I was taken completely by surprise: “No,” I answered, “I’m actually not planning on doing an internship this summer.”

When an HLT employee reached out to ask if I already had a summer internship, I was flattered; however, I just didn’t think I was ready for that sort of gig quite yet. I wanted to use the summer to hone my skills and work on my side projects. And besides, I still had my internet business to tend to and a ton of freelance work to finish. So, that’s what I told him.

Looking back now, I can’t help but to laugh.

Little did I know, the moment that question was asked of me would mark the beginning of one of the most enlightening, enriching, and enjoyable experiences of my entire life. It marked the beginning of my journey as a Higher Learning Technologies software intern.

Part Zero: journey.init();

I originally met Evan Lehrman at a scholarship event at Babson College. I was an incoming freshman passionate about the intersection between education technology and technology entrepreneurship, and he had temporarily dropped out of school to work for an Iowa-based edtech company called Higher Learning Technologies.

We reconnected online after the event and stayed in touch, but I never expected him to reach out about applying for a summer internship at HLT.

I had a whole list of reservations: I didn’t have any formal computer science training, I had zero experience working for someone else, and what about my internet business and freelance projects?

It seemed highly infeasible for a first-year business school student on the east coast to fly halfway across the country to work as a software developer in Iowa for the summer.

Come on, I chided myself, this is completely ridiculous.

But when I looked at the awe-inspiring work HLT was doing, I knew this was an opportunity worth fighting for.

Every day, there were students around the world using HLT’s beautifully-designed websites and mobile apps to help them reach their dreams. Every day, there was a team of brilliant and hard-working developers building those websites and mobile apps. How amazing would it be to be a part of that team?

I still didn’t think I was good enough, but I decided to throw my hat in the ring and let the HLTeam be the judge of that – and thank goodness I did.

After an online application, a fit interview, and a set of interviews with developers, PMs, and management, I received an offer and a phone call from HLT’s CEO. (Yes, the CEO individually called each of the interns to welcome us to the team. That’s just the kind of company HLT is.)

So just like that, it was decided: I, Jared Silver, an east coast business school student in his first summer of college, would fly out to Iowa to work as a software developer for ten weeks at one of the world’s top mobile education technology companies. Woah.

Part One: assertEqual(preparation, key)

Even after making it through the application process, I was sure I was going to get to Iowa only to discover that I wasn’t actually capable of providing any value to the company.

Who hired this guy, an imaginary manager questioned in my head pretty much every day leading up to the internship, and is there anything preventing us from firing him early?

Based on the quality of HLT’s products, I knew I was going to be working with some of the highest-caliber developers around. And I didn’t want to let that opportunity go to waste.

Luckily, HLT provided us with a list of resources to better familiarize ourselves with the languages and platforms we would be using during the internship.

So, for the last two weeks before the internship started, I was behind my computer screen day and night, soaking up as much information as possible about Rails, Java, and Swift. I didn’t know what expectations HLT had of my skills, but I knew I didn’t want to let them – and, perhaps even more importantly, all of the learners who rely on their products – down.

— Jared Silver (@JaredSilver) May 14, 2016

I went so far as to cancel some of my freelance projects and even sell off the pieces of my internet business so I could focus my entire self on being the best I possibly could at serving the learners who rely on HLT’s products.

And before I knew it, it was time. A couple car rides, a couple plane rides, and about a thousand miles later, I was ready for the Summer 2016 Higher Learning Technologies software internship to begin.

Part Two: self.impostor == true

I don’t speak much as it is, but few things leave me completely speechless. HLT’s intern workstation setup was one of those things.

Dual monitors, 16gb RAM Mac minis, gaming headsets, webcams, and more. And, of course, what workstation would be complete without a healthy heaping of company swag to top it all off?

I was in heaven. But the work didn’t start quite yet. First, it was time for onboarding.

We piled into one of HLT’s conference rooms, and there we heard from the CEO, the COO, and the Director of Talent Management.

The excitement in the air was palpable as they began to outline their vision for the future of the company – and how we would have the opportunity to contribute to it.

Then, it was time for goal setting. What is the one big thing you want to take away from this experience? What is the thing that – if you accomplish it – would make you consider this experience a success?

Obviously I wanted to improve myself technically and professionally. This was my first time working on an actual development team in an actual company for an actual salary. But there was something more valuable I felt I could get out of this experience. And that was related to the feeling that I wasn’t good enough.

When I explained that my main goal was to overcome that feeling of not being good enough, that unproductive, nagging voice in the back of my head questioning my right to be sitting in that room, I was met with vigorous head nods.

Impostor syndrome is something that impacts so many people, and it hits especially hard for software developers who see the fruits of others’ labor but not the pain and struggle it took to get there.

When you’re on your fifth hour of trying to get that pesky integration test to pass and you see the guy next to you open two pull requests and a bug story in that same amount of time, it’s easy to feel discouraged. What you didn’t see, however, is the previous day when he or she was doing the very same thing you’re doing now – and thinking the exact same thing about you.

My main goal for my time at HLT wasn’t to become a better programmer or to impress management. My goal was to prove to myself that I could do this, impostor syndrome be damned.

And, as it turns out, HLT was the perfect environment for just that sort of personal growth.

Part Three: System.out.println(‘code’);

The internship began with a four-week survey period.

We had a week for Rails, Android, iOS, and Rails API. Each week, a developer from the team in question served as a mentor to introduce us to the HLT code base, workflow, and best practices.

These were incredibly talented, senior-level developers who we were being paid to have the opportunity to learn from. Let that sink in for a second.

People spend tens of thousands of dollars to go to expensive colleges and rarely get any exposure to what it actually means to work as a developer in the real world. Here, we were being paid to learn from professional developers who had years of experience and expertise.

During code reviews, we would be receiving individual, personalized feedback about how to improve from people who have been working in the field for years.

My mind was blown on a daily basis as I considered how incredible of an opportunity this truly was and how lucky I was to be there.

But, for all the learning and growth I experienced thanks to these guys from a technical perspective, there was something that really stood out to me from a non-technical perspective too. For all the years of experience they had, and for all of the amazing things they’d built, and for all the remarkable expertise they exhibited; they too sometimes experienced impostor syndrome.

I learned that it’s just a natural part of being a software developer, especially when you’re working at a company growing as rapidly as Higher Learning Technologies. You face new problems every day that you may have never experienced before, and you just have to figure it out and keep moving forward. The important thing is to not psych yourself out.

Toward the end of the survey period, we started working on actual stories to experience the development workflow before being assigned to one of the teams in week five.

As unsure of myself as I was, I started gaining some momentum – and, with that momentum, confidence – to the point I actually finished a bug story and pushed my fix into production.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life as I came to the realization that hey, maybe I actually can do this, and they even let me ring the company gong to commemorate the occasion.


Part Four: self.impostor == false

Having my code merged into production was an amazing feeling. But, it was only one little bug story. It was mostly front-end, and that doesn’t really count, right? More work was necessary before I’d be able to convince myself this was something I was truly capable of.

Soon, the survey period was over, and now it was time to join one of the teams. I was fortunate to join the Rails team (given my passion for web over iOS and Android), and before long I was working through bug and feature stories, making what felt like significant contributions to the web app.

But, as often happens with software development, there were also times when I really struggled. And this is where the magic of the Higher Learning Technologies team really came in.

The culture of the HLTeam was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Aside from how much fun everyone was and how good everyone was at their jobs, what really blew me away was just how much everyone cared about bettering themselves and those around them.

The office reverberated with talk about how each of us could become healthier, happier, and closer to achieving our goals. There’s a lot of talk these days about having a growth mindset, and it’s truly remarkable what happens when you’re surrounded every day by people who view challenges simply as opportunities to grow.

There was one point when I broke production for a few minutes, and instead of getting mad about it, my product manager (who was also my mentor) called me over and gave me a high five. “Congrats on breaking production,” he said half-jokingly, “You’re a real developer now.”

Granted, “breaking production” in this case was just the logout function not working for a few minutes, but it’s that mindset of “You broke it. You fixed it. You learned from it. And that’s a good thing.” that really stood out to me.

There was one week in particular when I found myself feeling especially frustrated at my productivity (or lack thereof). I was new to writing automated tests, and trying to wrap my head around the database schema and fixtures we were using in our automated test suite was not going well.

Long story short, I had multiple people reach out to me to help. Our developer mentor carved out some time to talk it over with me. Our Director of Talent sent me a nice note reaffirming the idea that struggling means you’re growing. Even the other interns working on the web team had a little pow-wow about the issue.

That was one of my main takeaways from the culture at HLT (and one of the best things about working there): it’s a place you can feel safe stretching yourself because you know your teammates will be there to support you every step of the way – especially if things don’t go to plan.

As time went on, I grew to conquer my automated testing demons, and I actually felt pretty confident about it by the end of the internship. That was also the case with a lot of the other stuff we were working on. With time and practice, I grew more skilled and more confident about what I was doing, and that would not have happened if not for the HLTeam’s support and mentorship throughout the summer.

Part Five: [‘work’, ‘play’].each do |x| puts(“#{x} hard”) end

It wasn’t all work all the time at HLT.

In fact, one of the major factors that helped me get past my impostor syndrome was all of the fun stuff the HLTeam did.

When I was having fun with others at the company, I wasn’t stressing about my work or worrying about whether I was good enough. And that really helped me loosen up and be more productive.

The week I described earlier when I was feeling especially down about my performance, for instance, happened to be the same week when Cindy (the CMO) threw a party to celebrate hitting the target numbers for the quarter. That break from thinking about work was exactly what I needed to relax and recalibrate.

Other fun company happenings included a weekly “brunch bunch” lunch outing every Friday, monthly team dinners, and daily team trips to the building’s Flavia-brand coffee machine (affectionately nicknamed “The Flav”).

At one point, Jordan from QA and I accidentally incited an office-wide nerf war. It wasn’t a particularly fair fight given that my back was to the door (making me a super easy target), but it was a lot of fun.

Pokemon GO was also a smash hit when it came out. The interns would have frequent outings into Iowa City to catch Pokemon, and immediately after work each day we’d drive around to see if we could find anything rare.

The intern room had a Nintendo64 with Super Smash Bros, as well as a basketball shootout game like you’d find in an arcade. We kept track of who had the highest score throughout the summer.

I’m probably leaving some stuff out, but hopefully it’s pretty clear from these examples that life at HLT wasn’t just about shaping the future of education or radically improving ourselves, but also about having fun along the way.

Part Six: Internship.first.finished == true

There were so many more incredible components to my Higher Learning Technologies internship experience, and there’s no way I can possibly recount all of them in a single blog post. So, here’s a quick summary of a few other highlights:

  • ToddTalks: a weekly seminar series by Todd (an HLT legend) about leadership, strategy, self-improvement, and more. I learned so much from Todd’s discussions over the course of the internship – more, even, than what I’ve learned in some school classes.
  • Book Club: HLT has a company Audible account with a ridiculous number of amazing books. A huge proportion of my downtime during the internship was spent listening to them, and two of them were for the monthly HLT book club discussion.
  • Business Sessions: To provide the interns some context about the business, different departments delivered presentations about their functional roles. This was tremendously beneficial as we got a far better understanding of the ‘why’ behind the code we were writing.

All-in-all, my internship at Higher Learning Technologies was one of the best experiences of my life, and I will be forever grateful for how much the team there helped me to learn and grow.

I went from being the tech kid at a business school to the business school kid at a tech business, and the HLTeam’s support and mentorship helped me get past my fear of not being good enough.

I’m still far from being a professional developer, but thanks to HLT I’m definitely less of an amateur.

The friendships and experiences from this summer are things I will cherish forever, and I cannot thank Higher Learning Technologies enough for everything they did to create such an incredible experience.

Oh, and by the way… did I mention they’re hiring? 😉

Posted by Jen Johnson

Jen is HLT's Director of Talent and supports all things people and culture -- how we hire, who we hire, what happens with and for exceptional talent once we get them on our team and ensuring HLT is an exceptional place to work.

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