Choosing an Internship? Optimize for Impact.

Written by Alexis Smirnov on Mar 18, 2015

I originally published this essay on Medium and have made slight updates to it here. It was intended as a written version of the talk I gave at the University of Waterloo for students picking a company for their next internship.

Since a lot of what I’m talking about below is personal perspective, here’s some personal background. I’m a software engineer and product designer who loves to build products people want. I started programming when I was 14. I’ll soon be 44. I’ve built 3D rendering software for artists, enterprise data management software, cloud software for organizing personal information, online backup software, a search engine, software to make tech support easier on PCs and mobile devices. I’m now AppHelp’s Chief Evangelist, responsible for building support and excitement for our new products Reveal and SupportKit.

If you’re trying to figure out where to apply for internship and have a meaningful choice, the main question you should be thinking about is, what to optimize for? Is it the size of the company? The programming language they use? How much money the company makes? How quickly it grows? Is it a famous brand?

Optimize internships for impact.

You want to maximize your impact on the business. Why impact, above all? The main reason to get an internship is to learn things that you cannot learn in school—this knowledge is also called “practical experience”. How do you know how much and how well you learned? When you’re in school, the answer is easy — it’s your GPA, the grades you get on tests and exams. In business, things work differently. The true measure of how well you’re doing at work is the impact you have on the business. The bigger and more positive your impact, the better you’re doing.

What kind of a company will let you make the biggest impact? A good rule of thumb is to look at the size of the company. The smaller it is, the more impact you can make. Think of learning to sail — the smaller the sail boat, the more critical your actions become on board. Learning to sail on a ocean liner, no matter how talented your teacher is, won’t get you that practical experience of what it’s like to sail.

AppHelp is pretty close to that ideal size where your actions as an intern have a meaningful impact. It is a great place for individuals who want to make a difference. You’ll see it in the company’s history of pivots and re-inventions.

Started under a different name (Zero-Knowledge Systems) with an idea of selling internet consumer privacy protection; it was like tor, only 20 years ahead of its time. Despite lots of people complaining about lack of privacy on the internet, it turned out no one wanted to pay for it! Unwilling to part with the privacy idea, we built an expert system to help enterprises better adhere to privacy policies. The product’s sales were very slow and we ultimately failed to get traction on the market.

After the internet bubble burst, and no one buying what we had built, it all seemed to be lost. But then, one security engineer’s side project — a firewall software for Windows PCs—sparked interest with customers. We pivoted once again and the company became an internet security provider. This side project turned into a white-label consumer security suite, marketed to ISPs who re-sold it to consumers under their own brand. It went on to become a huge business for the company that is still running to this day. This is of course the story of the impact, the impact one individual and one simple idea had, and the power of a simple idea to turn an entire business around.

And then, after the first massive success, AppHelp did it again. We listened to customers very carefully and understood that the reason they buy security from us is because they want to make it easier to support their customers. We started providing white-label tech support services for consumer technology companies. This business, under the name of Premium Tech Support for Customer Experience remains the key business of the company.

The latest re-invention happened about a year and half ago when we realized that the high-end tech support services will only ever reach a very small portion of consumers. Everyone is frustrated when technology doesn’t work, yet PTS is a service that really helps the 1%. If we could somehow play a role in helping the 99%, we knew we’d unlock a massive opportunity.

The problem was, we had little idea what the market wants were and even less of an idea how to build it.

The one thing we knew for sure is that we can invent.

We bet on innovation across the company. We gave teams time to prototype their wildest ideas. We started running 2-day company-wide Hackathons to work on anything they find interesting. We became much more active in tech and research communities. We threw all we could afford into innovation and learning about customers. We made sure anyone could make an impact on the company.

The bet paid off.

We confirmed our hunch that tech support is an industry facing many challenges when it comes to knowledge retrieval. From the perspective of consumers and support teams, the main problem in tech support is fast access to the right answer. If we were able to link all the disparate pieces of knowledge from the web, knowledge bases, communities etc. into a Knowledge Graph, we’d be well on our way to solve a massive market problem.

We’ve recently launched two products. Both were first born as ideas from members of the team

Reveal is a product for work teams to curate content from the web and across their enterprise (coming soon). It started as an idea one of our engineers had who designed a hack to learn what support agents are googling. We built a browser extension and found out that support teams use the Web much more than anyone realized. Fast-forward a few months, we announced Reveal on stage at a major tech support conference and the product won a prestigious award from the tech support industry. A week later the research behind Reveal was honoured by the Best Paper Award at Canadian AI conference. We couldn’t be more exited.

Another product, SupportKit was also born out of intense experimentation. We saw that people were having a hard time getting help inside mobile apps. We put together a self-sufficient team of about 10 to focus on this problem and let them run like a startup. App developers took notice, started adding SupportKit into their apps and we got to learn more about their needs. Turned out, app makers are seeking a simple way to add a human touch to their apps and have conversations with their users in order to better understand them, help them and ultimately retain them.

What started as simple messaging capability has bloomed into a game changing SDK that makes it easy to have conversations with your users from the comfort of your inbox, CRM or even Slack. SupportKit usage is growing like crazy and that team of 10 is really just getting started.

When you’re looking for your next internship, optimize for impact. Look for a company like AppHelp.