A few weeks ago, I received an offer to work on GCP's Docker and Kubernetes team for the summer. For those unfamiliar with Docker, it's a lightweight, open-source virtualization technology for distributed applications that was released less than two years ago and has seen a massive adoption rate among companies, both small and large, that are looking to scale their applications and contribute back to the project. Although the core Docker team is approximately 70 developers, the Github project has over 700 contributors and has become one of the site's most starred repositories. Kubernetes is understandably less known due to its targeted focus towards portfolio companies, but the product was recently announced last summer as Google’s distributed cluster management solution for Docker containers.
On the same day, I received an offer from the HackNY Fellows program, which I had previously turned down due to a commitment with Amazon. I spent two short days considering my options, and on the morning of December 18, I sent my acceptance email to a little virtual mailbox in NYC.
Along with my decision to turn down Google's offer, I lost the opportunity to work at Mountain View's Googleplex office: a glorified playground for adults that boasts free bikes, buses, massages, swimming pools, dance classes, nap pods, cruise parties, open kitchens, gourmet cafeterias, and on-demand cars and shuttles.
Several people have asked me about my decision to turn down Google. To many students, interning at Google is their highest achievement — an opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology at one of the most recognized companies in the world. The Googleplex is well-advertised as one of the premier workplaces for new graduates, topping dozens of Top 10 lists every year with an exhaustive list of eccentric perks and bonuses dedicated to maintaining a young and vibrant culture.
An opportunity to learn modern methods of containerization and distributed management, all in a highly motivating environment using a fresh, specialized concurrency language (golang), is something that many students dream of, and when the offer dropped, I was the same as any of my peers. I thought of the boost it would be to my resume; I thought of working on the technology that would run and manage Google's server fleet in the near future; and I thought of having two feet firmly planted in the doors of many recruiters in an industry where being a Googler is a badge of honor.
I was close to turning down the HackNY community, again, for a line on my resume and a cross off my bucket list.
When I stepped back and looked at my academic path, however, I asked myself why I had set my course on a "Big 4" job. I wondered why I wanted to spend my last academic summer working at Mountain View, when I had so little exposure to the NY scene and had already gotten an eye towards working there after graduation; and I wondered why I was fixated on interning at Google, when I had already gotten a taste of the large company lifestyle, and had so little experience on the other side of the coin.
After reflecting on my decision for several weeks, I noticed an emerging pattern in how I valued my offers at Google and HackNY. In evaluating Google, I focused entirely on their working value — the technology I got to work on, and the name recognition of Google and Docker that would inevitably lead to more willing employers in the future. In evaluating HackNY, I barely grazed the topic of work at all; I knew that no startup technology could interest me more than Docker, and so I looked past the lack of technical intrigue to find something wholly more valuable: a foreign, bootstrapped work culture, a lively community and nightlife, and ~35 wonderful students crammed into one NYU Palladium dorm.
Who wouldn't want to live next to Trader Joe's?
In the end, I entered a much deeper introspection than I anticipated on my 2-day decision to turn down Google, and I've attempted to break it down for everyone's sanity.
When speaking with a host at any potential employer, I'm always curious to know what types of projects I may be assigned to work on, and how the team approaches the integration of interns into their development environment. Having loosely followed Docker’s development pipeline, I knew that its infancy left a large number of features and issues that needed to be completed, and that the product was still in a state of constant flux.
Through my conversations with a host on the GCP team, I learned that the project I would be working on would likely not involve cluster-level logic, ruling out any possible interaction with the Kubernetes and cAdvisor projects. In further discussion, I learned that my project would also be unlikely to involve development on any core features of Docker, but would rather deal with monitoring.
Although I was truly excited about working with the underlying components composing and surrounding Docker, I was partially disappointed by the limited scope of the project, especially having spent my last summer at AWS integrating a new technology into the RDS backend, as well as designing and implementing the infrastructure for a new database and deletion flow that would be expanded to cover all sensitive RDS data.
There are no promises on the project that I will be working on in New York. At the same time, startups have developed a reputation for giving their interns more impacting work and for casting a wider net on the contributions that they make, and I was willing to take that opportunity.
Although projects are a large part of your internship, let’s be real: technologies change. From company to company, the technology stack and development environment will differ, and new employees will have to spend weeks learning the organization and functionality of their team’s code base. Although learning how components work and interact is vital to understanding the system and developing on it, the knowledge is often not directly applicable at other companies.
In my experiences working on distributed servers through RDS and DynamoDB, I've found less value in the implementation of their systems, and much more value in the developmental process: understanding the methodologies of collaborative system design and team interaction, evaluating the technical and consumer tradeoffs of implementing features with PMs, and finding the balance between leadership and apprenticeship within the bureaucratic structure of a large, multibillion dollar company.
Though differences in culture are sure to exist between companies, and even between teams within a company, I suspected that the development process and work environment would feel familiar at Google or any other large company. Startups, on the other hand, generally have smaller teams and shorter organizational structures, thereby fostering a much more personal and energetic working culture.
On the other side of the work-life spectrum, I found my time in Seattle to be generally underwhelming. Outside of work, I found a feeling of semi-isolation. In a city that closed its shops at 7, there was little incentive for me to go beyond the formula of work, dinner, and sleep, and though I made wonderful friends and had many weekend excursions, the fact was that I felt isolated for well over half the week, every week, for three months. Combined with the general sterility of the RDS office and the workaholic nature of many interns on weekdays, the days quickly devolved into mind-numbing office work and little activity afterwards. I would shut myself down mentally after work, and would likely have gone mad if I hadn't resolved myself to practicing new hobbies every night.
In making my decision, I was worried that this mundane pattern of isolation and workday mentality would follow at any traditional internship that offered a job and a sparse calendar of intern events. This was compounded by the Mountain View location, which teeters dangerously close to being a suburb and is at least an hour away from San Francisco by car.
The project content for next summer was largely irrelevant in my decision, and even the work culture was limited in its effects — I turned down Google because I was interested in learning the who's and hows of the technical scene, not the whats, and HackNY's process of matching companies after offer acceptance was indicative, at least in part, of the program's focus.
Although HackNY is, at its core, a program to match students with able startups, it serves as a much more complete residency program dedicated to fostering relationships between ambitious students, who aren't looking to join Google as developers, but to lead their own projects as creators. Moreover, it serves as a gateway into a tech scene that has risen organically and adapted to the cluttered, high-tempo nature of its surroundings, where small companies occupy smaller spaces and interact intimately with each other through close proximity and ease of transportation.
HackNY is fundamentally different from what I had experienced at Amazon, and it offers much more beyond the traditional large-scale industrial internship, including a speaker series with some of the most well-known founders and engineers in the industry. It's a program dedicated to fostering a startup education and mentality; to helping local startups improve their product and guiding new ones to rise from the hands of the students themselves; and to life experiences, entrepreneurship, marketing and business strategy, and everything a new startup needs to survive in a seemingly bloated industry.
It's also a program that encourages its students to be an active member of the tech community outside of their daily job, whether that means attending hackathons, mentoring others, presenting at technical meetups, or otherwise evangelizing the idea of being a developer for the community. It's a third layer that exists between the two extremes of work life and social events — one where the community comes together to share their love of technology with others.
Location often shouldn't take precedence over the work you do, especially for an internship, but NYC has built a close, up-and-coming startup community with a unique energy and evangelism about it. As a New York native who's had little interaction with this tech scene, I'm overdue for a lengthy return.
There's a good chance that I'm crazy, illogical, or disillusioned; that I made the "wrong" choice. But I don't believe in wrong choices; I believe in choices you regret. I wanted to learn, not relive, and this was my last chance to do so before graduation.
The longer I'm away from New York, the more I realize how much I need it. To me, everything fell into place to turn down Google's offer and come back home.