Three Lessons From a Summer Internship

September 21, 2015 Colin Palmquist

LinkedIn Photo

In B2B circles, we all read highly topical blog posts written by subject matter experts to learn more about an issue or solution. This isn’t going to be one of those posts. That’s because I just completed a summer internship at Silicon Valley high-tech company LeanData. But what I can offer you instead are three career lessons, from an unjaded point of view, that I learned on the job at a fast-paced start-up. This might just jog your memory about what it was like back on your first job and learning how to work the printer.

1. Owning your projects is integral to performance.
This lesson actually came into focus for me while clocking in at a weekend job long before working at LeanData. Every Saturday at the mall, my coworkers and I sold sunglasses in between sharing stories about what we did on Friday night and trying on the merchandise ourselves. Most of the time we hit our sales goal. But in truth, we mostly just hung out. By my second weekend, I had realized that at this job our priority wasn’t selling. It was simply getting through the day.

Now, fast-forward to LeanData. I would walk into an office every Monday morning where the job came first. People talked about business over lunch. They worked on the train home. The co-workers here treated their jobs differently because they were invested in their work. I saw them finishing projects as efficiently as they could, and tackling problems in creative ways. It was an environment that encouraged me to take responsibility for my own projects. And when I did that, I found that I earned my Chief Marketing Officer’s trust.

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Colin Palmquist and his Pi Kappa Alpha brothers

It took the juxtaposition of these two very different summer jobs to teach me the value of owning one’s work. It frees you to perform. It also allows your manager to accomplish more of his or her goals because less time is spent overseeing your work. There is another bonus, too. As a Psychology major, I can tell you that taking ownership of your work has the added benefit of making you like your job more. Because you invest more effort, you’ll ascribe more value to your work. There will be a greater feeling of accomplishment. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more you care, the better your effort.

2. The quickest way to learn is to fail faster and learn from those around you.
The professional background I saw at LeanData when talking to the other employees impressed me. Would you have predicted that a former reporter can sometimes give the best sales pitch at a company because in that profession they’re great at understanding stories? This happened during one of our internal sales contests at LeanData. Working with such a diverse gang of techies this summer also taught me a second lesson. For someone like me who needed to learn quickly, speaking to those around you is one of the quickest ways to learn. I found that asking my co-workers about their employment histories was a great chance for them to brag on themselves, for me to learn, and for both of us to build a stronger work relationship. (And for all of us to try new lunch spots).

The other way I learned was by failing faster. In a world of business deadlines, I found that this is a highly valued tactic. Taking a first-crack at a project – even before you think you’re ready – accelerates your learning curve and provides first-hand insight not available in literature. And there usually isn’t a perfectly mapped out solution anyway – because if there were one, you wouldn’t be assigned to create it. If you spend all your time researching a possible answer, but never implement it, you may end up with a theoretical understanding of a problem and still have no results. But make an educated attempt quickly, and no one will ever fault your work ethic and hustle. By creating the process of dry-runs, getting feedback and then making second attempts at my assignments, I found that it built projects that both educated me and delivered results for LeanData simultaneously. And you can always refine the perfect solution later, especially if the project is an internal one.

3. Temporary companies design products, lasting companies solve human problems and enable industries.
Railroad conglomerates, Nokia cellphones, and record stores are three business models or products that used to exist. The problems they solved are still around, but the companies that wedded themselves to these products rather than solving underlying problems are not. If you can’t see where I’m going yet, read “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. This was one of my earliest, and most formative, assigned readings at LeanData. And it taught me one lesson that helped me with everything from giving better presentations to evaluating business models. Whether looking for an internship for yourself or selling a product for your business, you must constantly think about what the company you’re talking to empowers its customers to do. If they focus on their product, it’s not a great sales pitch. But if they show why a problem is important and how they solve it before getting into technical specifics, then you’ve found a winner.

As summer drifted into fall, and it was time for me to return to college, I discovered something else. My LeanData co-workers treated me as a true colleague, and not “just” as an intern. I would like to think that I had earned my place.

So, to any professionals still reading this far: Please share this post with your interns. They might appreciate the friendly advice from someone who learned so much on the job this summer.

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