Monday, October 3, 2011

Internship Lessons Learned (Awkwardly, of course)

The LGO internship is unique in the MBA world. In it, we are teamed with a partner company on a project bridging the business and engineering worlds, and the content forms the basis for a Master’s thesis. While these aspects set it apart, the internship is perhaps most distinguished by its 6.5-month length. Having now completed four of the six-and-a-half months, I am beginning to realize the benefits this affords us. The most important of these, in my mind at least, is that we are given the opportunity to manage a complex project from inception to completion. This differs greatly from a typical 2-3 month MBA internship during which students work on a small part of an existing project that more or less serves as a sales pitch to the students for post-graduation employment.

My internship with Amgen has already provided some great experiences. I am leading a team that includes members from process development, engineering, and manufacturing organizations, sitting in on strategy sessions with group leadership, and making presentations to Amgen executives. More importantly, perhaps, I am also learning lessons that I will take with me wherever I end up after LGO.

In the rest of this post, I’ll tell two stories that relate to one such lesson – properly extinguishing a small flame before it becomes a raging fire.

Story 1

At least I have a cubicle in my fortress.
As I mentioned in my last post, I sit at a receptionist desk near the entrance to my building. I see people walk in and out all day, but I’m mostly alone in my own little Fortress of Solitude. For the first month, it was actually quite a peaceful location. This changed, suddenly, after some work to the building’s air handlers over a weekend in July.

As I sat in my chair the following Monday, I noticed that something was awry. The silence was gone, replaced by a horrible rattling sound. This was not the kind of rattling that becomes white noise after a few minutes, but an aggravating, jarring sound that set my insides on fire and made me want to throw things.

The source, it turned out, was the heavy metal fire door five feet from my desk. Somehow, the pressure on the two sides of the door changed rapidly enough to cause the thing to shake back and forth in its frame. If you heard it for a few seconds, you might think there was an earthquake. If you sat in my chair for a day, you might think the world was ending (and I would’ve been ok with that).

MIT engineering at its finest.
Being an MIT engineer, I decided to do something about it. Being a geologist, the thing I did would have placed last at an elementary school science fair -- I tore off a piece of cardboard from a nearby box, inserted it into the strike plate hole in the door frame, and secured it in place with a wad of scotch tape. Miraculously, this actually worked. The sound was almost completely muffled, and I was able to work in peace again. End of story, right? Not quite…

Turns out, someone else took the correct approach and called Facilities to have the noise problem fixed for real. The maintenance guys must have come during the night, because when I arrived the next day, I saw their handiwork. They had installed a rubber seal around the entire door frame to eliminate the little noise that remained after my engineering masterpiece was in place. It did this quite well.  The problem was, it did only this quite well.  As soon as my tape lost its stickiness and the cardboard fell out, the true value of the seal was revealed --and that value was nothing.  The seal didn't do anything.  They might as well have done nothing.  The rattling was back to stay, and it was my fault.

To make this story even more tragic, the very day the rattling returned, an actual earthquake struck the area. It wasn’t big, but it was strong enough that most people on campus noticed. Just not me. The sound of the shaking door had overwhelmed my senses, and I missed the telltale signs of the quake – the only significant one to strike California during the internship. If only I’d done the right thing in the first place and called Facilities to fix the problem, this situation could have been properly resolved in a day or two. Instead, I missed an earthquake and have been stuck with replacing the tape on the cardboard every few days.

Story 2

Do you see me out there? Well, somebody does.
In my role as the building’s unofficial receptionist, I greet many people over the course of the day. Most people ignore my near-silent hellos, some smile back, unsure of who I am and why I’m talking, and a few strike up conversation. Most of these are your basic 'what’s going on this weekend?' type of deal, to which I invariably (and sometimes honestly) answer 'nothing.' So, I was surprised one day when a guy walked by and asked me about the soccer game I played in against his team. I politely engaged in a three-minute conversation about our game, and then he went on his way. This might sound perfectly innocuous, but, sadly, it wasn’t. Not only did I not actually play against his soccer team, but I haven’t even stepped on a soccer field since eighth grade. He mistook me for some other gawky-looking guy, and I felt too bad to tell him that he was wrong. I took a gamble that it would never come up in conversation again, but boy was I wrong…

Every time he saw me, which was almost daily, he asked me about my soccer team. 'Did you win your last game?'  'What time are you playing today?'  And on, and on. I wasn’t stupid enough to make up answers to question I clearly didn’t know anything about, so instead I decided to claim that a knee injury had been keeping me off the field. This, plus fake-talking on the phone and averting eye-contact (one of my core competencies) helped me avoid any substantial soccer conversations.

Then, one day, just as abruptly as they had started, the conversations stopped. Now, he was the one looking the other way and fake-talking on the phone. What had happened? Did he play against the bizarro me and realize it wasn’t actually me? I never found out. But what I did learn was that this whole thing didn’t have to happen. If I’d just said, “Oh, sorry, I don’t play soccer,” this would have ended before it had started. I tried to be nice and not hurt his feelings, but really that just made his inevitable discovery of my non-soccer playing even worse.

So, yeah, my experience at Amgen has already provided many valuable real-world lessons – lessons that I might not have learned if I didn’t have an internship long enough to bring out all of my flaws. I look forward to the next chance I have to head-off a potential problem before it starts…just as long as it doesn’t make someone feel bad about themselves!


  1. nice... love the stories, especially the second one

  2. Awesome. Just plain awesome. You gotta be careful of that slippery slope man

  3. Nice post! Your representation is attention-grabbing. Thanks for this wonderful post.
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