When the pandemic began in spring and her friends (and fellow Carnegie Mellon master's students) started to find out that their offers for summer internships were canceled, Mai Sha held her breath.
But then she got an email from the intern recruitment team at mobile productivity suite Quip and let out a sigh of relief. Her software engineering internship would still happen, albeit remotely, and she would still get a chance to be a part of the Quip team.
We interviewed Mai and her summer manager, Leslie Carr, a Senior Director of Engineering at Quip, to learn how Quip successfully took their internship program remote, how the Salesforce-owned cloud-based word processing app is maintaining its culture despite not working in the same building together, and what future interns can do to succeed.
Mai was first introduced to Quip at a Grace Hopper conference. "I thought it was impressive how they were bringing their customers a new way to work together," she remembers. She interviewed for a summer internship and during the process really connected with what she was seeing of Quip's company culture. "I could tell every interviewer was top-notch. They seemed pretty humble and extremely nice, and it felt like working with teammates at university, not like an interview," she says.
She liked the team, she liked the culture, and once she did her research, it turned out she liked the product, too: "I had some previous experience in version management in spreadsheets, so I know how much it can help, and Quip's product is an open workspace that also values privacy. It's a good balance."
Mai's summer boss, Leslie, joined Quip a couple of years prior for similar reasons. She'd actually first talked to the company three years before joining and remembers the team feeling "really, really welcoming," but she wasn't looking to make a move then. When she did, she did more due diligence and loved what she found. "I was actually pretty impressed by the number of women in the engineering management team," remembers Leslie. "It was really important to me to be at a place where I saw faces like mine. I also really liked their engineer-focused mindset; that aligned well with my values."
Getting to know a company remotely
It was tough for Leslie to transition that mindset and the culture she'd built on the engineering team to a remote environment. In the pre-pandemic times, she'd relied on informal social activities like boba runs, hallway check-ins, and walks around the park to check in on her team, including her summer interns. Without those touchpoints, she had to be much more deliberate about how to keep everyone engaged—particularly the interns, who would have only a couple of months to complete their projects and understand what it meant to work at Quip.
Leslie adapted her management style, moving from biweekly 1:1s that lasted an hour to weekly 30-minute check-ins with each person on her team and proactively setting up mentors and pairing sessions for interns like Mai.
And while those changes allowed Leslie to keep an eye on everyone and do her job, she notes that it was really Mai's proactive approach to remote work that allowed Mai to succeed even past her expectations.
"A lot of Mai's success was because she had such a good learning and growth mindset," explains Leslie. "She wasn't afraid to ask questions."
Mai kept a Quip document full of project updates that provided real-time transparency on where she was and what she was planning to do next. She reached out to her team members for help when she needed it and made sure to connect with people on projects unrelated to her own to learn more about the company culture. She worked with a small group of about 10 people and notes that she always felt part of the team. "I felt like I had a voice. The team always cultivated an environment that let us speak out and show off our work to everyone," she says.
"At Quip, it's a constructive process. Not only my manager and my mentor, but everyone else on the team helped me out. They didn't just teach me how to debug, but made sure that I totally understood it," explains Mai. That helpfulness extended to non-project tasks, too, she notes, like working on her interview or presentation skills.
While Mai ended up adapting quite well to a remote internship, she was nervous at first. "It was my first software engineering internship, and it's remote! I felt slow during the ramp-up period, and I doubted myself a bit, because sometimes I couldn't figure it out," she says. "But luckily, with work and help, by the end, I could even unblock others." By the end of the internship, she was even looking forward to Monday, she says, so that she could get back to work.
Advice for future interns
Leslie hopes Quip is back to in-person work and internships next year, but no matter where and how future internships happen, she's learned a few lessons from this summer's all-remote internship that she will apply in the future—and is happy to share with future Quip interns now.
"Don't be afraid to ask," she says. "There's still plenty of stuff that I have no idea about in engineering. But that's how we learn and grow." Mai, she notes, did a great job of asking for help when she needed it: "A couple of other interns who were afraid to ask questions were blocked for much longer than needed. Instead of being blocked for an hour, they were blocked for two days."
Mai takes that advice a step farther, sharing what worked for her. Aside from her doc of project updates, she had a separate doc of questions where she would tag her mentor so that they could go in and help her whenever they were free. She also made good use of the engineering team's chat channel, with its in-depth documentation of historical questions asked and answered, and stayed active in the intern chat room, too. She joined all the social events she could—from weekly coffee chats hosted by Salesforce to virtual escape room team events—to keep meeting new people, learning about different projects and ways of working at Quip, and practicing her communication skills.
"One of the biggest things I learned from this internship is to never stop learning!" says Mai, smiling. "There are so many things I don't understand, and I have a long way to go to become a great software engineer."
Leslie notes that it's that desire to constantly be learning that set Mai apart and that would serve future interns well, too. "Not only did Mai do a great job on her project and finish it ahead of schedule, but I was even more impressed with how she sort of joined like a normal team member afterward!" says Leslie, who explained that Mai jumped in to help another engineer write tests for his project. "We'd given her some feedback on getting better at testing before, and she took an area for improvement and turned it into a strength through being willing to just dive right in and explore that area. That was awesome."
Mai's final advice for future interns is simple: soak up as much as you can. "Stay curious," she says. "You can learn anything you want to here."
If you're interested in learning more about Quip, check out their PowerToFly profile here.