Jan 15, 2018

Interning at a top tech startup: The power of autonomy, working out at lunch, and the millennial mindset.

I spent 4 months this year interning at Spatial.ai, a cutting edge startup out of Cincinnati. It’s the 4th and final internship of my undergraduate career, and after the previous three experiences, I wasn’t sure that I had a ton more to learn (besides technical skills) from another internship.

Yep, I was wrong. Here are a few of the things I learned and thought about at Spatial.ai:

The Power of Autonomy
You’ve probably heard of it’s importance (Dan Pink, anyone?), but how do you know you have it? Earlier this week, I was blocked. I needed a fresh dataset from a teammate, and no other task was as critical as the work I would complete with that data. It was a little disheartening. This was the first time in my entire internship that I felt truly blocked. There were uncontrollable factors delaying that dataset and nothing from my end to be done about it.

To keep my productivity up, I wrote code to clean and prepare the data I knew would be coming. I spent an hour doing this before I stopped short… The script I’d just spent an hour on would likely have taken 15 minutes if I had the data. Not only that, I would likely have to make adjustments when I did get the data. Crap… I’ve been wasting time. It’s 2pm… I’d like to keep getting stuff done for a couple of hours, my mind is still fresh… what now?

Nothing else was as critical as that work. Other work-related tasks didn’t necessarily make sense to fill the time, but there was something else. I’m taking a test in the next couple days to get credit for a college class, and I haven’t started studying. But it’s 2pm and I’m at work…

“So what?” -Quote from an imaginary autonomous being.

I started working on that exam prep. Had an incredibly productive 2 hours. When I finished, I felt free and energized for the next task.

“I’m a productivity FREAK!” -me, slightly overreacting to autonomy.

Here’s the catch: attitudes like this, when taken to an extreme, can be a serious problem. I have to be conscious of that. I have a responsibility to do the work I’m paid for. If I get too comfy with that autonomy, it’s a problem.

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Artist’s rendering of an imaginary autonomous beingBut, when I finally got that dataset, I was itching for it. I put in extra time (time that would have been spent studying) to really knock it out of the park. Why did I do that? It was the gratitude and energy I gained from being able to control my own path, with no fear of rebuke, choosing the most efficient way to get things done.

This autonomy made me a happy employee. But, perhaps more importantly to the startup, it also made me a good employee. And, in a positive cycle, good employees get more autonomy.

The positive effects snowball.

Working Out at Lunch
I’ll let you figure out the connection between working out at lunch and autonomy.
My focus here: after some experimentation, I was able to figure out that my productivity hits its highest when I come in “early” (~8 am), ignore my emails, figure out my number one priority, and get right to work on it. When I feel I need a mental break or a hit the right stopping point, it’s time for a workout, emails, and lunch. The workout renews my mind, like it’s the morning again — Time to reevaluate priorities and crank out another deeply focused session until the end of the day.
Why is this effective? Here’s what I think are the two key components:

Being deliberate: you will be so much more productive when pause to consider what is the most important thing to get done, and immediately work on that. Ask yourself constantly “am I working on something important or am I filling my time with busy work (emails)?”. My favorite quote from Mark Twain:
“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

Being efficient: The most important tasks should be completed when you are in your best mental state. Turns out, for most people that peak time is in the morning. Choosing your number one priority and working on that first ensures you work on right thing at the right time.

This system is what I learned at Spatial while experimenting with the options autonomy gave me. It might not be the best for you. People are different. But consider trying out your own variation of this system. It’s helped me.

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Delicious.

The Millennial Mindset

In writing this post, I was reminded of something I’ve been thinking a bit about lately. I have loved working at Spatial. I mean that; I look forward to work. We’re an office of mostly Millennials that seem to have figured out how to sustain progress and workplace satisfaction.

Why do I keep seeing articles about millennials in workplace (here, here, andhere, for example)? Many would have you believe the entire generation is “Entitled, lazy, narcissistic and addicted to social media”. While generalizing to a large group of people is almost guaranteed to fail when talking about human beings, it’s clear that millennials in the workplace are challenging the way things work and we must ask, why? My partial answer to that question, though unsurprising, is the internet.

The New York Times references managers frustrated with millennials who, “Don’t want to pay their dues with grunt work”. Entitled and lazy? Perhaps. Would you want to do that grunt work, though, given another option with an end reward you value just as highly? We’re in the age of automation after all. Grunt work may refer to boring, uninspired (perhaps unimportant) work, incredibly long workdays that leak into the weekend (Millennials rarely do this without purpose), or even work that could be automated, all of which are often expected at the beginning of careers.

With the internet, any motivated, ambitious person can read any of thousands of bloggers who started their own business or even just took a job where perhaps there wasn’t a “paying your dues with grunt work” period. Asking, “why should I participate?” is not such a huge mental leap. “Why does the system work this way at all?” is not much further. Where can I work to get some autonomy?
I postulate that perhaps this access to “unlimited” information has changed the values of an entire generation.

We could go on and on about millennials and their clashes with the traditional 8–5 environment, but, for this post, I’ll discuss one more example in addition to that of “grunt work” above: millennials are traveling abroad more than any generation. If we choose to look at this negatively, we could point to social media conditioning people to show off their experiences rather than possessions. We could say that Millennials burn out quick and their lack of work ethic leads to more travel than work. But, let’s think more positively.

Maybe, this is millennials using the internet to discover that there is more out there than most people ever realized, and that they can go see those places and people. Sure, they’d rather travel regularly than not. Wouldn’t you? Now, they know that that is possible.

Maybe, massive amounts information processed about other people and the world has taught millennials that experiences are better than possessions and that the world is way bigger than they see in their day to day. Working, which for many, is merely how they are able to sustain their lifestyle, may not be the experience they want dominating (70+ hours a week) their life.

Maybe, this shift in values is something we could call progress, and it’s one step closer to a world where humans care less about physical goods, do not simply accept the status quo, and care more about each other.

When I’m not theorizing and grossly generalizing beliefs about an entire generation, I sing a cappella, listen to Radiolab, and do data science for aSpatial.ai. Check out<a href="http://spatial.ai/" target="_blank"> our website, our<a href="http://spatial.ai/neighborhood-score" target="_blank"> social scores for neighborhoods, our social media based cat chatbot, or connect with me<a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/schroderjohn/" target="_blank"> on LinkedIn.