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How a Virtual Internship Made a Real and Lasting Impact

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Interns are a critical part of the Argo culture. We see our intern program as a way to feed fresh talent into the organization and an opportunity to develop a pipeline of future employees. We hire these students to infuse new skills and energy into the company, with the goal that the experience will be just as beneficial for them as it is for us. 

This year’s summer internship program, our third annual, was not without its unique challenges. I will admit that I was concerned that our pivot to a remote program due to the COVID-19 pandemic would impact our ability to offer the same experience that our past interns have loved. But our class of 37 undergrad and postgrad interns made the very best of the situation. 

Interns participated in just about every aspect of the development of our self-driving system. They coded. They tested. They built new technologies. Several PhD candidate interns continued to play pivotal roles in leading several elements of our Argoverse dataset and annual competition. In fact, this year’s program will go down in Argo history as one of the most memorable — not only because of their incredible contributions to our teams, but also for the remarkably strong bonds they made across the company.

Having managed several internship programs in the past, I believe that the incredible enthusiasm our employees show towards our interns sets this program apart from others. An intern at Argo will always be welcomed as a member of the team. While their initial employment under the internship program may be temporary, they become and remain a part of Argo.  This summer, we had to be creative to make their remote experience more engaging. We held weekly Lunch and Learns to expose them to other teams, developed resource guides to make company information readily available, and created a “micro” support group led by intern alumni (and current Argo employees) to answer any and all questions. More than once, I was told that compared to past, in-person internships, our interns felt more connected and better engaged to their teams — mission accomplished! 

Normally our intern program ends when schools resume in the fall. This year, however, we gave interns an option to continue virtually, since many colleges and universities have been conducting classes remotely. Sixteen extended their involvement with us through the end of the year — making this the biggest fall intern class we have ever had. 

Here’s the rundown on four of our all-star interns and what they accomplished. 

Akshana Dassanaike-Perera

Akshana has never shied away from putting in the work to achieve his goals. In eighth grade, when he wanted his first smartphone, his father promised to buy him one as soon as he wrote an app that could run on it. And so Akshana coded his first-ever mobile app, which calculated users’ carbon footprints based on their energy-usage habits.

His sophomore year, Akshana and two classmates co-founded Steel City Codes, a program that provides free computer science education to kids in the Pittsburgh area. Last year, he met Argo AI founder Bryan Salesky when Argo became a partner of Steel City Codes, and Bryan invited Akshana and his fellow co-founders as guests on the No Parking podcast. Akshana knew from that meeting that Argo was the kind of place where he wanted to work. And so, after graduating from North Allegheny Senior High School in June, he reached out to us to ask for an internship, and we were more than happy to have him join the team.

Akshana is taking part in Argo AI’s internship program during his gap year before attending Stanford next fall. As a Software Engineer Intern on the Prediction team, he’s been working on a tool to visualize and inspect the high-dimensional embeddings produced by Argo deep forecasting models. This helps the team understand what the deep forecasting models are learning and identify areas for improvement. 

As an 18-year-old tackling sophisticated machine learning algorithms, Akshana says, the learning curve was steep at first. That’s why the mentorship of his manager, Senior Software Engineer Andrew Hartnett, has been so significant. The Prediction team was “extremely helpful getting me up to speed and giving me a bunch of access to resources outside of just this project,” Akshana explains, “so I could get a greater understanding of what was going on and a greater understanding of how this project played into the bigger picture.”

Their teaching has yielded fast results. Early on, Akshana was only able to use the model to predict for the trajectory a single agent based solely off of their previous actions— like the path of one pedestrian walking on a street alone — instead of incorporating the various complex social interactions and behavior of multiple actors at once (which is what our vehicles encounter every day on public roads). Then one day, he had a breakthrough. “The first time I was able to get the model working with inputting more than one agent,” Akshana says, “was extremely exciting.” 

One day, Akshana hopes to found his own software company. He doesn’t know what the specifics will look like yet, but in all likelihood it will have something to do with “using technology to improve conditions” for people around the world. As a leader, Akshana will surely emulate the values he admires most in his employers at Argo: “It’s amazing how much they’ve helped me grow, not only as an engineer, but also as a person.”

Van Pierce

Van, a native of Allentown, Pennsylvania and senior Information Science major at the University of Pittsburgh, was drawn to Argo because he felt that our values left him with a sense of inclusivity he hasn’t experienced at other companies. Because he started his internship in January, he was one of the only interns who actually got to spend some time in our home office. 

This summer, Van interned in the IT department, where he was tasked with tackling project management, technical writing, and systems analysis. One project he particularly enjoyed required him to interface with the Cybersecurity and IT teams. This project’s deliverables grant visibility into the Tier 1 critical assets across the organization, including: uptime, functionality and custom features specific to each system. In an initial effort, Van has already produced Argo proprietary code and committed multiple modules to a production repository. His technical expertise paired with his project management skills made him a strong leader on this project   –an opportunity that Van felt broadened his career focus. “Projects that are cross-collaborative in nature really allow you to grow and expand in areas where you might have not seen yourself delving into,” he said. 

Sandy Turko, manager in the IT department, was impressed with Van’s ability to distill complex documents into accessible and digestible content for a general audience. Turko remembers one project where Van summarized a detailed 36-page system document into a few easy-to-follow pages. “We use the TL;DR method when applicable and he was able to step right in and embrace it like a pro,” she says. “His strengths played well in areas of demand as we grow as an organization.”

Looking forward, Van is one of the interns who will join Argo full-time after he graduates in December. “Argo really cares about your growth and success, which is really important for someone who is just starting out,” he says.

Sandra Roksic

Sandra, an Electrical Engineering major at California Polytechnic State University, was our first-ever hardware Technical Program Management (TPM) intern. During her time with us, she was able to develop and build on various program-management skills, among them performing risk assessments, defining project scope, and optimizing the use of task management tools Jira and Confluence to help the team work more effectively.

Sandra’s manager, Nikolas Stewart, saw “tremendous strides” in her leadership, and noted that she developed automated processes that helped improve how we track and communicate quarterly objectives. “The quality that stood out to me the most about Sandra is that she has a really positive attitude that influences those around her to do their best work,” said Stewart, the Hardware Execution Lead working with our partner Ford. “She figures out what needs to be done and rallies others to be engaged in the challenge.” 

The native of Serbia gained another valuable skill, too: Self-reliance. “I doubted my abilities out of fear of possible rejection early on; I was the young, female, intern leading a project with team members who were more familiar with the technical work than I was,” said Sandra, whose family moved to San Diego, when she was 4. “But I challenged myself to speak with confidence when presenting project updates and to ask for help or clarification when necessary.”

Ultimately, Sandra said she became “a confident and involved project leader.” She even had the opportunity to present her work to the entire company and engage in a discussion with Argo leadership during a recent global All-Hands meeting.

Following her internship, Sandra transitioned into working part-time with Argo, which she will do through the end of the year. She also started a new role as a graduate teaching associate in the Electrical Engineering department at Cal Poly. The outdoors enthusiast expects to graduate with a Master of Science degree next year. 

Mani Movva

There’s no question Mani had doubts about an internship program over Zoom; the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student admits he was “worried” that working from his home would make it difficult to learn and forge new relationships with colleagues. But whenever he felt lonely or overwhelmed by the work, he just reached out. “It actually drove me to seek out help more often and make stronger connections with full-time employees,” he said. “Once I became closer with my team, it became easier to work.”

Specifically, Mani worked on the Platform & Services team. Over the course of the summer he expanded his backend and frontend toolkit, gaining experience writing and deploying Java code that interacts with message queues and databases. He also built APIs using gRPC, an open-source remote procedure call (RPC) framework.

Software Engineer Noe Brito was Mani’s supervisor for the duration of the internship and said he was “blown away” by how quickly Mani was able to master these technologies, considering he’d never worked with them before. “He told me, ‘There’s a lot out there I didn’t even know existed,’ and then he went and taught himself how to do it,” Brito said. “I expected lots of hand holding but he really did a lot on his own.”

Mani is expecting to graduate in early 2021 and said his experience has him considering a career in programming for self-driving technology. “The mentorship I received is irreplaceable,” he says. “It is a major part of why I felt like I belonged during my internship.”

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