This summer is the first summer I am participating in an internship. It’s already exposed me to a lot, some of which doesn’t even have to do with the actual work I am doing.
Nervous and excited on the first day, I expected many things. What I did not expect was to be treated, so suddenly, like an adult.
That might sound strange to you, but what I mean is different from being respected intellectually like an adult–that, while not a given, is at least common enough. I hoped my intellect and my abilities would be respected as an adult’s–that is, that I would be trusted to work at least a little independently and without meaningless restrictions.
But what occurred was much more than that.
I am the youngest intern at our office–the other two have both already graduated from college. There is one employee who also only graduated about a year ago. Not only am I the youngest person, I am also technically still a teenager–all this made me feel a bit vulnerable as I discovered all that the first day. But on the contrary, everyone spoke to me the same way they spoke to their colleagues, discussing anecdotes of their families, children, or personal lives. It’s hard to express in words, but there is also a certain invisible gravity surrounding the way people treat you–a kind of feeling you get from talking to them when you know, without either of you actually saying anything, they see you as a peer, view as more junior, look up to you, or any other sort of subtle relationship like that. It’s most obvious at the extremes–even with the exact same sentence, someone can be either very condescending or praise you highly depending on that ‘gravity’, using soft factors like tone of voice and body language.
But it doesn’t always have to be that extreme. I get the sense that people here do see me as more junior, but that’s of course mutual (i.e., I also see them as more senior). I definitely look up to all the developers I’ve worked with who have helped me in countless ways, one of whom even took the time to basically give me an hour lecture on how typical corporate databases store information, simply because he wished to fully answer a question I had. This is a very healthy way, I feel, of being treated with clearly lower experience, but still being respected. What surprised me was actually the magnitude of that respect–I didn’t really expect to lightly socialize or even work with people the same way their own colleagues did, and so far, that is what has happened. I have felt junior in experience, but not junior as a person.
It’s odd to feel suddenly placed in the world of adults. I am to see people much older and more experienced than I am as peers on some level, which feels a bit strange. I guess, for most of my life, age groups have been very definitive. 8th graders don’t hang out with 5th graders, freshmen in high school aren’t friends with too many seniors. But, growing older, it seems like age cohorts get less and less important. This is obvious when simply writing it, but at least for me, it’s quite another thing to suddenly live it.
Maybe it’s just because I’m obsessed with reflecting on life, but it kept striking me how, just a year ago, ‘adulthood’ seemed so much farther away, as though it were a tangible checkpoint that came with a house in the suburbs, 2.7 children and a white picket fence.**
In actuality, the lines are much more blurred. I’ve met people younger than me who seem to have ‘old souls’, as the saying goes, and people older than me who are still just kids, really. These can both be positive or negative impressions, and different in different areas of life. To be positive, everything has to be kept in a certain balance. I wish to conduct myself in a mature manner at my workplace, for example, but in general, I hope I can maintain that particular brand of childish, authentic excitement for everything. I wish to be knowledgable enough to teach, console, or advise other people, but still be humble enough to readily learn from anyone.
Concerning the actual work I’ve been doing, it’s been fantastic! I am finally coding real things for real people–so real, in fact, that they live right in my neighborhood. What I produce will not directly affect them, but it will help work on my company’s project as a whole, which does in fact affect almost everyone living in Colorado in some way.*
Being able to finally work in a business environment has allowed me to evaluate the effectiveness of my education. I can tell you that so far, the age-old adage touted by many bitter students and pessimistic people is very not true–it is not true that you don’t use what you learn in school. You do.
Okay, that should probably come with a caveat–maybe you’re not going to use all the geometry and algebra you learned directly (and you’ll never encounter that weird lattice multiplication thing they teach fourth graders ever again) but I already feel that purely the diversity of the subjects we are all required to take was useful, no matter what the actual material was. School made me solve many different problems in many different ways, and this is really what trains you for “the real world”. There is always something new to learn, to adjust to, to overcome. I feel like I directly applied some of my strategies for studying and problem solving in my first project, which was to start building a small internal application. I had to identify exactly what the problem was, and figure out what I didn’t know and needed to learn. In fact, I approached the first part of the task kind of haphazardly, and predictably, it took longer. But the second part I approached much like I approached studying or homework problems–writing down unknowns, possibilities, flaws, pros and cons. I used the notes I made to do some reading and research before immediately working. I was able to arrive at a path to at least one solution much, much faster this way. I even used the same trusty set of colorful pens and lined notebook that I use for school. Lastly, I typed up a detailed report in a ‘readme’ file of the program before I sent it to my supervisor, both to explain what I did to him and recap what I did myself.
Maybe these particular habits will disappear over time, but it’s been working so far. Again, it’s the skill of problem solving that really matters, and being forced to become familiar with so many different subjects and disciplines in general education hopes to throw every possible sort of problem at you. Pursuing the simple ideal of being a good student forced me to think about problems at many different angles, to know not to lie to myself when I just didn’t know something, and, most importantly, to know how to fail. Perhaps even more importantly, I always found something genuinely interesting or enjoyable about every subject; otherwise, I couldn’t stay motivated.
So now, work has been really fun! (Almost as fun as school.)
* Some of you are probably wondering exactly what my internship is. I work at CGI, an IT consulting company, which primarily works on government contracted projects. The project I’m working on is the Colorado health insurance exchange. This was actually put into place directly because of the Affordable Care Act. Because of the tax changes surrounding the policy, it really does affect everyone in Colorado, although I don’t have to deal with that part too much. But it still affects many other people who previously did not have insurance, or who want to purchase government subsidized health insurance. I was actually really excited when I learned what I was working on, because in high school I studied a lot about the implications of the affordable care act and universal health care in other countries. It’s a fascinating problem, and it involves a lot of different parts–one of which is the tech side of things, which I never expected to be so involved in. It’s been really cool to get the direct perspective of managers and developers on the unique issues they had to deal with in this project. It even created a whole new side of the insurance industry, actually, allowing “startup” sorts of health insurance companies, something which was a lot harder to do before.
It’s also been under a lot of controversy, but I think, from my perspective, the hope is that with better technological solutions, we can refine and perfect this system. Regardless of people’s political opinions on the matter, we hope that we can make the system be as efficient and effective as we possibly can now that it is already in place.
My job exactly is to help with some of the internal tasks, so I code a few small scripts here and there to automate some processes or make them go faster. It’s exciting to be even minimally involved in something that so directly affects people, and to work on things people will actually use!
**Actually, this number is now 2.01 average number of children per American family, according to the CIA World Factbook and as of 2014. The country with the highest average is Niger, at 6.89, and the lowest is Singapore, at 0.8. (I was curious so I looked it up)