Sitka Technology Group

Code, Conservation, and Culture: Defining a Sitka Internship

Late last fall, as I pondered the places where budding software engineers might seek internships, I realized I was limiting myself. I was considering companies where friends had worked, companies that came to campus career fairs, and companies I’d heard of growing up. So, I opened a new search tab on my laptop and asked myself, what sort of company do I wish existed?

I decided to seek out software companies within niche areas of interest; for me, these were education, biotech, and the environment. When I used “software development conservation” as my search query, Sitka Technology Group was a top result. I found the projects on their website compelling, so I cold-emailed a generic sounding contact address. I figured that might be the end of it.

To my surprise, I received a positive response from one of Sitka’s managing partners the next day. After a few phone screens, I was enthusiastic to proceed with the technical hiring process. Sitka has no formal internship program or dedicated recruiting staff, so I was interviewed directly by my future teammates via video chat. I experienced the collaborative nature of the team as we worked together on a coding problem. This informal process stands in stark contrast to those of large tech companies, where you’re often asked to commit to an internship offer without any knowledge of your particular team or projects. The lack of a formalized internship program also gave me flexibility with start and end dates – convenient since I had quite a short (two month) summer after returning from a year abroad.

RCD Project TrackerThe photo carousel on the RCD Project Tracker homepage was one of the first features I developed during my Sitka internship.

On my first day of work in June, my team helped me launch immediately into the domain and client contexts, such as environmental project tracking, stormwater management, and performance measures, that I needed to grasp in order to work on our products. From day one, I was invited to attend client meetings and provide input on design and development. I contributed mainly to the Lake Tahoe Info site and to the RCD Project Tracker, an instance of the open-source ProjectFirma platform. Full-stack development provided a new challenge for my object-oriented software engineering background, and I honed my skills around database scripts, frontend languages, and UI/UX-focused development.

 My team showed enormous patience as I was getting up to speed. Pair programming was useful for gaining context while learning the design patterns and file structure of our software stack. My teammates remained fully interruptible when I needed to make an architectural decision or clarify a specification. I appreciated the trust they placed in me. With their encouragement, I worked on client-facing features from the start, giving me a sense of ownership over my work in a way that working on a non-critical intern side project probably wouldn’t have. Technical particulars aside, my status as "just another team member" was likely the most valuable part of my Sitka experience.

When there are 25 people in your company and just 6 on your team, fit matters. I loved the company culture at Sitka, from the monthly team and company lunches to the volunteer events that some of us attended, like the trail maintenance event in Forest Park. Any organizational hierarchy that exists in the company didn’t overshadow daily interactions. At team meetings, we were explicitly encouraged to share our views and to be heard equally. Building a work environment where one can speak candidly and comfortably about diversity and inclusion in a team meeting is rare, but my teammates made this possible. Knowing that you will be judged on your merit and effort – regardless of gender, race, age, or physical ability – is hardly a guarantee in the tech industry, but Sitka is conscientious about creating an inclusive environment.

Forest Park Volunteer Event - 2017Sitka employees and family members at a Forest Park volunteer trail maintenance event in July.

Aside from the technical skills you might gain from an internship, learning to be a good team member is key to your success. I learned to balance asking for help with struggling through new challenges independently, trying to optimize such that I wasn’t wasting anyone else’s or my own time. Effectively communicating what you need when you’re stuck, whether it’s more clarification or a worked example or a second opinion, is also critical.

Though it’s ending too soon, my positive experience this summer makes me confident in my ability to create opportunities for myself in the future. Luckily for job and internship seekers these days, we have a world of relevant opportunities at our fingertips – as long as we bother to look for them by refining our search terms. The Internet makes it simple. Don’t give up on a company because they don’t have an internship program or aren’t hiring for your exact position. If you have something relevant to offer and you’ve done your research, then a cold-email acting as a cover letter won’t be written off as generic or spam. If your interest and enthusiasm is genuine, let it come through. Use any subsequent interview process to learn about your potential role at the company, the culture, the teams, and the people.

I’m happy with my summer at Sitka and the thought processes that bookended it. I started by trusting my instincts and my desire to be mission-driven, and then followed through rationally. I like where that’s taking me.