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Why An MIT Student Chose An Obscure Internship Over Silicon Valley

One MIT undergrad shows us why it’s not about where you go, but what you do with your internship experience.

Why An MIT Student Chose An Obscure Internship Over Silicon Valley
[Skyline of Salt Lake City, UT: spirit of america via Shutterstock]

As the majority of my fellow computer science classmates packed their bags for the yearly exodus from MIT to California this past May, I had a different plan: I was off to Salt Lake City for a summer fellowship with a smart home company called Vivint.

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Trust me, I had doubters. They would say: “Why wouldn’t you work for Facebook or Google? What about Twitter or Apple? They are more established. They are where we MIT students are supposed to go.”

I didn’t want to follow the herd. Not because I’m not interested in the work companies like that are doing, but because I wanted to try something different, and Vivint offered something unique: the opportunity to help shape the next multibillion-dollar industry and the opportunity to define the smart home.

Reflecting on my experience, I am confident I made the right decision. Here are four takeaways from my experience choosing and participating in a unique tech internship.

1. It’s About What You Go To Do, Not Where You Go To Do It

Many students base internship decisions on a target company or city. I found that the more important questions to consider were, “Will I work on projects that I am passionate about and that challenge me?” and “Will I simply be told what to do, or will I be given the flexibility to create my own experience?”

At Vivint, I was able to develop and build prototypes of lighting, locks, and knobs that we actually wired up and tested in the company’s mock home. As a person with an entrepreneurial mind, this setting of innovation was infinitely more satisfying than merely maintaining a website or building another app. By getting out of my software comfort zone I learned that I love hardware.

2. There’s A Difference Between Talking And Doing

There has to be a time when brainstorming ends and executing begins. Over time this continuously came up; the biggest barrier to actually starting to do anything was often fear of failure. It takes courage to change things, to quickly and continuously transition from talking to doing. Without doing, nothing gets accomplished, and without talking, things get done incorrectly. It’s a fine line and you always need to know when it’s time to switch.

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Over the course of the summer I was given access to all the resources I could have possibly needed and was encouraged to turn my ideas into something actionable. My ideas turned into prototypes that were then wrapped into projects the company was actually implementing.

3. Build For Yourself

For those in the tech industry, a simple (although often overlooked) reminder is to build things for yourself. You are the customer as well as the creator. Envision a world you want to live in and build things to make it a reality.

At Vivint, we worked to build the home of the future for ourselves. We were bored with light switches and tired of losing our keys, so we went to work building products that would fix our problems. This permanently changed the way I view innovation. You don’t have to spend copious amounts of time and money trying to guess what consumers want–think about what you want and then work backwards.

4. Begin With The End In Mind

An internship is confined to a short amount of time, usually a mere three months, and there isn’t any time to waste. By formulating my end goals at the beginning, I was able to check in each day and week to make sure I was progressing appropriately. I thought of how I wanted to view this experience looking back five years down the road and scribbled down some goals in a notebook to help guide the journey.

One of my goals was to make a long-term impact on the company, so I decided to start researching a few hours a week on how past innovative technologies crossed the chasm to the general population. I studied psychological theories on what compels people to buy into new technologies and formulated strategies for the company to implement. I made it a goal of mine to pitch my recommendations to upper management, and was I grateful to be given the opportunity to do just that. The managers I spoke with appreciated my ideas and plan to incorporate them into the company’s marketing strategy moving forward. I doubt I would have been able to accomplish this if I had not specified my goals and worked with the end in mind.

As the bright young minds around the country seek internship opportunities, I hope they reject the idea that there is a single, predetermined pathway to success. The tech industry centers on principles of innovation and disruption–perhaps our ideas about what makes a good internship should as well.

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Harry Rein is an undergraduate student at MIT studying computer science and engineering, with plans to pursue a master’s in artificial intelligence.