Saturday, September 7, 2013

RMIT Internship Q & A

I choose this to be the first question to answer because I can tightly relate to it, back when I was preparing for my internship. Unfortunately, with all the small talks and experience I have collected, this is the type of question you have to look inside yourself to find an answer.
An enterprise is an established business. It has a stable business model, long-term business partners and sufficient resources to overcome market glitches. Being able to survive in the ferocious industry is an indicator that an enterprise knows a lot of things and has done a number of things right. Derived from that experience are a number of methodologies, policies and procedures that cover at the very least core-business activities. Joining an enterprise is a secured career option. It is not very likely that the company will be out of business in the matter of months, usually that happens over the course of couple of years. Look at Nokia or BlackBarry for example. You will be benefited from the experience of the company through various forms, e.g. training, documentation and mentorship. Your working environment is likely to be more luxury than that of your startup colleagues (though in Vietnam and over the world, the gap is narrowing down). A standard enterprise would provide you with hardware devices, free lunch, medical care, social insurance coverage, Tet bonus and everything else that is required by the labour law.
However, enterprises are no utopia. Due to its size, an enterprise is structured in ways that make most of its employees replaceable, even at manager level. A set of lego is my favorite metaphor for this. The number of employees in an enterprise might also be an issue. On one hand, your existence will be so insignificant that no one would know if you were eaten by a lion (good-old IBM joke). On the other hand, you might get crushed under peer pressure. Unilever is very notorious for this, every year it recruits hundreds of management trainees and lets them fight till death. Every enterprise would have a handful of long-term partners, which provide a stable source of income. But these long-lasting partnerships are placed on top of legacy systems, developed, who know, 20-30 years ago. For example, Cobol is a very ancient programming language, which was responsible for the infamous Y2K. By the time I took my internship in 2010, CSC was still known for providing technical support to such systems.
Compared to enterprises, startups are on the other extreme. Startups are on hype all over the world. Everyone talks about it. Startups attracts a lot of talents because it gives people a chance to visualize their own universe where imagination is the only limits. For anything you do, there might be a chance that you are the first one ever set out to do it, solving a unique problem for mankind. Oh Jesus Chris, the feeling that you are pushing the edge of the world, that is good. For experienced developers, startups hit a sweet spot when bureaucratic policies are replaced by the freedom to establish new standards. If you noticed, most of the new things in software industry came from startups, e.g Agile for methodology or RoR for development. Last but not least startups have been making countless founders and core-members millionaires. When Instagram was acquired with ONE-BILLION USD, it had around 12 members, effectively everyone of them can have their own yacht and island now.
But startup is a risky path. For every successful startup, 99 others fails. The working environment and benefit package in most of startups are every limited. Many founders and startup employees live on minimum wage or below until the business takes off, or fail miserably. Oh hey, but too much funding in an early stage can kill a startup too (Color of Bill Nguyen, or Skunkworks right in Vietnam are bold examples). Working in a startup is very stressful. It is a common belief that if you are working less than 100h/week, your startup is not going to success and investors won’t be convinced. While it sure feels good pushing the edge of the world, the same situation could be described as crawling in the dark if you failed, lost your direction and had no idea where  you were heading to.
There are pros and cons, and learning opportunities in both enterprises and startups. And always remember that this is just an internship. You can fail, you can make a bad choice and you should. What is the worst thing that can happen? You wasted 4 months of your life in a crappy company. But that experience, either sweet or leaves a bad taste, is priceless. He who never fails never succeeds. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs, 2005.

An offer in a job, not only an internship, is the mutual commitment between employer and employee. By providing benefit packages and working environment stated in the offer, an employer has the right to expect its employee to legally hold responsibility for his work. Being paid in an internship is not only an indicator that you are valuable to your employer but also a call for your professionalism in being responsible for your impact to the organization performance.
In RMIT’s official internship agreement, it is stated that monthly allowance is optional. This is a move of the university to lower the entry barrier for some students who have not yet been excellent in their profession (the word “monthly allowance” itself is also to lower the barrier as it indicates that a legal contract is not required). Based on my pure assumption, students who are concerned about paid/unpaid internship are ones that haven’t got any previous experience in the industry. And by considering unpaid internship, students are trying to reduce the pressure they are about to face during the internship. That seems to be a reasonable option, but if you are serious about your career, I suggest not to. An unpaid position is an open message from the organization that your work, not matter how good or bad, is not going to matter, it doesn’t provide value to the organization, it is junk. You have spent a little fortune for your education, you better work on something matters. And this is kinda just for fun but receiving a paycheck after all of the hard work is part of the internship experience too.
Talking about offer, it is important to acknowledge that salary is a small part of an offer. For an internship, that portion is especially small. Ultimately  what an organization has to provide is its working environment, corporation culture and other experience coming along. A few items to notice when considering offers would include
  • The culture the organization is embracing. Refer to the first question to know which type of company fits your taste.
  • The people you are working with. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do, it is who you do it with. An offer receives its incremental value if it comes from an organization where employees are top-notches in particular fields in the industry. Working with these gurus is an priceless experience (which might not always be positive, I know a handful of gurus who are truly sore losers). And the fact that they are gathering is one place is kinda an indicator on its own already.
  • The type of projects you are going to work with. Is that some kind of project that you can freely write about in your school report or is it something you have to sign Non Disclosure Agreement (whether or not you pass the “course” depends on the quality of your reports, it is an important piece)? Is that the type of project you want to work on in the next few years? How do those projects align with your personal development?
  • What are the growth opportunities the company provides? Do them align with your goals in the next few years?
  • And finally salary, aka monthly allowance. As stated earlier, I suggest taking a paid internship rather than an unpaid one. The salary should be sufficient for you to live on it independently. Given the current state of the market, a salary of $300-700 is considered well-paid. You can refer to this survey to get a sense of what is going on in the industry.
    • Don’t jump into the conclusion that a salary is low or high with just the number. As an intern, there is a chance that you won’t be productive in the first few months (read, your entire internship) and that your salary together with other benefits you are receiving are nothing but cost to the company. Investing in an intern is usually a long-term investment, and no fool places all eggs in one basket. Carefully consider what you are receiving in big picture, not just a paycheck.
    • Many companies pay its interns the same amount as entry-level employee. It might mean that the company has a deep pocket. But it is more likely that the company doesn’t provide any special training/treatment to interns and technically you *are* a normal employee under the eyes of your direct boss (monetary award is mutually commitment between two parties, remember?). This does not necessarily mean good or bad, just something as a green horn you should look out for.

Hard work and a lot of luck.
Firstly you should know that you are competing with a lot of native students whose education is tailored for the need of the local market. If your language is not fluent, your CV is not shiny, you have little to no working experience and all you have is a cold contact, your chance to win this competition is extremely slim. The interview processes of different companies are quite identical and if you have been attending WPP workshop, you should know about the art of answering interview questions better that I do now :) So in this answer, I will only focus on the parts before the interview.
Spend time on it, decently. There is no place for luck in this competition. It is not luck that brings you a reference to an overseas internship, it is years of hard work for a nice transcript and reputation among fellow students. It is not luck that your CV passes the screening step, a decent and well-written CV does. And little can luck help to boost your English for an interview, on phone. Furthermore the whole visa a truly a pain in butt. Internship visa is especially troublesome. In many countries, the only visa types that are available are Resident, Work and Visitor visa. Work visa are for professional only and there is a quota on how many expats a company can employ. Visitor visa usually lasts for only 1 month for Vietnamese citizen and visa bearer can’t be employed (legally). Due to its nature, this is something you need to discuss and coordinate closely with your employer. It can easily eat up 2 months of your time, and if it mixes up with exam period, ain’t gonna be nice.
Choose a company. All companies expect long-term value  from investments they make. A fact you should know is that in RMIT Melbourne, there are many Vietnamese students who can’t find an internship over there and have to reluctantly travel back to Vietnam for an employment opportunity. The reason is that companies are concerned about the work permit for the student once his/her education in Australia is over. Compared to native students who speak a faultless language and have no problem with visa, investing in a Vietnamese student is too risky. Same logic applies when you are seeking for an internship overseas.
However, there are two types of companies where being a Vietnamese engineer is an advantage. Firstly, those are companies looking at Vietnam as a potential business partner. The purposes can be various, ranging from extending market to talent acquisition. These companies are in great need to understand about from multiple aspects and a Vietnamese employee is an useful resource. The second type are young (relatively) technology giants, like Google, Facebook or Twitter. These companies succeeded in the new waves of technology and greatly appreciate the power of diversity. They are always try to balance the demographics of employees. When you look into companies of this type, the company size matters. Acquiring visa that permits work in most countries is are troublesome and time consuming process. Unless the company is big enough to have its own legal department, most will pass the burden.
Get a reference. From my experience in recruitment, most companies value hiring opportunities coming from its internal network, aka word-of-mouth reference. So once you have a good idea which company you want to apply to, you need to approach the company from different direction, and as soon as possible. You can approach the company HR’s via social network such as LinkedIn. If your LinkedIn profile is attractive, you will receive many offers, good and bad ones. This might not be common in Vietnam (yet), but quite popular in neighbor countries, like Singapore. Even more effective, you approach the company’s employee through open source project. I really love this approach because not only you gain a valuable internal reference, your application profile can also be pre-filtered. Similarly approach the group of Vietnamese people working in the company :) . Lastly approach the company through developer group, competition and event held by the company. There is actually one last approach which is to become excellent in the field the company is starving for talents, but that is quite hard for students so I don’t really want to stress on.
I assume I should talk about closing an offer as well. But wait, if you are a bright student, you have been studying hard and now you are getting an overseas internship, it is no time for QnA, it is time for party \m/ So perhaps another time, or you can always email me :)