Reflections on an Internship

If you have ever played Call of Duty with a bunch of dudes, you’ll know that it’s no fun being the weakest player. At best, you will be politely asked to relinquish the controller. At worst, you will quickly find yourself sporting an invisible Cone of Shame—in addition to being asked to relinquish the controller. So you can imagine my silent dread when a bunch of dudes at Arc90 recruited me to play on the company Xbox. Not only was I way out of practice, these guys were stressed from a long week of work, and potentially… dangerous. Nevertheless, I agreed. And I went on to play the worst game of my life. But to my surprise, this bunch of dudes actually kept me playing, round after round.

Tolerance despite lack of skill is almost unheard of, not just in team-based console games but in nearly all aspects of life. Starting from that first gym class—in which the smallest kid was picked last—social cues throughout our lives reinforce the idea that only the good ones get to be in the game. So we go for those advanced degrees, honing our skills in a safe environment in order to be good enough to play.

But time and again, personal experience has taught me that one of the best ways to learn is to just start running around on the playing field. In other words, to learn on the job. It’s true that this can be stressful and scary. You can feel like you are surviving each day by just a hair. But it is a whole lot less scary when the team you work with encourages you to keep playing, no matter what your skill level. In fact, there seems to be a cherished tradition at Arc90 of everyone chipping in to evolve visual designers into badass designer-developer hybrids.

One of the first things I learned about Arc90 was how supportive the environment here is for on-the-job learning. Don’t know how version control works? Ask Stefan. Never heard of a Javascript closure? Get Tyler to help. Need an introduction to HTTP headers? Tom will literally stay until 8 PM to make sure you know everything there is to know about them, and then some. Despite tight release deadlines, everyone gives their time to help each other.

I experienced this kind of generosity first-hand this summer. Embarking on a Design Internship in June, I expected to Design stuff: comps, wireframes, icons and the like. Those I can (and did) do, but my team then handed me a task that required lots of front-end programming: to build an idea submission bookmarklet for one of Arc’s main products, Kindling.

Admittedly, I was worried at first. Visions of internship horrors danced through my head. What if I hit a wall? What if I ask dumb questions? Can I even bother these smart, busy people with the amount of dumb questions required for me to build this thing? Needless to say, the fears went unfounded. What actually transpired was that, with the tireless mentorship of Team Arc, I actually implemented a working software component and, in the process, picked up Javascript in less than 3 months.

So, how does one come by a team that is so open to letting everyone play? Start by hiring really friendly people who are insatiably curious about their trade: these are the people who will never stop learning, improving, and helping others do the same. Dedicate company time for the free exchange of ideas, techniques and feedback: Arc90 holds regular Design and Code Reviews where all are invited to swap critiques on each other’s work in a laid-back, informal setting. But most important of all, create an environment that responds to lack of knowledge with encouragement rather than disdain. Places where judgement is held in check, where the “show me what you’ve got” attitude is nonexistent, are the best places for learning. And of course, it’s helpful to have a culture of mutual trust and good humor.

For all the tech companies out there, here is something to consider: perhaps more important than workforce conversion and ROI is how your team supports learning within itself. After all, the only constant in technology is change. Because of this, creating a good team is not just about hiring people with all the right skills already under their belt, as the need for those skills may change. That’s a starting place, but afterwards, it’s all about crafting a team culture that supports letting one another play—no matter what their skill set and experience level—and tossing out those Cones of Shame.

“Tina possesses that which makes a great designer: a fervent desire to learn all that she can, combined with the skill to put it to use.” —Joseph Lifrieri, Designer