How I became a web development intern with zero experience

About three weeks ago, I started my web development internship at the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund with zero career experience. If this sounds like a curious turn of events to you, trust me, it was surprising to me as well. It’s an incredible opportunity for which I am very grateful to Eric Morel, the IT Manager at CTPF. He essentially created the position for me.

I’d put it down to luck as to how I got the internship – you can’t always predict the opportunities that come your way. But you know what they say about luck: it’s what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And I was prepared:

  • My LinkedIn profile tracked concrete milestones
  • I had been applying and networking rabidly
  • I had begun to blog weekly

I’ll take you point by point on how each was important to getting the position.

But before all that, I had to know exactly what I wanted.

Knowing what I wanted – an entry level Ruby on Rails position where I could learn – dictated everything else. The rest was a natural extension of moving toward that singular goal.

(Internet) Networking

First of all, I love adding friends, on any social network. It’s neurotic, but it gives me a thrill to see that my connection count is higher than someone else’s.

With LinkedIn in particular (add me here!), I joined every Rails group I could find on LinkedIn and made sure my profile said that I was looking for an internship or apprenticeship as a rails developer. Basically, if you join groups, you can make an impression on people in comments on group posts and make a name within those groups. You also expose your profile to a lot of people who aren’t necessarily within your immediate network.

I’m still getting leads from people stumbling across my profile, and I’m sure it has to do with it tracking Concrete Progress.

I also applied to just about everything I could find that was Rails related, even positions that I wasn’t qualified. I believe CTPF was one of those positions. I also applied to Groupon and 8th Light’s apprenticeship programs, as well as a few others. I stopped self-filtering and started putting myself out there. I left it up to the employer to make the decisions regarding whether or not I was qualified.

Concrete Progress

I had made concrete progress toward becoming a developer on my own. Much like my friend George Wu, I had started several projects on my own, which showed initiative and a willingness and ability to learn.

I was also able to make it clear exactly what my level of expertise was as a beginner and exactly what I was capable of by posting my progress on various Ruby and Ruby on Rails tutorials in my profile:

Progress:

  1. Apprenticeship Patterns (100%)
  2. Try Ruby (100%)
  3. Learn Ruby the Hard Way (80%)
  4. Ruby on Rails Tutorial (80%)
  5. Ruby Koans (115/280)
  6. Project Euler (4/371)
  7. Agile Web Development with Rails 3.2.0 (Ch 1-12 + 14)

I also stole a page from Ryan Curtin and posted my miniature Twitter clone (from the Hartl tutorial) on my profile. I was unduly surprised with how good it looked and I wanted a similar reaction from people looking over my profile.

What I didn’t do was to try to sell myself as someone I wasn’t. I think my honesty was important to establishing our expectations coming into the internship. The IT Manager knows that my career ambitions lie more in startups, so we are both able to maximize our returns from the relationship. I’m helping the team switch from Rails 2.3.5 and helping whoever among the staff is interested in learning Rails so they’ll have a basic skeleton crew of in-house Rails developers. Meanwhile, this gives me a great opportunity to learn.

By the way, please don’t be impressed by my saying I’m helping them switch from Rails 2.3.5 to Rails 3.2.3. The company Rails consultant could probably get my months-long project done in two days.

Blog

Finally, my blog. The IT Manager said specifically that I seemed to be an interesting person based on my online content. In another interview yesterday, the recruiter was interested in the things I’d been writing about on my blog as well. From my limited experience in the professional world, it seems like blogs really are the new resume, as Fred Wilson says:

http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/02/own-your-online-brand.html

In Code Academy, everyone advocates blogging for tracking your learning. The thinking is that you learn better when you narrate what you learned, and then afterward you can look back on your progress for when you need to create a presentation. That’s true.

But it also rewrites the quantitative data on your resume or LinkedIn profile as a human narrative, which is the basic emotional unit of humanity. We have been making and trading stories since the evolution of language. It’s much easier to get top of mind awareness in a recruiter’s mind if you present them with a story rather than numbers, simply because we are all human.

So, that’s basically how I got my internship. I would still say it was mostly a lucky break, because the IT Manager just happened to have this rails project and just happened to want a Rails intern. RoR developers are also in huge demand right now. There are a lot of factors that led up to this opportunity, but I would venture to say that I was prepared for it. I’m incredibly grateful for it – without it, I don’t think I would be able to live in Chicago like I am now.

Hope that helps explain my situation. If you have any questions, ask away in the comments.

Special thanks to Chris Bolton for this post!

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  • Axel Kanakan

    i’m really interested in your progression. This exactly where I am in my Ruby Skills and I planning on build and maintaining a Rails Developed Blog too. I constantly feel like even though my knowledge isn’t vast I can learn fast and work hard with proper guidance. Your linked in suggestion was good and I’ll start doing that ASAP! Thanks for the insight.