A Year Away from Olin

It's been a year since I've left Olin. I haven't graduated yet (still a rising senior); instead, I've decided to pursue a year of internships / co-ops. A year off from Olin is not unorthodox, and the freedom to experiment isn't confined to being on campus. Some students have worked (like me), built a startup, or travelled abroad before graduating. After all, we only get one undergrad experience before we become ‘real’ adults!

For me, working in a company was my biggest motivation. In the past, I've mostly done research, and I wanted to get both sides of the story before choosing between graduate school and work post-Olin. Luckily, Olin makes it simple to take a year off. The real work was finding a year of work opportunities, but companies normally lack interns during the school year, and it was easy to get in touch with companies while intern-hunting for the summer. Anytime I’ve completed a summer internship  interview with a company I liked, I would ask if the company needed help later  in the year.


Throughout the year, I've worked in Boston at Involution Studios, PillPack, and Intrepid Pursuits. All three had been great experiences that solidified the CS and design skills I’ve gained at Olin. At Invo, I worked on a health assistant chatbot that converses with you daily to help manage your exercise, diet, and medications. What’s great about Involution is that they allocate part of their resources to pursue independent projects in new fields without being a pure contractor-design firm. For instance, chatbots are part of a new field of tech, belonging in the realm of Conversational User Interfaces (CUI), which deviates from the standard GUI and those design practices. This opens up a new world of challenges that I’ve never considered before, and it was interesting applying design heuristics from the GUI world to the CUI one.


Working on a web utility that helps others design/build conversations


At PillPack, I helped build in-house tools to better scale our customer experience. Rather than having to wait in line at a CVS, or having to juggle multiple medications daily, PillPack customers have their meds automatically delivered, provided, and managed at their home. Part of what makes this possible is PillPack’s personalized customer support - which becomes challenging as the customer base continues to grow. I was able to visit and work directly with our customer experience team, help think through design choices, and iterate on our dashboard product using agile methods. It felt like a scaled-up Olin project that’s also mission critical to the company.


Some of the PillPack crew


At Intrepid, I worked on  a Game of Thrones app and an MIT-partnership app. What struck me about working here is how fluidly and precisely our team operates. As a service company, our product is our people - the designers, engineers, and PMs. We work closely with our clients to deliver great products that fit our stakeholders’ needs and budget. One of Intrepid’s main tenets is to always deliver great products, managing expectations through scope rather than diluting the ultimate deliverable. Here, sprints are followed methodically and agile is practiced like a science. We actively reflect on our team and performance, finding ways to challenge each other and grow. Resources such as ‘velocity’ (to help us manage our work pace) and ‘retrospection’ (to honestly reflect at the end of each sprint/work cycle) provide great metrics for working through a long project. At Intrepid, the most important thing I’ve gained is learning to systematically and adaptively break down a large project into bite size chunks and to work on these engineering challenges along with my peers.


My workspace and Intrepid’s main office

Compared to a job, internships are much more flexible, allowing me to try multiple companies within a year. Involution and Intrepid showed me how contractual projects operated at different scales, while PillPack revealed what it took to grow a successful product-service company. Overall, these work experiences made me appreciate and see  Olin classes - such as User Oriented Collaborative Design or OlinJS - in a new light.

Outside Work
With my temporary work situation, I wanted affordable living with the flexibility to be close to my work and the city. Chris Lee, Matt Wismer, and I found a small place in Kendall, a two-minute commute from Intrepid. (This Spring, all I had to do is to go downstairs and cross the street!) Previously at Involution, I generally had to make 1.5 hour commutes day, and all the time I’ve saved now made me realize I definitely want to live close to my work.


Kitchen… and the usual evening workplace

I absolutely love having a tiny space to live. Cleaning is almost a non-issue. We have a large kitchen, and cooking is one of my favorite pastimes. Every Saturday, I head down to the Haymarket to stock up on fruits and vegetables; all together I can spend ~$15 to stock up for the whole group. Seriously, if you live in Boston, make the Haymarket a part of your life because it is one of the best and unique experiences Boston has to offer!


Just look at those prices! - [source: 50 Year Project]

Unlike college, work comes with an easy-to-manage 9-5 lifestyle. It's great having rhythm in life, not worrying about concurrent deadlines at arbitrary times. Out here, I feel more responsible for myself; I don’t stay up until 3 in the morning on a frequent basis! On the other hand, a regular schedule can cause days to blend from one to the next, so it's important to mix things up and try new activities. One of the biggest differences between the ‘real world’ and college is the social dynamic. In college, social interactions are basically thrown at you for free; outside, you have to seek and plan it out yourself.

Living in the city means access to activities not possible in the suburbs. I do not know how to drive, but I can get anywhere I want in Boston pretty easily without a car. This lets me attend various events in Boston frequently, from concerts and comedy shows to museums and meetups. Depending on the month, I usually go rock climbing at South Boston’s Rock Spot every other day. Rock Spot is a great place to take my mind off work and socialize; I can work through routes with the regulars and bring friends to climb with me.


A section of climbing at Rock Spot South Boston - [source: Macaroni Kid]

I finished my work at Intrepid on March 21st, giving me some time off in April and May. This gave me a chance to go back to China to explore and visit family. Considering that I now spend very limited time with my parents, getting to be with my grandparents is becoming even more of a rarity. In those two months, I was able to take an incredible tour of China, starting from Beijing and moving south. While in Beijing, I slowly worked my way through the places such as the antiquated Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Although I lived in China until 6, this was my first time setting foot on the Great Wall.

Thanks to the new high-speed rails system (trains traveling over 180 mph), jumping from city to city was simple. In Southeast China, green tea was just ready to be harvested, and Spring opened up the perfect opportunity to explore the local rural villages. While traveling, I was able to meet many new people, who I sometimes tagged along with and learned Chinese history from.


I’m lucky to have all my grandparents with me, and I’m luckier that I could stay with them for many weeks without other obligations. My grandparents from both sides of my family are in their 80s, and thanks to my aunts and uncles who support them, they can live independently and be surrounded by loved ones. On a typical day, I would take my grandparents on walks and go buy groceries at the local marketplaces. Some days, we would travel nearby to a local attraction, such as a play or a restaurant. When I was a small kid, my grandparents on my mom’s side raised me when my parents were still making the transition to the US. To me, they were my first home, and I love them just as much as I love my parents. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve gone back to visit my family, to be with my grandparents means the world to me, and I’m thankful for all the time I can spend with them.


This year would not have been possible without the support of Olin, the companies that took me under their wings, and my family. Although it might be cheesy, I really believe that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to learn and explore before I graduate and begin my career.  Charlie Nolan, our former Dean of Admissions, was right when he suggested that every student should have an opportunity to take a gap year. If you are also interested in taking some time to experiment and grow outside of the normal flow of life, this is the perfect time to do so, and at Olin you have all the support and resources at your disposal. I hope that my story has given you a glimpse at what time off has had to offer, and that your experiences are just as rewarding as mine was, if not more!

Posted in: Life @ Olin