Learning about the industry

An internship is a great way to learn real-world skills and earn some income to help pay tuition. They're also one of the primary ways to get your foot in the door of the tech industry. When you learn what the people in the industry want and care about, it becomes much easier to navigate it and speak the "insider" language. That is, you want to learn the rules of the game.

In a lot of industries, working inside the industry is pretty much the only way to learn anything about the industry. That's why in other fields, there's a lot of entry-level positions with menial work that people take just to get their foot in the door.

Fortunately for us, tech is unique that there's tons and tons of information on the Internet that people have put out freely. You'll find hiring managers talking openly about their feelings on recruiting in online discussions for example. Reading about tech isn't going to be as good as actually working in tech, but you can get pretty darn far.

Getting acquainted with the industry

In the next section I'll provide some suggested readings. The point isn't to read all of it, and certainly not to cram this right before applying to jobs (though if you like reading, it can be addictive). The point is to keep an ear out for conversations that happen on the public sphere.

A decent way to start is just to read for 30 minutes every other day. It can even be done when there's nothing better to do: e.g. when waiting for a class to start or when taking the bus. Even two hours of reading a week compounds to a lot over a year.

Rudi says: While it happened by accident, perhaps one of the most useful habits I got into was make reading my default procrastination mode. That is, whenever I get bored and take out my phone, I automatically open up the latest tech news/discussions.

Note that as is typical of the Internet, you'll have to sift through a lot of wrong claims and garbage to get to the useful ideas. Keep that in mind, but it's not always a bad thing. In order to understand why something is "true", you also need to know what the alternatives were. Furthermore, knowing where people disagree can help you make balanced decisions and empathize.

Evy says: I honestly don't read much tech news. I tend to choose my reading based on things my friends share on Facebook and Twitter, and things my coworkers share on Slack. Though that sometimes includes tech news, I definitely don't go out of my way to find it. I think enough about tech at my day job and am happy to learn more there if needed. Tech news is full of clutter and mean words and lots of things I don't know that overwhelm me. However, I'm privileged to be taken fairly seriously at this point my career with what I've done so far, which allows me to not think as much about tech outside of what I want to read and work on. Reading about our industry has definitely helped (and been interesting to!) many folks I know.

Typical things to read

Hacker News: You might have heard of this one. It's effectively the barometer of what the tech industry think is trendy. While not at all perfect, and often full of comments by people who think they know more than they do, there are also occasional deep and insightful comments by domain experts that you can't find anywhere else. Hiring and interviews is a topic that shows up often, and you'll get to hear opinions and tips from people all over the industry.

Lobste.rs: Similar to Hacker News, but with a smaller community and more focused exclusively on tech. Good if you want to escape the occasional political debates of HN.

Quora: There's a lot of good and accomplished writers on Quora. Besides learning about tech, Quora is a good place to hear stories from a wide variety of people outside our immediate environment (lawyers, doctors, soldiers, social worker, etc), so it's a decent way to poke your head out of the tech bubble. The amount of noise has gone up in recent years as the site grew, so you'll have to follow the right topics/people, but there's still a lot of good stuff there.

/r/cscareerquestions: As the name suggests, more directly relevant to finding internships. The signal-to-noise ratio isn't always great, but it can be useful especially if this is your first time looking into tech internships.

Joel on Software: One of the earliest tech blogs. He writes well and talks a lot about software engineering in the real world, the impact of technical decisions, and other useful insights that you can't really get from working on side projects.

Paul Graham: One of the most influential figures in the Silicon Valley startup scene. A lot of vocabulary, terminology people and "commonly accepted truths" come from his essays, so it's a very useful read if you want to learn the "startup language". There's some controversial opinions in there but he does go in more depth in his essays than most bloggers.

The readings are biased towards Silicon Valley tech, but there's a lot of value that software provides to other industries! The volume of public literature tends to be higher in tech so it's fine to start there, but it's not all there is in the world.