Tech Visionaries Share Their Best Career Advice With Interns

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“Someone in this room, I am very confident is going to found a multi-billion dollar company and change the world in a big way, and 90 percent of the people in this room will end up with a career they somewhat regret and will wish that they had gone in a different way.” – Sam Altman

Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, was the final speaker of the evening at Internapalooza, and despite the fact that the high-energy group of a couple thousand Silicon Valley interns had been sitting through nearly two hours of speakers, they were listening on bated breath. The intern event, held at Parc 55 in San Francisco, had attracted representatives from some of the biggest names in the industry: Apple, Airbnb, Palantir, Andreesen Horowitz and dozens of others. It also hosted a group of speakers, consisting of billionaires, founders, CEOs and venture capitalists, that imparted their wisdom to the next generation of Silicon Valley leaders that were in attendance.

Advice ranged from the cliché to the profound, but all of the interns I spoke with said that they were walking away from the conference with unique advice that they hoped they could follow.

Here are some of the highlights from the night’s most inspiring speakers.

Mike Curtis – VP of Engineering at Airbnb

“Don’t be afraid to do a little bit of shit work.”
Curtis talked about his first internship at a startup in high school where in order to get the boss to hire him, he had to split his time between building products and answering phones as the office receptionist. That startup would later go on to be acquired by AltaVista.

“If you’re not looking for the times that you’re lucky you might miss it.”
Once the startup he was working at had been acquired, Curtis said he had a choice – was he going to think about how this acquisition had complicated his life plan or was he going to move out West and go for it? Curtis made the trip because he realized how lucky he was.

“Make sure your company is working as hard for you as you are for it.”
Callahan talked about how leaving his stale job as VP of Engineering at Yahoo and his “corner cubicle” to become an engineering manager at Facebook surrounded by recent graduates was “one of the best career decisions” he ever made.

“Shed your ego and open yourself up to learning.”
Leaving a high profile job at a big company for a smaller, bolder career can be a tough decision to make, but Curtis said that “shedding his ego” and “rebuilding it” at a different company was an essential lesson.

Michael Callahan – CEO of After School

“College doesn’t prepare you very well for the current tech industry.”
Callahan focused his presentation on debunking the “shit no one tells you.” Chief of which was his belief that teachers that are imparting “principles of cutting edge high tech thought from 1985” may not be preparing students very well for careers in Silicon Valley.

“The number one thing for you to get out of college is confidence.”
Callahan detailed that while the audience would eventually forget the concepts, professors and courses that they took in undergrad, they would gain the self-confidence to tackle major problems.

 

“Identify a person that you want to meet, then become friends with their friends.”
Networking isn’t always easy, but if you’re willing to be assertive and strategic in identifying the contacts you want to make, persistence can pay off Callahan said.

“The first thing you have to do is move to California.”
Callahan said that making the move from Chicago to Silicon Valley was one of the most critical moves he ever made, and that for young people thinking about heading to the West coast, it was really something that they just had to go for.

“There’s a huge demand out here for mobile developers, especially mobile developers.”
In one of the more specified pieces of advice, Callahan urged attendees looking for something new to discover to go “learn iOS,” because companies “are killing each other to try and get mobile developers.”

“Risk is proportional with reward.”
While getting a job at a huge company with high security can be great Callahan said, “You probably aren’t going to become a billionaire.” Meanwhile, “Startups are high risk, but they are also high potential.”

Ashutosh Garg – CTO of BloomReach

“When you come to the Bay Area, you understand how small the world is.”
To Garg, the idea of being connected to people through six degrees is no longer accurate as social media and connective technologies have taken off. Garg theorized that, especially in the valley, people were most likely connected by three degrees or less.

Regardless of whether you like the work or not, you should get the offer.
Garg told the crowd of interns that “giving 100 percent” wasn’t just a cliché and that they should be putting their full effort into getting job offers from their internships even if they had already decided it wasn’t what they wanted to do.

Indy Guha – Partner at Bain Capital Ventures

“Don’t be the guy or girl who’s always blaming someone else.”
Taking ownership of your successes, failures and obstacles can make the difference in being successful Guha said. He went on and told the crowd that it’s especially critical for younger interns not to turn their age into an excuse.

 

“Always look for roles where you are surrounded by the kinds of people that will guide you.”
Mentorship was a pretty frequent trend in the advice given throughout the night. Guha specified that not only was it important to find key individuals to rally behind but to also “become part of important tribes.”

Isaac Larian – Founder/CEO of MGA Entertainment

If you want to succeed and be an entrepreneur, embrace failure. If you’re too weak in the heart, don’t be an entrepreneur, work for someone.”
Larian founded one of the world’s largest toy companies after moving to the United States with just a few dollars to his name. He told the crowd that venturing out on their own was one of the scariest things they could do in their career and that it really wasn’t for everyone.

“Tell yourself, ‘I am going to become the best,’ and then the money will follow.”
Larian urged the crowd of prospective Silicon Valley leaders not to let money be their sole motivation, and instead focus on being truly exceptional in whatever they do.

Jen Dulski – Founder/COO of Change.org

It’s not actually about what you’re passionate for, it’s about what you’re good at.”
There’s no substitute for lifelong drive and talent. Dulski said that, in her experience, “it’s the kids with the lemonade stands” that went on to be “the greatest sales people.”

“Do not take a job that’s going to be easy. Purpose is a perk.”
Founding Change.org was never the easy choice for Dulski, who spent nearly ten years working at Yahoo before deciding to make the move. Dulski said young people should always be wary of making what they saw as the easy choice.

 

“The things that get you to the table are ideas, you don’t need to wait for an invitation.”
Dulski said she understand how tough it can be for young people to assert themselves in their first few jobs, but in startups especially she acknowledged the importance of interns expressing and sharing their ideas for the company.

Sam Altman – President of Y Combinator

Getting your trajectory right early is really important.”
Altman talked about how “even the littlest career decision,” made in a person’s early twenties can compound and really shape that person’s career significantly.

There’s a time after being a student when you go from being a net consumer of wealth to a net producer of wealth.”
Altman warned the crowd of the tendency to follow the safe track that takes you from prestigious institution to prestigious institution, and that at some point if you want to be truly successful you need to make your own way.

You only have to be right once, but you have to be really right that time.”
A lot of people feel like they have to follow the first path they gain experience in, Altman said, but the key to wild success is trying out a lot of things to see what feels the most right. Altman expanded that younger entrepreneurs have the benefit of being able to be risky and hone in on what exactly it is that they’re great at.

 

Judging by the length of applause (and the amount of interns racing to get selfies with the speakers), it was pretty clear that Internapalooza had captured the attention of its thousands of attendees.

A clear sentiment from the crowd was excitement for their futures following their internships, but the night’s speakers also left them with a lot of questions. Brandon White, an extremely tall intern from Lyft (who was introduced to me as the “best seven foot software engineer in the world”) was struck by the successes of the night’s speakers and wondered how the crowd would be able to implement their advice.

“Interns here really have the potential to be great,” White said. “But my question is, how can we be greater than the last generation and how can we surpass them?”

White seemed to believe that learning from the missteps of the previous generations and building off their successes was key, but that it was also important for them to never be afraid to branch out and try something completely new that bucked the wisdom of the past completely.