A Savas Labs Internship

cartoon with text the word slave is so degrading, why don't we just call you intern

If you’ve ever contemplated a drastic career change, then you’ve probably thought about what it’d be like to start at the beginning again at some point.

In this post, I’d like to share my 3 month internship experience for anyone who’s considering making the switch to Web Development, or who may be curious about the learning environment here at Savas Labs.

Visiting the Team

Since I’m located 2,845 miles from Savas Labs HQ, one of my biggest concerns starting out as a newbie was the added challenge of telecommuting. To get me up and running as fast as possible, Chris and I decided I’d fly to Durham to meet the team and work in the office together for my first week.

It was great to kick-off my internship with in-person QA sessions and impromptu whiteboarding (not to mention meeting my teammates and being graciously invited to their homes!). Even though we relied on screenshares and conference calls just fine after that first week, being in the same physical space to start off with helped establish my presence with the team and laid a strong learning foundation for the remainder of my internship.

An Inclusive Learning Environment

Everyone at Savas Labs contributed to my learning! I was encouraged by the entire team, and no one was above taking the time to show me how to install Composer or configure DrupalVM. I felt comfortable asking questions and was encouraged to do so from the beginning.

It helped that many on the team had also transitioned from other careers and understood what it felt like to be overwhelmed by a barrage of new information. More than once, Dan or Anne would check in and ask me if I needed any help or had any general questions (thanks you guys!). And I could tell everyone took my internship seriously, and never once was I made to feel inconsequential!

Likewise, I found the internship to be anything but a one-sided experience. My thoughts on workflow and documentation were welcome from the beginning and it was nice to have my voice be a part of the discussion about virtualization, even though I had minimal experience. It was very satisfying to contribute to the company while Savas Labs was investing in me.

The Learning

There is. A lot. To. Learn (I mean, it can’t all be roses right?).

Though comfortable with programming syntax when I started (a significant portion of my last job was writing custom object-oriented programs for mechanical systems), I had never heard of git before or had any idea how to use the command line. I had, essentially, zero Web Development experience1.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the sheer breadth and volume of material I’d need to know just to reach a modicum level of proficiency. I spent the first month figuring out the foundations – making pull requests, figuring out how to download software from the command line (don’t even get me started on virtualization)– before I could even start to dip my toes into Drupal development. This sounds naive now, but I was genuinely surprised when I realized that Web Development was going to be much more difficult than reading a few good books on Drupal and CSS!

Likewise, I think this presented a teaching challenge for Savas Labs as well. Before I started, Chris and Remy2 created a list of what I was expected to cover in the course of this internship. Frankly, the topics assumed a lot of foundational knowledge that I didn’t have yet. I’d start tackling a task only to realize that I was missing a critical package manager or had skipped a step I didn’t even know was needed. In those moments I found myself wishing there was a more structured curriculum.

As I started to get the basics down, my learning became more focused as I began to get involved with client projects. I found task-based learning more satisfying because I was contributing to projects and the team. While no project is without busywork, the team wasn’t just trying to offload mindless drudgery to the newest pair of hands – I could tell my teammates were thinking about the value of each assignment and how that would help me build upon the previous lessons I’d just learned.

Mentoring & Community

My mentor, Lisa, was instrumental in the success of my internship. Given how much there was (and still is!) to learn, having an experienced person actively direct my focus was invaluable.

When I became a bit adrift after the first month, Lisa guided me towards site building and eventually even created a simulated D7 client project for me to work on. And mindful of the changing Web Development landscape, Lisa counseled me to emphasize Drupal 7/Drupal 8 learning instead of spending time on Drupal 6 projects. We started meeting twice a week (sometimes more!) to discuss my progress or deep dive into topics like the history of version control. All this took a significant amount of Lisa’s time (thank you Lisa!), and is proof of the Savas Labs team’s dedication to each other’s growth as developers.

More generally, this generosity is something I’ve noticed throughout the Web and Drupal communities. In the few months since I’ve started, I sense that my colleagues don’t just look towards their day-to-day responsibilities at Savas Labs, but also beyond, at what they can contribute to Development at large. This isn’t exclusive to our company either. The number of how-to articles, Stack Exchange conversations, and Open Source public repos available is inspiring!

Last Thoughts

There’s still mountains to learn, and I’ll probably be bouncing around the “Desert of Despair” for some time to come. But I’d like to end by saying that it’s been incredibly satisfying to have even come this far (with the help of my knowledgeable and amazingly supportive teammates of course!).

And yes, I’ve graduated!

  1. If you’re just starting out, Viking Code School sums up the learning challenges quite well (the concepts are applicable to Drupal too), and I found the description to be painfully accurate!

  2. Fun Fact: I met Chris/Savas through my husband, Remy Denton (yes, we’re aware of the House of Cards guy!). Remy is a Developer and former colleague of Chris’s at Isovera. He put me in touch with Savas while I was considering the transition to Web Development and helped Chris put together the initial learning curriculum.