me for corrections to the bill of materials as she is compiling a new one. Jacob needs some data sheets. And I arrived late, so I think it was safe to say that I was missed.
Benjamin Jun, a master's student in electrical engineering, knows firsthand what it's like for new engineers who join the exciting and frenetic world of high-tech startups.
Jun spent the summer of 1996 as an intern at Ideo Inc. of Palo Alto through a program sponsored by Stanford's Technology Ventures Co-op (TVC) program. The pilot program is designed to teach entrepreneurship to engineers through classroom study and internships with some of Silicon Valley's hottest new companies. TVC is part of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in the School of Engineering.
As part of their experience, Jun and fellow interns recorded their experiences in diaries that now are being analyzed by Keith W. Rollag, a graduate student in industrial engineering and engineering management, under the supervision of TVC director Tom Byers, consulting professor of IEEM, and Stephen Barley, professor of IEEM.
Rollag says the diaries represent one of the few sources of information about what it is like for new engineers who go to work in high-tech startups. The goal of his research is to find ways to help new engineers succeed in these entrepreneurial environments.
In response to growing public interest in entrepreneurism some are even calling the '90s the age of entrepreneurism the IEEE Spectrum, a trade magazine for electrical engineers, is running an extensive article in its November issue about five of the students' experiences, along with excerpts from their diaries.
"Journal studies like this get at people's immediate reactions to things, reactions to organizational life that tend to get lost over time, and therefore don't show up in standard surveys and interviews," Rollag said.
Today I realized that I had been accepted as a member of the NeoMagic family. While I was talking to Benny, Louis walked by and said, "Hey, what's up?" to me. Then I talked to Chuck briefly in passing. . . . When Bob came into the cafeteria as I was getting water, he commented that he hadn't seen me in a while and asked me how things were going. Just things like that somehow made me feel like I was really part of the group and not just some temporary person. Every summer, I always feel like a temporary part of the department I'm in, but this is different."
Many of the TVC interns reported that they felt that over the course of the summer they had become a member of the team, rather than remaining visitors. That feeling is crucial to making the internships with small, startup companies different from summer jobs at large established companies, Rollag said.
In large companies, the internship programs tend to be partly recruiting and public relations. Generally, the organization gives its interns non-critical projects. Students receive a valuable learning experience, but nothing like being entrusted with a project that is critical to the company's survival, which is the case in startups where virtually every job is vitally important. "It's a much different feeling and, believe me, the students know the difference," Rollag said.
At 5 we met. Andy [Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. and Granite Systems] was running around getting binders of transparencies from different people. He was very excited to talk to us and said we should have done this before. He would start talking about the business model and then go off on a tangent and never return to the same subject. He was getting everyone's transparencies all out of order and throwing them around the table as he looked for the right thing. He was aware of when we had to stop and kept checking his watch, but Chris and I encouraged him to just keep talking.
The leaders of startups tend to share more information about the company's vision and strategies with the entire staff, which also helps the student to feel a part of the company. In fast-growing startups, new people arrive weekly. Helping to orient and train new employees quickly gives interns the sense of a being company veterans.
"By the end of the summer, the students report feeling that they were part of the startup culture, not just an intern," Rollag said. The strength of the bond that forms is indicated by the fact that more than half of the students have stayed on with the company where they interned in one capacity or another.
Interning in the hectic world of the startup also has its disadvantages. For example, things can get so busy that the mentoring arrangements set up as part of the program can fall by the wayside, particularly if the student is not proactive and persistent, Rollag said.
"New people are very reluctant to ask questions. They seem to feel that their time is not as valuable as that of more experienced workers," Rollag said. "As a result, they can spend a lot of time trying to figure something out themselves, things which would have taken a fraction of the time if they simply asked someone else. When they do ask questions, they usually find that other people are eager to help them. A major regret that most interns expressed is that they didn't ask enough questions from the very beginning."
The diaries illustrate the importance of people skills in this specialized work environment, something that engineering schools do a relatively poor job of teaching, Rollag said. Yet these same skills can have a major impact on how well a new engineer does on his or her first job, and studies have shown that this early experience has a major influence on an engineer's success throughout his or her entire career.
I met with Karen Coates at 10 a.m. just to chat. Karen has been very busy so we haven't really had much one-on-one time since I got here. I e-mailed her last week to see if we could meet sometime and talk. So we talked for almost an hour about all sorts of stuff. . . . She said that the philosophy of the company is to make it a great place to work; therefore people should be able to balance their lives. . . . She also talked about how she, Jerry and David (engineers responsible for the early architectural design of the company's base station products) try to manage the engineering issues. Jerry and David are polar opposites of each other, but that's a positive thing since it gives the company more ideas to work with. . . . I thought this was a really good talk. Karen really listens to people and makes people comfortable. She genuinely enjoys what she does and that affects other people. Overall, I feel that the company is run by good people who understand and respect others. That gives me some confidence in their success.
The diaries, which Rollag describes as extremely candid, are "definitely a gold mine of information about what a new engineer experiences when going to work for a startup." It is a source that he will be mining for the next few years.
By David F. Salisbury