Flipping Your Internship

by Connor Mitchell | Nov 21, 2017

The lead-up feels like the month before Christmas. Just like those neighbors who put up their lights at the first sign of snow, I remember updating my resumé with my impressive new title and important responsibilities immediately after receiving my offer letter.

On my first day, I jumped out of bed and rushed to get dressed with as much excited haste as on Christmas morning. My shoes were polished, my shirt and pants were ironed, and my hair was sufficiently slicked. I slipped into my carefully-hung clothes and raced to the metro with exactly 30 minutes to spare.

The “gifts” were better than I had imagined. The projects, colleagues, and even commute had a luster that my idyllic campus could only aspire to. As a college student, this was the experience I had suffered for. Finally, all those stress-filled nights and low-budget meals started to feel worthwhile. I got the external validation my vulnerable career aspirations needed and started feeling more confident as a result.

My enthusiasm for my first summer internship at an energy analytics startup in Los Angeles, after attending the University of Southern California for a year, may have been higher than average, but it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. I remember conversations with three close friends a year later, all of whom were as excited as I had been about their upcoming internships. With confidence, pride, and adventure-induced haze in their eyebrows es, all three couldn’t wait to get started.

None finished.

They all had valid reasons for leaving. Two decided to start a company together, which is healthy and growing today, and the third wasn’t learning what she thought she would from her summer employer. Still, I was flummoxed by the gaping divide between how they approached their internships and the fact that they ended them early. What was missing from those experiences?

The surprising answer is … nothing. At least, nothing that they could see when they took the offers. In all three cases, everything they were most excited about in their respective internships was there — everything but the truly important stuff.

I did manage to finish my four-month internship with Clean Energy Associates (CEA) in Shanghai, which has since evolved into an ongoing part time role that allows me to continue my work from Korea. CEA is a quality assurance (QA) provider for global clean energy projects, which essentially means they audit Chinese solar module factories for a wide array of Western clients. When CEA started in 2008, Andy Klump (the current CEO) had to wear most of the hats, directing and executing on every aspect of the business. Eventually the company reached a critical mass that mandated delegation and system creation. Now nine years old, CEA is in the middle of a fascinating stage in its business lifecycle during which the solar industry is maturing, competition is increasing, and operational efficiency is the new top priority. Given the dynamic nature of the industry and clean energy in general, I knew that joining this company meant I’d be in for a wild ride. Some might consider it a leap of faith to jump into such an unstable environment, but it felt relatively tame compared to my decision to transfer to Minerva in the first place.

My experience at CEA wasn’t easy, but that was the whole point. My time with the firm turned out to be exactly what I needed, while also being the opposite of what I thought I wanted. 50–60-hour work weeks, a bottomless pile of projects and tasks, and ubiquitous language barriers aren’t the most appealing menu items to an internship-hungry college student. After adding in the ingredients of poor project visibility, little pay, and unsatisfied skill requirements, the recipe didn’t look great. If I hadn’t been on the hunt for a flipped internship like this one, I probably would have declined the offer for what turned out to be an amazing growth experience.

All I really had going into my first day at CEA was some previous industry experience, an eagerness to learn, and a year of Minerva under my belt.

In 104 days, I built a new business intelligence service line that contributes additional value to CEA’s clients, by benchmarking factory and supplier risk in China. Additionally, I undertook a couple of side projects. One involved improving the efficiency of the CEO’s office by developing new email management processes and training executive assistants. The other involved a thorough restructuring of the global sales team’s Salesforce database and customer relationship management (CRM) system.

I’d played around with Tableau, a data visualization tool, for a couple of academic assignments, but CEA is a Microsoft-dependent organization and I needed to learn Power BI to create the product they needed. I’d worked under the supervision of a startup founder/CEO, but CEA needed me to support their CEO’s initiatives, while simultaneously training his executive assistants (on systems that I also needed to design). I’d learned to run a marketing CRM before, but CEA used Salesforce for data management and lead tracking, which was an entirely new use case to understand.

How did I get from my extremely limited technical and managerial background to executing projects with immediate significant and measurable impact? By giving a nod to the stoics and choosing to embrace the uncomfortable.

I was under-\qualified for these projects, yet was able to scope-out and execute all three. Unlike the morning of my first internship, all I really had going into my first day at CEA was some previous industry experience, an eagerness to learn, and a year of Minerva under my belt. Perhaps surprisingly, they were all I needed. The industry experience was primarily derived from a policy-related consulting project and student sales initiative, both of which contributed to my understanding of common obstacles to solar adoption. My eagerness to learn, which was a critical component of my resilience and adaptability, stemmed from my passion for the magic of alternative energy.

However, as important as those character traits were, my first year at Minerva proved to be the most crucial to my success.

Though Foundation Year at Minerva didn’t appear to teach me the data science, leadership, or operations skills I ended up needing, these skills turned out to be only a couple of HC applications away. For the uninitiated, Minerva’s Foundation Year is structured around imparting broadly applicable Habits of Mind and Foundational Concepts. Every first-year student takes the same four courses, which cover almost every introductory course topic at traditional universities. For example, in a single course, we jumped from the scientific method to climate change to the big bang — all in one semester. Sure, we sacrifice some depth, but the point isn’t to emerge from these courses with specialized knowledge in a particular field. Instead, the breadth is a tool for training our minds to transfer HCs from one topic to another and understand them better as a result.

At CEA, this “far transfer” of HCs occurred for me almost unconsciously. I applied HCs learned in the Formal Analyses course to the development of CEA’s Supplier Benchmarking Program (the aforementioned business intelligence platform), which CEA is now selling to major investors in the solar industry to inform their decision-making. Without my academic experience using Tableau to construct quality data visualizations and Python to calculate descriptive statistics on a dataset, learning and applying Power BI and DAX to evaluate and present supplier risk would have been out of the question. As it was, I was able to learn to use these tools relatively quickly, and with some guidance from George and Paul (two of my mentors at CEA), apply them to the problem to produce quality visualizations. They left me with nuggets of wisdom including “make every visual a story,” “the important points should pop,” and “the most effective graphs go up and to the right.”

I didn’t choose Minerva for its HCs, but they’re quickly enabling the development of practical skills I could not thrive without.

Improving the CEO’s office efficiency was essentially like resolving a “catch-22” situation. Both the CEO and his executive assistants needed to create standard operating procedures (SOPs) to save time on certain tasks, but had no time to create them. Since every hour spent on SOP creation meant an hour less spent on high-priority task completion, they were stuck. And while I could create the SOPs for them, providing the training and oversight necessary to enforce them wasn’t within my authority. By applying lead principles from the Complex Systems course, I was able to manage up and down, navigating complicated power dynamics between an intern and CEO, while also establishing clear team roles among the executive assistants to prevent duplicate work.

Restructuring the global sales team’s Salesforce database of leads, contacts, opportunities, clients, and projects was a massive undertaking. In an effort to understand the problems, and work toward a solution that met the needs of the global team, I applied HCs from Multimodal Communications. I considered the audience of sales people and the organizational principles that would most appeal to them in the restructured format. It took me months of design thinking work, involving iterable feedback to finally get it right, but now each datapoint has its place and the automation I built is humming along. If I had the project to do over again, I would make sure to hold design-reviews with the larger CEA community instead of just the sales team, as a diversity of opinions would have broadened its accessibility beyond sales personnel. Additionally, I would have also been intentionally open-minded toward other CRM and database options, as Salesforce may not have been the optimal fit to CEA’s needs given its size and cost.

I didn’t choose Minerva for its HCs, but they’re quickly enabling the development of practical skills I could not thrive without. As much as I love the Minerva community and the inspiring cities we live in, without this academic model, neither of those would exist. For this reason and others, I have a feeling I’ll end up being impacted by my academic experience the most.

The best gifts are rarely the ones we expect. Our favorites may not be shiny, expensive, or easily recognizable, but we come to love them all the same. My most treasured gift is the 21 years of Christmas mornings spent with my family, cuddling around the fire, and enjoying a few moments of calm presence before the chaos of unwrapping ensued.

This will be my first year without receiving that cherished gift, and thinking about its absence ties knots in my throat. Why did I choose to leave them so soon? I didn’t have to intern in China for the summer; I didn’t even want to. Why did I choose to transfer schools? I love my family more than anything, yet I chose a university that takes me oceans away from them.

And then I remember.

I remember the challenging and rewarding projects.

I remember the laowai (“foreigner”) bond with my coworkers.

I remember the juicy pork dumplings on my morning bike rides to work.

I remember the inspiring class sessions that seem to only become more frequent.

I remember the adventure of getting lost in a foreign city with Minerva friends.

I remember the vulnerability of my supper club and the imaginary gifts we gave each other.

It’s the stories that surround a gift, internship, or school that make it great, and the best stories aren’t written by our expectations.

My mother cries as she tells me she misses me. My father longs to join me on my adventures. My sisters share their admiration, just as I look up to their grown-up selves. They all want me to come home.

But as tough as it is, I always manage to say no. I intend to continue my flipped life at this flipped university, because that’s the greatest gift I can give them. When I finally return home, they’ll be getting the gift they wanted, but it will be different from what they expect: a flipped me.

If you were inspired by Conor’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.