When the Gift is Bigger Than the Box

From http://meowmeowmaru.tumblr.com/post/6727438587

Back in May, when I started my internship at Basecamp — the company known for creating Rails and very popular project management apps — I was nervous, intimidated, and self-doubting: What did I know about tech and about coding?

I questioned if I belonged, whether I misrepresented myself and my emerging programming skills on my application, and if I could hack (pun sort of intended?) this new environment and expectations.

Early on during the internship, I was asked to code an announcements feature in Rails. I felt daunted and out of my league and frantically started learning Rails. Gradually though, I made progress and learned a lot (and started to understand why people fall in love with Rails!).

The internship sparked my introduction to a larger community of mentors and inspiring folks in tech. I began to meet Rails developers and designers — at Basecamp, as well as in Atlanta where I live and elsewhere — and loved meeting kind folks who were eager to share their knowledge and time.

A few weeks later, Basecamp flew all the interns to Chicago so we could meet each other and our respective mentors, and we had the chance to experience Basecamp culture first-hand. They put us up in cozy hotel rooms, fed us many delectable meals, and took us out for a lovely outing. We also shared meals, interns shared what they’re working on and, in turn, Basecamp veterans shared their work too.

The company’s generosity also extended to how and when we worked too: each of us worked remotely from anywhere in the world, received healthy compensation, and came to the ‘office’ four days a week (their usual schedule during the summer).

It became pretty clear that Basecamp was truly invested in mentoring and offering resources to interns (with no pre-conceived notions or strings attached), and that they looked forward to the possibility of interns serving as Basecamp ambassadors in the future.

Well, by day two of the meetup, my concerns totally dissipated.

Some background info I should share is that, several months prior to the internship, I made a hard decision to resign as an assistant professor in poetry to seek a healthier work-life balance, one that involved way less bureaucracy, strict hierarchies, “committee fatigue,” insane work hours, etc.

I realized, thankfully, that Basecamp was very different. Likewise, the internship was a rare opportunity offering lots of flexibility, and I could actively shape my experience.

While a part of me wanted to hunker down and learn nothing but Rails, I also felt compelled by the opportunity to work with multiple folks, to try on different hats. As a relative newbie to tech, I wanted to gain a better sense of where my strengths could lie in this new arena, so I decided to aim for breadth of experience and to explore wildly.

This was such a gift — to have room to play and follow my desire path of learning.

So I learned about Rails, user experience, web accessibility standards, QA testing, Turbolinks, customer support approaches, and helped coordinate a podcast episode, “Grateful Heads,” for The Distance, which involved learning how to use audio equipment and recording interviews at Langford’s Barber Shop, a black-owned business and landmark in Atlanta since 1964.

And, as importantly, the internship offered the chance to see how a relatively small team at a very successful tech company continues to foster their own path.

As someone who grew up in a teeny Florida town with few Asian Americans and as a first-generation college student (my mother didn’t have the opportunity to finish middle school and my father had to leave college for the military), I’m used to feeling a little out of place at times or understanding what it’s like to have assumptions made based on difference, but that experience gets very old.

For instance (have to laugh sometimes), I’ve had well-meaning strangers ask me for miso recommendations, wonder if I worked at a nearby massage parlor, or mistake my quietness for a lack of ideas or confidence.

While giving feedback about the internship, I mentioned how seeing other women and people of color on Basecamp’s team made a big difference as to whether I would apply or not, and I can honestly say, I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

I gradually understood how much Basecamp truly wanted all of us to succeed and how they were essentially giving us a big field to play in, to explore, make mistakes, collaborate, build, and forge our individual paths of learning. To be welcomed in such a way and to feel validated at Basecamp was a turning point for seeking out this new path.

This generosity was pivotal for me and a gift larger than its box, so to speak, and way more impactful than what I had expected.

While I still feel those pangs of “imposter syndrome” now and again (just completed my third month on Basecamp’s support team!), they have gradually quieted down, from a fury to occasional blips as I learn more and more to trust myself, my instincts, my developing skills, and what unique things I hope to contribute for our team.

And I’m continuing to learn at Basecamp — about coding and visual design, for starters, and about innovate ways to approach customer support!

So when the gift is larger than the box, all you can do — should do — is take it humbly and lumber home with it in your grateful arms.


When the Gift is Bigger Than the Box was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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