John Garrahan, intern at Zendesk
John Garrahan. Image: Zendesk

Zendesk intern: ‘I never felt like I was stuck with the grunt work’

19 Jun 2018

When you’re starting an internship, there can often be a worry at the back of your mind that you’ll be on coffee duty.

Applying for an internship can often be one of the first steps you will take in the working world and it can have a profound effect on the rest of your working life. Therefore, the company you choose to go to as an intern can prove to be very important.

You’ll want to know that during your internship, you will learn genuinely beneficial skills and get to work on important projects.

When John Garrahan became an intern with Zendesk, he wasn’t expecting to work on the actual products, but he was pleasantly surprised.

What did you study in college?

I studied enterprise computing in Dublin City University.

What drew you to Zendesk when you were seeking an internship?

I’m sure I share the common desire of anyone studying or working in IT, which is wanting to work on projects seen and used by millions of people worldwide. Zendesk offered this and more.

When I first looked at the job description, I got the impression that Zendesk was looking to hire interns who reflected the company’s values and embodied their passions. This gave me that initial drive to just go for it and see if I could get anywhere with my application.

It’s interesting to look back on this process, as I remember going for the interview and seeing other candidates who, in my mind at the time, were far more qualified and suited to the role than I was.

I just kept telling myself that this was something I really wanted and have a genuine passion for and I tried to keep it cool, and I guess it worked out pretty well for me!

Zendesk seemed to have a really honest and transparent business ethic, which is really attractive to me.

What expectations did you have before you began your internship?

It took quite a while for the fact that I’d been offered a job with Zendesk to settle in, so I never really thought too hard about what I’d actually be doing.

Initially, I was expecting to be given a list of topics to learn, and then report back when they’re done sort-of-thing. That I’d be spending a lot of time studying, as opposed to working on features and processes that would actually benefit and be used by the Zendesk client. That if I was working on anything at all, it would be small, miscellaneous bug fixes or features touched by a niche group of customers.

It was really great to see that it wasn’t like that at all. I was included in all of the team’s activities from the very start and learned through doing and working on a whole range of different tasks, learning new concepts and experiencing new technologies along the way.

What duties and responsibilities were you given initially?

Working on one of the Zendesk Talk development teams, I was immediately immersed in my team’s workflow. I was initially paired with a senior engineer on the team, who helped me with getting started and showed me the ropes.

We paired together on tasks and he explained the various processes I’d be using. This was really helpful as I had someone to bounce questions off and ramped up my understanding of the technical side of the product.

I started taking on my own tasks, which was a great introduction into working with code on such a large scale. Learning to navigate the various repositories is a skill in itself.

I was encouraged to keep working until I couldn’t go any further, at which point someone would happily pair with me, discuss possible solutions and direct me towards the next steps. This was incredibly beneficial and really accelerated my learning.

Did the scope of your work change as the internship progressed?

Definitely. My duties and responsibilities soon started to mirror that of the other engineers on the team. As I began to develop my skills, the level of complexity and difficulty of the tasks assigned to me also increased.

I never once felt as if I was stuck with the ‘grunt work’ that can be associated with the intern title. My team was always really encouraging and understanding, always finding time to help me understand the problems I came across.

Working on the development and stability of the Zendesk Talk product, I was constantly given opportunities to work with various teams throughout the world.

This resulted in challenging and rewarding experiences, as you get to see the work that other international teams are doing and then integrate your own work to fit in alongside them.

Can you describe a typical day in your role?

There really isn’t a typical day in the work I’m doing. Zendesk is all about constant development and progression, always striving to make the products bigger and better. With that, the work associated with Zendesk is also complex and diverse.

I’m lucky to be working on the development side of things, which allows me to touch on and implement new features on a near-daily basis. I can be working with Ruby, React, Ember.js or even fixing some CSS layout issues depending on the task at hand. It’s really exciting having such diverse work.

What key things have you learned during this internship?

A key skill that I’ve improved upon here is definitely my problem-solving abilities. Each new task or bug-fix is essentially a problem that needs fixing. The ability to take a step back and map out a problem instead of diving straight in has saved me from a huge amount of headaches.

One of the great things about Zendesk is that just fixing the problem or creating the feature isn’t the end – you’re then working backwards to see what’s the most optimised and scalable path you can take to deliver the fix. There’s huge collaboration that goes into any code that reaches the live client, helping to improve the quality of the code throughout.

Being in an agile environment and working as part of an agile team has been a really valuable learning experience. It’s shown me the importance and benefits of transparency.

Frequent review sessions and project prioritisation ensures that you’re always doing the most valued work that you can. This motivated me a lot as I knew I was always working on the forefront of our team’s deliverables.

Also, the ability to debug correctly. Reading logs has never really been something I had much exposure to before I started here, but I’ve come to see the value and importance of it. You can track down unexpected behaviour and see what exactly it’s trying to do or why it’s failing.

Has this internship made you feel as though you’re on the right career path?

Without a doubt. Zendesk has really inspired me to keep developing myself on both a personal and professional level. I’ve had huge exposure to a wide variety of best practices and technologies. Being able to create cool new things that will be used by a huge amount of people is highly rewarding.

It’s challenging and there’s a lot to understand, but Zendesk has provided me with an encouraging learning environment, which has allowed me to work on some incredible things already.

It’s brought me to see how much quality work can be done by a highly motivated and brilliant team, and being able to share that with them is awesome.

Do you feel more prepared for working life following your internship?

I absolutely feel more prepared after this internship. I’ve been surrounded by fantastic colleagues who’ve all taught me so much, and helped me develop so many of my skills.

I’ve been paired with people working on some really complex problems, and seeing them overcome and make the issues seem simple is a really unique experience.

Every day I’ve been working on something new, exploring new technologies and tackling the next task. I feel as though I’ve created a solid foundation here, which I can keep building on and take with me on whatever path that follows.

Why should someone take up an internship at Zendesk?

The management is incredible. The culture of a company really does stem from the top down. They’re inspirational leaders who make you want to keep improving and developing, and they’ll help you get there in any way they can.

For Zendesk to still keep a lot of that start-up feel while being as big as they are is really a credit to them and their workplace teams.

If you’re passionate about IT and eager to learn, I couldn’t think of a better place than Zendesk. MacBooks, unrestricted Udemy courses, fully stocked fridges, workplace events nearly every week – there really isn’t anything else I could ask for.

The best part about working at Zendesk, for me, is that every day I feel like I’m making a difference. You feel value in the work that you’re doing, constantly seeing the implementation of projects you’ve been working on.

Everything you’re doing has an impact, even as an intern, which is something I really admire about Zendesk.

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