Spotlight: Mark Ulrich

mark-ulrichRole:  Personalization & Data Science Intern

” It’s great to work at a place that caters to students. First of all, you contribute something that no one else at the company is able to do, because you’re a current student so you are really valuable in that respect..”

Tell me a little about your background.

I’m from Minneapolis and I attend Stanford as a third year student, majoring in Computer Science. I should have just finished my spring quarter, but instead I did a spring internship at Chegg.

Tell me something interesting about your time at Stanford so far.

After the end of my sophomore year, I got on a plane to the Bahamas to start Semester at Sea. We were sailing across the ocean and all around the Mediterranean – including Morocco and Croatia – where we spent a few days at each port and took some classes on the ship. I took Public Policy and Healthcare and Sustainable Economics. I wanted to take a class on sharks but that filled up too fast.

How did you hear of Chegg?

Chegg acquired a number of interesting companies, one being CourseRank, which was started at Stanford. I’d heard of the students who started CourseRank and was really impressed that they were able to create such a useful product while still in school. Right before I went abroad, I emailed one of the founders and asked if I could meet up with them to learn more about their work, which he was happy to do. Later, an internship opportunity came up and I interviewed over Skype and got the role.

Why did you choose Chegg for your internship?

Before I interviewed with Chegg, I already had an offer from a larger company and was pretty sure I’d take that role. Then, I got the offer from Chegg and while at first I was really torn, all the information I received from Chegg and the experience meeting with everyone just stuck with me. It showed me that Chegg would be more of a unique experience, where I could start out and instantly have work to do and make a difference to the company.  Plus, it’s really nice, being a student, to intern at a place for students. The moment I stepped into the building, you could feel the great atmosphere and collaboration here. People really believe in what they are doing which makes for a great work environment.

What was the main thing you wanted to get out of your internship?

This was my first internship so I didn’t have too many expectations. A lot of my friends said that I wouldn’t be able to contribute too much based on their own internship experiences and that’s not what I found here at all. I was immediately part of the team, going to the same meetings, and talking every day about what I’ve accomplished so far and then showing my results at the end of each week. It’s been really rewarding.

Did anything surprise you about working here?

I wasn’t expecting to start so fast. The day I came, there was a whole write up on what was expected of me and what I’d be doing, so I thought it was very well organized in that sense. I thought I’d be spending time watching what other people are doing and slowly integrate with the team, but it was more: “we are more about getting things done and this is what you need to do.”

What did you work on?

I worked for the Search & Personalization team. It’s our job to make sure that whenever a student comes to the site, we try to guess what they want and what they’ll ask us for so they don’t have to spend the time manually searching through everything. We’re supposed to surface what they may be interested in, giving them recommendations, and telling students everything that Chegg has to offer based on their location, what they’ve done in the past, or what they’re currently looking at.

My job was to implement a front end layer for our personalization API, so whenever we start designing a new content area or new item we want to recommend, we can see what the students will see and very quickly and fluidly experiment with some fine tuning to see how that changes things in real time.

What have you learned by working here?

A lot of technical things – like how to use certain libraries, how to develop fast, how to test so that things are robust, and how to contribute to something that is more large scale than what I’ve seen in my classes. I think it’s been very illuminating to watch a small team of technically gifted people work together and see how they organize things. There is a lot more rigor and precision and planning than I would’ve imagined. You don’t just sit down and start working and keep readjusting, so it’s been interesting to see how the collaborative process works and see how people choose to do things in the sprint process that Chegg uses. They show how important it is to keep track of their process to see how they are doing and help them always improve. That really came through – you always want to have clear goals and clear metrics so you know how you’re doing.

In general – why do you think internships are important for college students?

Well for me, getting an internship before I graduated will affect how I choose my classes next year. Before this, I may have chosen classes that happen to sound interesting the day I signed up, but now I am definitely glad that I was able to meet all these people who work in a field I love, see what they are doing and can decide what classes to take which may prepare me for the area I want to work in.

What advice would you have to other college students looking for internships?

It’s important just how many resources you have. It’s easy to think that you don’t know anyone but if you think more carefully, you will see your network is really bigger than you imagined.  I didn’t know the CourseRank people but I knew they went to my school and I just emailed them letting them know I loved their product. I could have done that with any other company. Think about what you would be proud contributing to and if you approach people and say why you’re interested in their product and that will shine through.

Would you recommend Chegg as a place to work and intern?

Absolutely. It’s great to work at a place that caters to students. First of all, you contribute something that no one else at the company is able to do, because you’re a current student so you are really valuable in that respect. The other employees recognize that and they will ask for your input since you have a unique perspective as both an employee and a customer of Chegg.

Also, it’s a place where you have resources like a big company but people still know each other. You can look up who created some code, or part of the site and immediately walk over to their desk to talk with them. It’s the best of both worlds.

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