One of the hottest tech industries in recent years is also one of the oldest. The automotive industry helped completely transform American society by the mid-20th century.
The cultural and societal impacts of the automobile, in particular, were particularly driven by advancing auto technology in the 20th century—namely, more fuel efficient engines and cheaper components. Yet until a few years ago, the car itself had not seen truly evolutionary advancements for decades. That is, until a few select Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs began to apply their technologies and visions to the industry.
Perhaps no company has had a greater influence on the automotive industry in recent years than Tesla, the electric car company founded by the billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Tesla is quickly becoming synonymous with “electric car” and, not too far off now, autonomous self-driving vehicles. Elon Musk’s CEO star power and the company’s penchant for inventing products you never knew you always wanted makes it a hot destination for some of the most talented engineers in the industry, which is no wonder why internships at the company are among the most coveted in Silicon Valley.
So just what is an internship like at one of the top companies redefining the automobile for the 21st century? We spoke with Eddie Wattanachai Lin, who interned with the company for four months when he was 20 years old.
On His Internship Role At Tesla
I worked with mechanical and electrical engineers as well as data scientists and computer programmers in the service engineering department. I focused specifically on technical documentation and diagnosis of issues with Model S components. I also worked on the product development of internal widgets.
On How He Found Out About The Tesla Internship
I was recruited from my university’s FSAE team, Triton Racing on campus. A hiring manager was looking to fill positions late summer to fall, and my team sent out a resume packet. From there I was selected for an interview.
To be honest, prior to getting an interview, I was planning on attending medical school. I never thought I’d be working in automotive engineering, despite loving cars since I was 4.
On The Interview Process With Tesla
I had three rounds of interviews. The first interview was an HR phone screen and the last two interviews were technical. While they were phone interviews, the interviewers had some of my past work with them, which they really dove into. The interview itself closely followed the philosophy and ambitions of the company. By asking questions at all levels of a technical problem, you really can identify the people who are working on problems and those that are problem adjacent.
It was all a bit nerve wrecking in the half hour leading up to the interview, but I had already prepared everything I possibly could. It took me over 15 hours to prepare for the interview, and by that time, I had no idea what else to prepare. After getting into my past work and projects, I really settled in and clicked with all three of my interviewers.
On The Qualities That Helped Him Score A Tesla Internship
Above all else, I really think I demonstrated tenacity. The FSAE competition is one of the most rigorous, demanding collegiate competitions in the world. My experience on the team was filled with stories where despite the odds being stacked against us, we persevered. In addition to that, I had a wild experience working in a biofuel startup my freshman year. Somewhere between setting up and running my own lab, product development with extremely hazardous materials, and learning to drive a forklift, my interviewers were convinced I would go the extra mile.
Beyond that, I think some combination of humor and audacity is important.
On the Average Workday Of A Tesla Intern
My workdays centered around a few projects within the team as well as day-to-day issues. I only spent somewhere around 10% of my time in meetings, and the rest working with full-time staff on day-to-day issues. Like a lot of other interns at companies in the Bay Area, I was never treated “like an intern.” The quality of my work was expected to be indiscernible from that of full-time staff.
I also played a fair bit of ping-pong, drank a lot of chai, and ate a ton of Costco breakfast sausages. I must have eaten close to 15-25 sausages a day, coupled with a half-hour of caffeinated ping-pong while I was there.
On Some Of His Best Experiences As A Tesla Intern
I remember distinctly my first day, a full-time software engineer asked me to finish coding something that was to be pushed out in a firmware update later in the day. He rattled off a few instructions, told me to be careful not to ruin all the cars, and promptly ran off to a meeting. Needless to say, I was terrified.
Moreover, the people I met while at Tesla turned out to be intelligent, charming, and altruistic. They’re people I still consider very good friends to this day. I distinctly remember a few of the trips we made together, including road trips to L.A. and beyond. As it turns out, some of the brightest people I met there were also the most humble. If you’ve never seen a clever engineer make a self-deprecating joke, you’re in for a treat.
On Whether Tesla Could Improve Its Internship Experience
The experience was pretty much complete. It would have been nice if Elon addressed the interns in the speaker series, but I can imagine he had bigger fish to fry. If I’m honest, I do wish I got a chance to drive a Model S. It’s important to know how your product functions. I was told there was an “incident” immediately before I got there, which is why driving was on a need-to-drive basis, something that may have changed since I was there.
On The Lasting Benefits Of A Tesla Internship
Tesla has always been a scrappy company (making cars is quite expensive). I was happy with my compensation, but I wasn’t getting rich by any means. Anyway, money has never been a strong motivator for me.
Besides that, I think the experience really showed me that the world is as broad as you make it. Tesla is an amazing company in my eyes, but it was started and brought to where it is today by people with flaws and strengths, just like anyone else.
On What Others Could Do To Land An Internship At Tesla
- Build race cars
- Build race cars
- Build race cars
Just kidding. Honestly, there are a ton of different ways to get there, but here are a few tips.
- Your formal education is NOT enough. You’ll need to have pursued outside projects of some sort, or have significant work experience. It also doesn’t matter where you went to school.
- Prepare like crazy for the interview. You have the power of Google at your disposal. You should know the ins and outs of the team, the company, the position, your interviewers, and commonly asked interview questions/challenges.
- Understand what you’re signing up for. Elon calls those working at Tesla the “special ops” of the industry. You’re expected to do more with less every single day, and while that sounds sexy, it’s not for everyone.