When the Core Pays Off: A Summer Internship Story

When the Core Pays Off: A Summer Internship Story

It’s Sunday morning in San Francisco, where I’m both over halfway through my internship and over halfway through the Philz Coffee menu. It’s no coincidence on the caffeine front, as I’ve been working my way through the company’s divisions over coffee chats with a smorgasbord of staff, week by week, half-hour by half-hour, “Julie’s Ultimate” by “Julie’s Ultimate.”

Four weeks left, all the work is as much to put on a good show in the MBA final presentation session as to align all the relevant stakeholders on this project. While we MBAs all get real projects to work on, unlike the projects of some of my fellow interns, mine isn’t something for which I’ll get to witness the impact while I’m here: my end-of-summer goal is to build the business case to move a line item on my manager’s manager’s spreadsheet off the prioritization chopping block and onto the product roadmap. My one-year goal is to hear from my manager that the timeline slide on my powerpoint was not in vain, that my work this summer gave the product legs and it’s moving into a “crawl phase” to become a real, consumer-facing thing. My two-year dream is to see it move from “crawl” to “walk” to “run”, rolled out in stores, online, and on my phone.

The thing I’ve discovered I like about Product Management at the place where I’m interning this summer is it’s the most actively cross-functional job in the company. I’ve already had to pull together opinions and insights from marketing, operations, merchandising, IT, and at least five other teams spread out across three buildings, and I still have four weeks to go.

It isn’t much compared to what my friends are experiencing at the vast campuses of Big Tech companies, the peerless skyscrapers of financial institutions, or the factories of the world’s industrial monoliths, but for me, hustling from floor to floor for meetings and navigating the complexity of an ever-changing org chart of a fast-growing retailer was a huge change from my past in a one-woman show of entrepreneurship and a self-directed career in case writing.

My bosses and mentors told me before starting Sloan to approach the MBA experience with an open mind: “be a sponge and soak up everything.” I received the same advice for my internship and taken it seriously. Going through the process of asking every major stakeholder for their thoughts, feelings, and reactions on the project I’m working on, I’ve learned more than I anticipated about as much as possible about how greatly culture differs by function, team, and role within the organization.

The question of whether I should come back to this company is an important question, but the equally important and more interesting one is what team I’d want to come back to within it. I’m learning plenty about retail but if there’s anything I’ve been reminded of on a daily basis in the last six weeks, it’s that culture truly matters.

Ask me what class from my MBA has been most valuable so far, I’ll argue — and many alumni will agree — it was the class on organizational form and dynamics. The little things that people sometimes write off as fluff quietly and significantly reveal the personality of every company. When people show up in the office and how on time they are for meetings. The dress code in the office and the layout of the workspace. The length and language of the emails and even their timestamps revealing how people communicate and when they’re getting their work done. What people are drinking about during company happy hours, out of celebration or frustration.

For any prospectives reading, getting “meta,” you can learn a lot about the identity of a business school based on what they call the core class on organizations. At one school, it’s Organizational Behavior. At another, it’s called Leadership in Organizations. Some schools don’t have it in their core, and that says something, too. But at Sloan, operationally-inclined and implementation-ally inclined as we are, we call it Organizational Processes, or “OP”. The school motto “mens et manus,” “mind and hand,” isn’t just Latin on an empty symbol that nobody considers beyond the logo on the T-shirts you buy at the university store. It embodies a whole culture of putting theory into into practice that defines MIT. Taking a step back, it’s easy to witness what I learned in one of our first OP classes and experienced in working at one business school and attending another: schools are organizations, too.

Whether you’re a prospective focused on understanding the differences across MBA programs, a first-year MBA contemplating your possibilities for full-time employment, or casually considering your personal and professional development, I assure you: OP changes everything. OP is everything.

So, applying what I learned last fall onto the job: What will it take for the product I’m working on project this summer to truly happen and succeed?

If I network effectively with the right stakeholders on my case,

If I sell my idea in a style that best suits their interests and styles of communication,

If I tap someone with strong power (both formal and informal) in the organization to champion my case once I’m gone,

And if a hundred things I haven’t even begun to consider “go right,” then maybe this grand project will all happen sooner.

Once my internship ends, it’s likely I’ll return to Cambridge more confused about my career than ever. But there’s one thing about which I have no doubts from the summer: my core semester has officially paid its dividends.

Originally published at mitsloan.mit.edu on July 26, 2015.