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Technology Intern Salaries, Considered

Why interns get such cushy offers

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𝐓𝐈𝐅𝐅𝐀𝐍𝐘 𝐙𝐇𝐎𝐍𝐆 ᴳᵉᶰ ᶻ ᵂʰᶤˢᵖᵉʳᵉʳ 🦓 on Twitter

Friend made a list of top internship offers 💰

A tweet by Tiffany Zhong, a VC, recently made the rounds and generated a great deal of discussion; it was even aggresplained (or exgragated) by Vox. An image attached to the tweet purported to show the monthly compensation of interns at large tech companies.

These numbers are at first glance shockingly high. On the top end, Jane Street was offering interns $10,400 a month; on the low end, Amazon Seattle is offering $6,000 a month — but adding $2,500/month on top of that for housing. Many other offer packages in that range: Upthere, Dropbox, Google, Square, LinkedIn, Fitbit, Edmodo, Apple, Coursera, Facebook, and Foursquare NY were all $6,000 a month or more, many with generous housing allowances on top.

It’s hard not to look at this list and think, if a relative child can make $8,250 a month at Quora, a site where men answer other men’s questions about libertarian thought, then what am I doing with my garbage life?

I showed this tweet to Jeb Boniakowski, a Silicon Valley developer who also is an excellent writer and the most astute commentator on Silicon Valley social mores around. Jeb had a great explanation of what’s going on, which he graciously allowed me to edit and reproduce.

Postlight owes him a nice bottle of booze.


Jeb writes:

So I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but those internship numbers are not suprising at all. However, the numbers are also slightly misleading — those pay packets are better than people will get in their first-year offer.

A couple different things are making this happen.

First, it is a lot cheaper to overpay interns than it is to pay recruiters. You can get juniors in college to come work for you, and it costs you no money to fire them after three months — by which point you have an idea if they suck or not. Plus you save the $30,000-$50,000 a recruiter would take for placing someone who’s 23, simply by getting someone who’s 22.

Second, starting a few years ago, a handful of companies realized how college kids are…vulnerable, and how recruiting was totally game-able if you were willing to take a long view and loudly inform everyone that “we are the most selective internship and we pay the most,” like [name of a Data Analysis Software Company].

This was done on the sly, even in years past — normal people had never heard of [Storage Company], for example, but the people at that company were really good at suggesting that theirs was the hardest internship to get. For the type of people they are trying to recruit, that kind of suggestion was all it took to get talent in the door.

Once it got around that, like, [Boring Cloud Storage Unicorn] was getting first dibs on all the good hires, the arms race was on. This is like “Big Law” law firms in 2007, when starting associate salaries went to $165,000.

Of course, starting engineering salaries are not that high, not even close — [Growing Social Network Unicorn for Teens] offers people with years of experience around $120,000 a year, plus however many restricted stock units, but those are heavily backweighted, and I heard their first-year offer is a two-year cliff.

The belief among these companies is that the top top kids are not going to surface and look for jobs, ever. They will be “recruitable” at this point and then maybe never again, unless they are referred by a friend. They also believe that 4–5 years in at [Enormous Search Giant] these people will make staff engineer and they’ll make $350,000, making them a lot harder to recruit.

Meanwhile the students are a little helpless — they can’t figure out how to sublet a room. It’s pretty tough for the students to find a place to sleep for three months, especially outside of Silicon Valley. This has made housing compensation even more competitive.

This has only really gotten this crazy in the last couple summers; it’s the same logic that drove the crazy A round valuations in miniature, and will fall apart for the same reasons.

My prediction is that next summer will not look like this.

Commentary

God bless Jeb.

In my experience those internship numbers are also not surprising. Postlight has an internship program but we’re only four months old, so there isn’t a ton to report. But we’ve definitely lost applicants to large technology firms — people who were interested in coming here, but went elsewhere for larger packages.

This is just a fact of life for technology companies. I think it gets pretty overwhelming for the interns: Facebook wants me! Google wants me! And the experience of the internship in a large organization is very structured, often very challenging, and ultimately very flattering. Plus you can always associate your name with that brand. “I did my internship at Google” definitely makes any recruiter or director of HR pay more attention.

At the same time I get a lot of phone calls from people who are in Silicon Valley and planning a trip back to New York City to find a job. They love technology, but they’re burned out on the monoculture, on the religious adoration for giant consumer technology brands, and the way that the venture capital story is the only story. I also get calls because Silicon Valley can be a hard place for people with weird interdisciplinary skills — an agency like Postlight is very well poised to take advantage of a front-end developer who is also a strong designer, or a person comfortable with devops and curious about marketing. But a person with that level of obsession can be actually destructive to a very large company, where teams are large and roles are, of necessity, tightly defined.

My advice to people is almost always the same: Work on the largest platform you can stand. We all want impact. If you can happily work and thrive at Facebook, Google, or at an enormous bank, by all means, do so. Especially if you are ready to specialize. If you don’t have the good luck to be born rich, then become really good at understanding things like low-level filesystem interfaces, and life will write you a good ticket.

Every company asks you to efface yourself a little bit in the pursuit of a common goal. At Postlight we ask for about 5–10% of your personality. Come to the picnics, wear a T-shirt with the logo, say nice things about working here at the parties we throw. The way my co-founder Rich and I figure it, we don’t have nap pods, or free lunch even. (We do have a shower.) Maybe some day. But most people who work here go home at a reasonable hour, their work done, to kids or friends or loved ones. Sometimes people stay later, drink beer, and play card games. Sometimes there is work to do on nights and weekends, but we try to keep things under control. Everyone is pretty obsessed with technology and looking for ways to do more, faster. So far, it’s worked out.

If you’ve worked at a large company, I’d say the typical loyalty percentage is more like 40–90%. It’s a more significant trade. You agree to be swallowed up, but in exchange you can reach countless people daily with your ideas and your interfaces, almost by default. Your friends and family know where you work, if not what you do. The decisions you make influence millions or even billions of people. It’s heady stuff. Of course, you can still reach millions of people without a giant company behind you, it’s just harder and riskier, because you don’t have countless dollars of marketing behind you, nor huge teams, nor are you building on top of platforms that already work and make money. You’re often starting from scratch. It’s more fun but, as I wrote, a lot more risk.

A few weeks ago I turned to Rich and said, “if we ever have an official company unity hashtag, I permit you to kill me.”

Different strokes.