A glimpse of startup culture

Tuesday, August 9, 2016 - 4:00pm

Unique ‘winternship’ introduces grad to the inner workings of a tech startup

Twenty-five years ago, an internship helped Craig Unger, A.B. ’91, launch his computer science career. Now, he is paying it forward by providing internship opportunities for current students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

The summer after his junior year, Unger, a computer science and applied math concentrator, interned at Microsoft, collaborating with the team working on the company’s Excel spreadsheet product. The unique challenges of that project enticed Unger to accept a position at Microsoft after graduation, the beginning of a 21-year career at the tech giant.

Three years ago, Unger left Microsoft  to launch Azuqua with friend and co-founder Nikhil Hasija. Azuqua helps companies streamline operations by integrating more than 60 cloud-based applications. Now at the helm of his own firm, Unger wanted to provide opportunities for students from his alma mater to gain experience working at a busy tech startup. He knew how valuable internships could be for students, but he believed the benefits would run both ways.

“Bringing on interns keeps us connected to the thinking that is going on at the University, and the things that are relevant in the minds of students,” Unger said. “It enables our company to see the tech world from a different perspective.”

Miles away from Unger’s small, Seattle firm, Luis Perez, A.B. ’16, a computer science concentrator, was gearing up for the start of his final year at Harvard. After interning at Google over the summer, he was set to begin a software engineering position there after graduation. But Perez felt a persistent draw toward the more flexible realm of startups. Looking to learn more about entrepreneurship, he signed on for a “winternship” at Azuqua.   

Organized by the Harvard Office of Career Services, winternships are held in weeklong segments during January term. The brief but immersive programs are designed to give students a taste of a certain field or company.

“I saw this winternship as a way to test unknown waters and see something new,” Perez said. “Initially, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of it.”

After landing at Azuqua, Perez hit the ground running. He worked on KeepWatch, a tool Azuqua employees use to monitor the firm’s systems. His task was to integrate the KeepWatch system with the communications platform Slack. Perez especially enjoyed the challenges of working with a completely new framework and tackling front-end development issues.

The winternship also provided Perez with an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of a startup directly from Azuqua’s leaders.

“Mentorship was a critical piece of the winternship,” Unger said. “Luis was here as a fly on the wall to see what makes a startup tick, so he can see how it happens on its own. He had access to the highest levels of our company.”

Perez learned about the financial side of launching a company and saw how members of the leadership team often wear multiple hats. Unger’s story served as inspiration for Perez. He built a successful career at Microsoft and then branched out on his own to fill a gap in the market.

“From the get go, we bonded over similar experiences that we shared from Harvard. He studied computer science, taught the same classes I was teaching, worked at Microsoft, and now he’s running a startup,” Perez said. “I can very clearly visualize how that could be me, a few years from now.”

Perez was encouraged by the passion Unger and his co-founder showed for their work. Coworkers didn’t always see eye-to-eye on every decision, but their collaboration and dedication ultimately fuels the company’s growth, Perez said.

The experience was so transformative for Perez that he pushed back his start-date at Google so he could intern at Azuqua over the summer.

“After having this experience at Azuqua, I’ve realized that, for me, launching a startup is no longer an ‘if,’ but a ‘when,’” he said. “I don’t have that great idea yet, but now I know that having flexibility and responsibility on my shoulders is the best way to incentivize me to move forward.”