Tech Leaders Tell Interns What They Wish They Knew At Age 20

Hundreds of Bay Area interns lined up on Tuesday to hear some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley share what they wished they knew when they were 20 at a recruiting event called Internapalooza.

Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, Eventbrite co-founder Kevin Hartz, early PayPal and Airbnb investor Keith Rabois, Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann, Yelp VP of Engineering Michael Stoppelman and Re/code founder Kara Swisher were among the 11 speakers whose advice ranged from whether or not you should drop out of school to launch a startup to how to network. The event was organized by Cory Levy, who at 19 co-founded One, a mobile app that connects you to others with similar interests.

Levchin shared a story about a PayPal intern who helped develop an anti-theft system called IGOR that saved the company when they were about to go under because they were losing millions of dollars due to high rates of credit card fraud. The intern died soon after due to a diabetes complication, and Levchin said PayPal may not exist today without him.

“If you’re going to be an intern somewhere, you can and you should try to pick a place where you can make an impact there,” Levchin said.

Taking a lighter tone and sealing her place as the favorite speaker of many of the interns I spoke to after the event, Swisher based her advice on five posts you can find on Secret.

“Have fun, home is where the pants aren’t,” she said quoting Secret at the beginning of her presentation. She told the interns who she described as “probably hyper about their careers right now,” to go out and have fun and “never turn down an opportunity to have sex or go on television.”

Levy tells me about 2,000 interns signed up for the free event, and the line winded down the block from Broadway Studios, which had a capacity of about 500. He said no interns were turned away, and they let about 600 in “night club style,” allowing one to leave when one entered.

I’m an intern myself in San Francisco, and this was only my second intern networking event. There’s an immediate awkwardness when you first walk into these events, and at first this one did feel like a crowded night club — with fewer beers and more Yale and Google t-shirts.

It was impossible to navigate the room where recruiters from Eventbrite, Indiegogo and other event sponsors schmoozed with interns and hungry college students lined up for free hot dogs and pasta. At age 20 I was on the older end of the guests — another intern pointed out a boy who was around 15 interning at Google, and a 15-year-old asked a question about a startup he has already launched during the Q&A.

When registering for the event, interns filled out an extensive survey. Only 40 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn’t drop out of school to work on a startup, 40 percent said they would consider it and 20 percent said maybe.

More than half of the interns at the event were CS majors, and about 80 percent studied something engineering related.

About 1/3 of those who registered were female. During a Q&A with the speakers, one young woman stepped up to the mic and asked the panel for any advice they would give a woman looking to break into the industry. Only two of the speakers at the event were female, and Swisher was the only woman on this Q&A panel.

“It’s a sausage fest out there ladies, and not in a good way,” Swisher said.

This became abundantly clear a few minutes later when the panel moved to Michael Callahan, Levy’s co-founder at One, who said evolutionarily, we tend to encourage boys and discourage girls.

“I think all we have to do to change the industry as a whole is to just be sexless, just absolutely ignore the fact that you’re a woman and compete just as hard as the men,” Callahan said.

Swisher was quick to reply, sarcastically apologizing that women couldn’t vote until a century ago, and saying it’s not just “up to the women to lean in or whatever the fuck they’re supposed to do,” calling men to be more aware of the gender disparity. Levchin followed, telling the girls in the audience to “keep kicking ass and focusing on being great.”

Even though I have no plans myself to drop out or launch a startup, it was empowering to hear these industry leaders and know they still got where they are today, despite a few mistakes.