150 Hour Experience: Internship at Amazon

My experience was a summer internship at Amazon. I’m not sure how to describe what the company does at this point, because well, it does anything and everything. I was on the consumer side of things (generally the company is split between AWS and CDO, CDO standing for consumer, devices, and other). My team oversaw Seller Central, the website sellers go to post and manage the items they are selling on Amazon.com.

My role was a software development engineer internship, and I was responsible for executing a software project that catered towards the user’s use-cases and considered the broader team’s context. I was responsible for participating in team meetings such as standup, sprint planning, and also went to weekly meetings about operational excellence.

At Amazon, I was given a broad problem statement, but was given a lot of autonomy to innovate and find the best solution. My project was to lessen the burden of our team by enabling other teams to easily mock up and visualize how their information would look displayed on Seller Central. I was the owner of my project, which meant that I was fully in charge of the design, implementation, documentation, and overall execution of my project (with oversight). This gave me a lot of room to innovate, and I took advantage of the self service culture within the company by exploring various technologies, and ideas. I chose to use some of the cutting edge technologies within the company that were brand new, and not particularly well documented because I loved to see what boundaries these tools could push and how they could benefit my project in practice.

I chose this experience because previously I had interned at a tiny startup, and I wanted to see how innovation could still be possible in a giant company. I expected to encounter bureaucracy everywhere hindering innovation, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was rarely the case. Change is embraced at Amazon, unlike my friends who work at some other big companies where I hear “that’s how it’s always been done” is used as a regular excuse to not try new things. While I did find it a bit cult-like how into the leadership principles a few people were, they have 16 principles governing their work, and they are readily prevalent in the culture at the company. As it relates to I&E, I think having a bias for action was absolutely the most important leadership principle. During my internship, I found that waiting around for others to get back to me about how to do things was not usually effective. It took a while because their work life didn’t revolve around me, and sometimes in the meantime I found a better solution than what my team was used to doing and I could bring that back to them.

I also had to cater my design towards the customers of my project (in this case internal teams) and was encouraged every step of the way to think about the business side of my project as well as the technical side, considering use cases and implementation cost. I discussed with program managers as well as software experts about the user’s wants and needs and the pros/cons of various implementation strategies.

Overall, I was very glad I could experience the innovative culture at Amazon. It was far from the bureaucratic nightmare I thought working at a big company would be, and for better or for worse, their growth is absolutely staggering, probably due to the entrepreneurial and scrappy culture.

My learning objectives for this experience as it relates to I&E was to discover how innovation can exist at a big company compared to the tiny startup I had interned at for my 300 hour experience. I can safely say I achieved that by witnessing the vast amount of cutting edge projects, ventures, and more than Amazon is launching. For this company, it isn’t enough to just be at the top, it’s critically important to continue to expand and introduce new ideas to the market, and it shows in the company culture (on the corporate side, at least).

This experience relates to my pathway, technology and design, in that the role itself was completely centered on software. I saw first hand how the business side of software projects influenced decisions and market forces drove innovation within software. I had many insightful discussions with my manager about the business side of the role as well as discussions with some PMs. Through my coursework in I&E 352, we discussed a case study of Dropbox, which I thought this experience was really nice to have as a context of innovation in the tech sphere while learning and discussing the case.

Artifact:

150 hour experience

I&E 352: Strategies for Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Description

This Course covers component elements of developing skills needed to launch a venture. Starting at the point of need identification, course covers lean methodology; innovation and entrepreneurship strategy; creating needed financing and resource structures; effectively marketing/communicating innovation and its associated benefits; leading, managing, and working effectively within teams; creating a positive and ethical work culture; and evaluating success.

 

Reflection

When I started this course, my view of a “problem” solvable through entrepreneurship was very different than it is now. Before, I viewed it from a purely technical perspective. I thought if you could create something that makes people’s lives even slightly easier, or slightly improve on the existing status quo, the business side of the equation would solve itself. However, through the case studies, lectures, and discussions we have had in I&E 352, I’ve come to realize business plan viability is an integral part of not only the long term success of the product, but also ingrained in the very problem itself.

Iteration is a concept familiar to me, as it is hammered home in engineering design classes. However, the idea of iteration in business was still a new idea to me, and I was surprised to learn how entrepreneurs can iterate on every step of their business plan, and every facet of their operation. One example that highlighted the effectiveness of testing ideas was the case study on Rent the Runway. Rather than forging ahead with a preconceived business model, they ran focus groups and were able to pivot rapidly in response to customer feedback and events that impacted their business. For many, it is tempting to get pulled into the sunk cost fallacy and become too invested emotionally in an aspect of the product or business plan to make rational decisions on the direction the venture should take. Out of the many case studies we interacted with, the ventures who excelled seemed to all have a heavy emphasis on getting feedback through focus groups, customer complaints, and product testing.

As ventures are always a result of collaboration between multiple people, it’s essential to maximize the efficacy of the team, and in the readings and discussions we saw many guidelines on every aspect of teamwork and leadership in business. It was interesting connecting these with my personal experiences in working with various teams in both my professional and personal life. To me, the themes of embodied by Google’s research into attributes into successful teams ring true. In both pseudo-leadership and assigned positions, the “five keys” we mentioned in class affect the personal and professional relationships have affected personal and professional relationships within the group and directly contributed to success.

As leaders of ventures, entrepreneurs have a very prominent role in putting together a competent, driven team, that shares the vision they do. One important trait I observed in the founders of successful ventures in our class was the ability to step back and realize they were not well suited for a task. As we saw, the startup world was one where an entrepreneur could often end up (and should be willing) to be flexible with their role, jumping from courting investors one day to boxing up orders the next. At the same time, hiring a marketing expert or web developer instead of trying to hack it themselves was an important decision that could make or break some of the companies.

This was a theme that I saw with many topics in class: unlike some other subjects, there often is no “right” or formulaic answer to problems and tasks in the entrepreneurship world. Everything comes with tradeoffs, and often entrepreneurs were held “under the gun” by market factors such as short runways, high burn-rates, and shifting demands.

In business it is often heard “cash is king”, to what extent are the means justified? Ethics in entrepreneurship is a nuanced issue, and one we confronted a lot in this class. From studying social entrepreneurship initiatives, such as Envirofit, to evaluating and suggesting workforce cuts in our case recommendations, this class brought us to think critically about our personal values and their role in business management. My mentor, who I met through this class, also shared extensive real-world insights on the decisions he’s had to make as an entrepreneur and how ethics has played a role in every step of the way.

In the class, we saw a classic example of profit being chosen over ethics: drug companies abandoned research and development of drugs that still showed potential because of reduced projections of future cash flows from the product. It’s easy to point to that and say the pharmaceutical company should’ve chosen to continue development to ensure people can receive treatment and better living conditions. However, the case also made sure the present the statistics and money involved in just attempting to bring a drug to market. Certainly, even if the biggest pharmaceutical corporations attempted to follow through every drug to the end of its development cycle, they would go under. Inherent in the field of business, leaders must choose to draw the line of ethics somewhere to maintain some level of fiscal viability, and the cases and discussions in this class drew me to think about the nuanced issues regarding implementing ethics in business.

Just as many decisions are left up to the agency of the entrepreneur, so is the decision to include personal values in business decisions, and the extent to which it comes into play. It is no coincidence that silicon valley, a place filled with tech startups, also has a reputation for disregarding ethics. Ethics in business can also mean different things to different people. It is a pretty logical conclusion to say an entrepreneur might have an ethical calling to uphold their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders above all, while others might argue for the value of a triple bottom line, which I personally believe in.

Being personally very passionate about environmental issues, especially with regards to emissions and climate change, I could never see myself disregarding that in favor of the bottom line. My first job, at In-N-Out, also instilled in me the value of caring for employees, as their wellbeing and happiness contribute to their drive and productivity for the company. In addition, being an associate also taught me the importance of ensuring customer service was a value-add and a point of differentiation for the company, a lesson I will be sure to bring into my future endeavors.

This course solidified my interest in the entrepreneurship and startup field and taught me the value of having an educated and credible background. To gain a better understanding of the financial side of business and economy, I plan to enroll in markets and management and finance courses at Duke. After hopefully commissioning and serving in a management/leadership role in the Air Force after Duke, I would like to pursue an MBA down the line to dive deeper into the topics touched upon in this course. Many concepts from this course, including lessons on teamwork, finances, and critical analysis transfer over to my daily life, and I’ve already started incorporating the skills learned.

 

Artifact:

Mentorship Reflection

My Story

I grew up in the wonderful state of Utah, among mountains and lakes that fostered my love of the outdoors. I competed in mountain biking and swimming in high school, and today, they are still hobbies I’m passionate about, along with hiking, coding, electronics. My upbringing was certainly unique compared to most of my peers; my family was one of the only families in our community that wasn’t white and Mormon. To offer some perspective, my high school of over 2500 students was over 90% white, and over 93% Mormon.

Although I had a great community growing up and value my friends back home, I yearned to experience diversity of backgrounds and experiences, and this ultimately pushed me to look out-of-state for college, although I do see the draw of the mountains bringing me back to Utah in the long run. One thing nobody seems to catch about me is I’m a really sentimental person. To be honest, I chose to apply early decision to Duke because I didn’t expect to make it in, but at least I could tell my parents I’d tried to apply to a “top” college before choosing a less selective university. Out of the top schools my parents wanted me to apply to, Duke was the only one that seemed remotely cool to me mostly because of its basketball program, so that’s where I sent my long-shot application that somehow ended up working out.

I love the experiences and opportunities I’ve had at Duke, as well as the meaningful connections and relationships I’ve made here, and am extremely grateful to be here. I’m majoring in electrical and computer engineering, with a minor in finance, and of course, the innovation and entrepreneurship certificate. I’ve always been interested in imagining, building, and designing solutions to problems, and studying engineering has always seemed like the logical path to do that as a career. I’d like to pivot into engineering project management, and in the long run, scaling my ideas into new business ventures to optimize efficiency of various processes around the world, and solve problem for a profit and a net benefit for society. Because of this desire, I’ve decided to pursue the certificate. I’m also interested in understanding financial markets and economics, which I feel will fit in nicely with the certificate.

In the long term, I’d like to work my way up from being an engineer to some kind of project management role, and ultimately starting my own company. I feel the coursework I have chosen in the certificate, which mainly revolves around the technology and design pathway, gives me the most background knowledge possible for these career goals as possible coming from my undergraduate experience.

I interned at a startup (300 hour experience) which develops tailored energy business workflow applications to large scale utilities, and there, I was given a lot of autonomy to build a project to allow “smart searching” of data while participating in discussions to maximize its business/client value vs cost, implement security constraints, and enable flexibility to adapt to different customer applications and use cases.

I currently work for a friend’s tutoring startup as the chief technology officer, where I cut costs for his website by over $250/month, integrated PayPal payments into an open source booking application to develop a tailored application that was much cheaper to use than licensing similar commercial software, and have used data to generate useful business insights.

This coming summer, I’ll be interning as a software developer at Amazon, and am excited to see how innovation works in a big corporate environment compared to the startup environment I’m used to. As mentioned before, my long term goal for my career is to solve problems for a profit and net benefit for society, and this is my mantra that drives my decisions in the short term to work towards that.

300 Hour experience: Internship at ANB Systems

Description

This past summer, I interned at ANB systems, a startup that develops innovative workflow management solutions for the energy industry. This was an amazing opportunity to work in a startup environment, as the office was located in a WeWork, where I got to interact with employees and entrepreneurs from various startups in many different industries. Although I had a few smaller projects, I spent the majority of my time designing and implementing an indexing and search service to provide intelligent responses to customer queries and allow new, efficient ways to retrieve and gain insights on workflow data for clients. I was in charge of this from the initial brainstorming, to specifications, implementation, deployment, and testing. I chose this experience to fulfill my 300 hour requirement because I wanted to have the opportunity to experience the intersection of entrepreneurship, innovation, and engineering.

Reflection

For my project, I was faced with several problems that affected the design and constrained and eliminated some of the traditional solutions involving implementing search. One of the biggest considerations was the nature of the company’s platform was modular and based around configurability and as such, the data was asymmetrical. There was no pre-defined schema that the data could be indexed against, as the data formats were customer defined and dynamic. I worked around this by creating and deploying a service that intelligently creates models of information that work with ElasticSearch, the engine we chose.

Another innovative concept was creating an intelligent search experience that catered to various query forms from clients and worked with context to create the most relevant results possible. In the age of search engines such as Google being so ubiquitous, it was important to us that the search engine be able to match misspelled words, utilize synonyms, and search through various data types such as dates, and numbers from input strings. I worked towards these goals by carefully managing how the service generated the models and indexed data into the backend search service to enable such functionality, while being cognizant of resources and cost.

One specific failure I remember was getting the service I deployed to communicate with another service on our cloud platform. With the help of at least 3 other coworkers, we periodically worked on debugging this issue for almost a week, with no success. I was finally able to track down an obscure security setting that was preventing the network requests from going through. Through this, I learned and solidified my strategy for finding solutions to problems by learning to research tangentially relating topics and following up on clues that sounded similar to the main problem.

With regards to I&E, I think the most important things I learned through this experience was the considerations that are made when making decisions, whether it’s a business or product decision, or implementation detail in engineering. Keeping the client’s perspective in mind, and always being aware of the costs of resources and manpower were some of the things I learned through the various meetings, both formal and informal with both company members and other entrepreneurs at the WeWork we were located at.

Artifact

Whitepaper about the service I worked on

EGR121: Engineering Innovation

Description

This class consisted of a lecture portion which provided introductory knowledge to various manufacturing, problem solving, electronics, and product development techniques. In addition, “design challenges” would be assigned to groups that were randomly created. These design challenges involved utilizing lab time to research, plan, and execute solutions to given design challenges.

Reflection

I chose to take this class for my elective because I wanted to explore how innovation relates to engineering, which I plan on majoring in. In addition, I wanted to explore the intersection of electrical and mechanical engineering, and look into solutions that involve both fields. Because this class is primarily for mechanical engineers and I am an ECE major, this put me in a position to have a unique perspective and think about problems and solutions from both an electrical and mechanical context.

I think the most valuable thing I learned from this class was how to be flexible while iterating and not be fixated on one solution. There were several instances where we clearly saw a better solution while in the middle of our prototyping process for these design challenges, and “jumping ship” to a better solution took some risk, but it was worth it. In addition, it taught me how valuable lower fidelity prototypes are because if we had tried to go straight into high quality prototypes, it would’ve been a lot harder to change solutions.

Artifact

Written Report

Description

This was a written report for a solution to one of our design challenges. In it, we explain the purpose of the solution, our ideation and design methods, and our execution.

EGR101: Engineering Design and Communication

Description

Engineering design and communication involved a semester long design process where groups were assigned a design problem. Throughout the semester, groups completed the various stages of the engineering design process, including research, ideation, low-fi/high-fi prototyping, etc. These design problems were derived from the needs of a client, and at the end of the semester, the client would be presented with the solution.

Reflection

For my gateway elective, I chose to take EGR101 mostly because it’s a requirement for all engineering majors. However, I was also intrigued and excited by the idea of applying critical thinking and innovating through iteration and ideation to solve a design problem.

I think the most valuable things I learned in the course was how to effectively work in teams and take advantage of the diverse strengths we had in our group. This experience also taught me that sometimes being a leader means being a follower — there were times I felt I was definetly leading the team, but there were also times where I could contribute the most to the team by following someone else who knew more about the specific aspect of the project. In addition, it taught me how important it is to communicate clearly and make sure everyone is on the same page with not only the status of the project, but also our goals and feelings about what we wanted out of the project and the direction we wanted to take it. I felt our group dynamic worked very well overall and that’s because we all put effort into contributing to the project and staying informed about other group members.

Artifact

 

Description

This was a status update to one of our project sponsors towards the end of the semester that showcases our design.