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How Stanford Baseball Prepared Me for my First Internship

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Brian Higgins is a software engineering intern at the visual marketing platform, Pixlee.  He is a rising junior at Stanford University and is studying computer science.  His focus will be in artificial intelligence and he hopes to work in the A.I. robotics lab in the coming year.  Outside of class he plays catcher for the varsity baseball team and plays the drums.

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It is very easy to compare working at Pixlee to playing for the Stanford baseball team. Both teams are made up of talented people who have come together from across all backgrounds. Winning baseball games and creating a good product both require huge blocks of time and commitment beyond the requirements of your average student or employee. Success in either field is determined by cohesive work and by setting defined goals. And, both teams create close communities that spend most of their time together both while working and outside of it. But mentioning those similarities does not adequately explain how Stanford baseball prepared me for my internship at Pixlee.

If I had to narrow it down, it was really my first couple weeks on the Stanford baseball team that were most comparable to the start of my time with Pixlee. As an incoming freshman, I showed up to my first practice, very confident in my ability as a baseball player. I had been very successful everywhere I had played, and been invited to play on a great college team. But I soon found out that I was not ready for everything that college baseball was about to throw at me.

College baseball has a very steep learning curve. The level of play goes up tenfold, and it took some adjusting for me to figure that out. Now, as a rising junior, not only have I experienced this first hand, but I’ve seen other freshmen go through it as well. Failure is expected from freshman in their first couple weeks, they just don’t know that.

My internship at Pixlee was my first experience doing computer science (CS) outside of school. I never programmed growing up, and I didn’t expect to do CS when I got to Stanford. It wasn’t until the spring of my freshman year that I took my first CS class and loved it. I was actually still planning on being a mechanical engineering major until two quarters later when I continued my programming classes and realized that I enjoyed it more than anything else.

When I walked into Pixlee, I could not contribute in the ways I was hoping to. Despite a fair amount of experience programming in school, there were several more barriers to writing production-ready code than I had predicted. My first week at work felt just like my first week on the baseball team.

Right off the bat, I felt lost in the middle of new terms and concepts in a company where everyone was working at a furious pace. I had two major gaps in my knowledge. Firstly, I did not have very much experience with ruby or javascript (two of the primary languages used in web development and by Pixlee.) Secondly, in school, my classes created development environments in their own little bubble. I worked on projects from prepared starter files with very specific instructions and submitted them using Stanford tools. While I knew how to write good code for an individual assignment, I’d never worked off of a shared codebase. A lot of simple industry tools meant to share code, organize tasks and manage products were completely foreign and new to me. It’s not that the tools were particularly difficult to use or learn. It was that I didn’t know where my knowledge gaps were. Because of all this, I had to spend a lot of my first couple weeks looking up and asking extremely simple questions.

Through baseball and classes, I have grown as a student and teammate, but my experience at Pixlee has been just as important to my track towards graduation and career. Like starting to play college baseball, Pixlee demanded a step up in my work ethic and effort that I didn’t know I possessed. In school, I thought that I was working hard, but working at a startup requires a whole new level of discipline and effort. My summer experience has been very motivating and educational, and now, I could not imagine making a smooth transition between my school and career without an experience like this.

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