Hack Your Summer

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Editor’s note: DJ Patil is VP of Product at RelateIQ and previously helped start the internship program at LinkedIn. 

Summer is just around the corner, and if you’re in college, chances are either you’ve already got your internship lined up or you’re racing to get an internship lined up. What happens if you can’t get one?

Maybe it’s because you just can’t find one that is a great fit (check out Julie’s and my advice on internships for both the student and the company). Or maybe your skills are sharp enough to make the cut, or you’re trying to get into a new area. Maybe you’re geographically constrained. There are lots of good reasons internships fall through or just don’t work out, but there’s no excuse to let the summer slide by in frustration.

Take, for example, this weekend. I was looking at resumes from a wicked sharp physics major and a up-and-coming CS major, both of whom were trying to get into big name tech companies’ internship programs with no luck. It looks like the top tech firms aren’t going to give them one of their highly sought-after slots despite their obvious brains and talent. This disappointing outlook reminded me of a conversation with Dale Stephen about his book Hacking Your Education and the importance of taking control of your education (we both had a rough time fitting in the traditional education system). It got me thinking—if you can hack high school and college, why not hack your summer?

If you can’t get an internship or lab position that you love, screw it. Make your own internship up. How? My advice is to go to every single hackathon you can. Granted, you’re not going to get paid, but it’s a whole lot better than sitting your summer out while the rest of your peers are acquiring new skills.

Think hackathons are just for code? Think again. There are ones for designers, data scientists (one of my favorites are the Data Dives by DataKind), etc. They can focus around social good (like the one we did for Crisis Text Line), be civic-oriented (I like the Code For America ones), or just plain fun like the ones we hosted last year at Greylock. You can even ask about attending hackathons hosted by the company that might have rejected you (a great way to prove what you’ve got). Want to make it a competition or can’t be there in person? Take on pros at Kaggle, TopCoder, or HackerOne where you can make some money, too.

The whole point is that with the options out there, you can be in control of your destiny by just doing a few searches and showing up. Here’s my recommendation to being efficient at hacking your summer:

1. Always strive to learn something new. It’s your summer and your goal should be to maximize your learning. Try different languages. Awesome at web? Try your hand a mobile development (Android vs. iOS). If you walk away and you didn’t learn anything, ask yourself  why. Do a post-mortem and course correct for your next experience.

2. Make sure to ask for help and feedback. Hackathons are short, and your time is valuable. By asking for help you’ll make friends faster and you’ll often get a nugget of wisdom from a battle-scarred veteran. Think you’re going to turn the idea into a big business? Ask the judges what would prevent it from becoming a real solution. Most of the time, the judges come from a background where they can tell you about issues you might not be able to see until you’ve invested too much time on the idea.

3. Always work on a team. It’s the best way to start your professional network. You’ll learn more as a group, too. Hackathons are hard work and you’ll want the team to help carry you through. In a real company you’ll almost always be working on the team, so this is a great way to learn that aspect of your professional life. And who knows, one of them might be hiring.

4. Experiment with different roles. Maybe your Javascript sucks. Great! Dive in. Never tried to be a designer? Here’s your shot. In most internships box you in. In a hackathon, you can be who ever you want for the next 24 hours.

5. Meet the sponsors and the judges. They’re there for a reason. They want to see cool stuff being made and they love to hear ideas. Often, they’re prominent people, so it’s a great networking opportunity. When I attend a hackathon, I’m always on the lookout for the jewel in the rough.

6. Have fun! It’s so easy to forget, but remember that it’s your summer and you have every right to enjoy every moment of it.

Have other ideas on how to hack summer? I’d love to hear them.

Image by Flickr user DigitalRalph under a CC BY 2.0 license.