One of my favourite short stories is ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’, by the great Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. In this story a poet attempts to recreate Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote by assuming totally the persona of Cervantes. He realises however that it is an infinitely richer creative experience to instead arrive at a classic deriving only from his own experience.
The same is true of start-up software companies, that the most successful and meaningful are those that strike out in a new direction, deriving from their experience to revolutionise an industry, rather than attempting to emulate bygone greats. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, you don’t arrive at success by wearing turtle neck sweaters and blue jeans.
So last July when I saw that Xero were to participate in the excellent Summer of Tech internship programme that my alma mater Victoria University was a member of, I decided to wage a campaign for employment so that I could gain some experience within a successful local startup. My efforts were fortunately successful, and Xero gave me the opportunity to complement my studies in software engineering with three months worth of industry experience.
It is sometimes said that software is a craft industry, and in that sense one could think of an internship with Xero as an opportunity to apprentice under a master artisan. Except the master artisan is a team of many, all of whom tick together like an elaborate machine to produce the familiar Xero facade.
My work, essentially, is observing all the interlocking parts that comprise the cloud, and making sure that if something isn’t ticking over we find and fix it before it reaches the broader public. In doing so I learn about the techniques and pitfalls that go into making a highly available and complex modern web application.
The move from solving the toy problems of university to monitoring, diagnosing, and solving issues in the scale and complexity of one of the fastest growing software as a service companies was no small ask, but it was one I was glad to have been given the chance to field. While I may be some way from writing the Don Quixote of apps, the experience and exposure given to me by this time is surely an invaluable contribution to my future in development.
It has also made me realise something that is maybe lost in the singular focus of academic studies, that depth of theoretical knowledge isn’t the be all and end all in a software company. This time has given me a huge appreciation for the amazing work that is put in by the developers, the design team, the customer care, the marketing and everyone else, and which drives the innovation of the company.
I have to thank Xero for introducing me to, and helping me through, such a varied range of tasks, even if coming out of it I’ve realised that there is so much more out there for me to learn. I also met heaps of really talented and interesting people, not least my esteemed colleague and fellow intern Nick Dowse, who unfortunately has left us for the lures of travel, and left me with the hefty responsibility of the intern blog.
I’d like to wrap up by recognising my direct co-workers in the product team for how welcoming and helpful they were, and for putting up with my presentation’s rather tenuous analogies between modern software and Latin American magical realism authors like Jorge Luis Borges. However, Borges also once said: “Time can’t be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while every day, perhaps every hour, is different.”. I think of all the ways I could have spent my time this summer and working for Xero has to rate as one of the most valuable.