Interning at Gusto, and reflections on how I got here

(Reproduced from the Gusto Engineering Blog)

My first job ever was at a local running store in my hometown. I was a fresh high school graduate looking to make some money before I went off to college, and I remember spending a couple of weeks trying to find a job with no luck.

One day, while skateboarding around my area, I happened to see a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of this running store. Not having anything to lose, I went in and asked if I could help out for the summer. Even though I never had a job before, the owner of this store took a chance and said I could start the next week.

I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it, it was my first real job where I actually could earn money for myself! I remember telling my mom about this opportunity I got, and I remember her hugging me and saying, “Congratulations on finally being an adult!”

I felt an amazing sense of independence that I never felt in my life. I was ready to learn everything I could, and more ready to give it my all.

At the running store

My daily routine at the store was more or less the same every day. Every morning, I would open new shipments of shoes and other running peripherals, and restock the shelves. Whenever a customer came in, I would try to help them by recommending particular shoes that would hopefully solve whatever foot problem they had. In the afternoon, when things were a little slower, I cleaned the store and tried to learn how to code on the computer when there was nothing else to do.

I was there eight to nine hours a day most days of the week. I learned about foot issues like bunions and hammertoes, and how to pick the right shoes that would optimize the comfort for each customer. I learned about the advantages of different brands and how each shoe felt on my foot. I learned how to use the cash register, and I learned how to talk to many different kinds of people, from security guards whose feet were cramped and exhausted, to software engineers, who were preparing for marathons and had no idea what to do.

One interesting thing I found while working at this store was how many different hats I had to wear as a regular employee. Sometimes, the owner of the store (and my boss) needed help with some software if it was acting funny, and sometimes, she needed someone to design a poster for a sale that was happening in the near future. For such tasks, she usually relied on me to pull through.

So I wasn’t just someone selling shoes, I was someone who was helping my boss keep the business growing. Knowing this and helping members in my local community have healthy feet brought me a lot of personal satisfaction, something that I didn’t get from studying all the time in high school. It also taught me a lot about personal responsibility and giving something you believe in your heart and soul, just like my boss did with her store. Summer 2013.

At Gusto

Fast forwarding to 2016, I was lucky enough this summer, right before my 4th year of college, to get a software engineering internship here at Gusto. It took a lot of studying and perseverance to get this far, so just like how I felt in my first job, I was prepared to learn as much as I could while I was here. I quickly found that the great thing about working here was that everyone prided themselves in helping small businesses that were risking it all. Everyone here believes in some way that giving back to the community is important.

Coming from the running store so many years ago, this really resonated with me. Small businesses not only help their communities, but influence their cultures and people in profound ways. They also give some people like me their first jobs, and teach responsibilities and people skills that can’t be learned anywhere else. It was great that Gusto focused not only on small businesses, but each local community they resided in as well.

This idea that community is everything is carved deep into Gusto’s culture. We have lunches and dinner where everyone — from sales to product, from care to engineering — eats together and talks about various topics that have nothing to do with our professional lives. In a way, it was refreshing to get different perspectives from a diverse number of employees, all who were very different but still shared what the founders call our core values. What I love about how they explained our core values is that everyone going into Gusto has these values already: they aren’t learned or taught. Everyone here believes that we are here to make things better, and it makes working here a joy every day.

What’s amazing about this sense of community is that it stretches beyond just San Francisco. The interns were lucky enough to have the opportunity to check out the offices in Denver, Colorado and even hundreds of miles away, Gusto always feels like one team and one family. To maintain such a high quality of consistency and camaraderie is rare to find in a company these days; one of my fellow interns even said that when it comes to culture, Gusto definitely got it 100 percent right.

Sometimes, while working at Gusto, I would take a breather and feel some nostalgia for my job at the running store. In one of these nostalgic moments, I would think about how I used to have to wear different hats at the store to help keep the business going and growing. It just so happens that almost every Gusto engineer does the same exact thing in an engineering context.

At Gusto, we believe that every engineer is a full-stack engineer. I remember first getting here and being almost overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of technologies that made our application possible, from React to Backbone to Ruby on Rails, to even testing frameworks like Mocha and RSpec (since engineers here test their own code instead of relying on a QA team). And that’s just a very small subset of everything! I remember thinking that there was no way in hell that anyone here knew the stack inside and out. Each framework and technology was different, so how could someone even go about mastering them all?

Yet, after pair programming with many different full-time engineers over the period of a few weeks, I was amazed to see how many engineers could immediately identify a problem and explain to me how to go about solving it. It didn’t matter if it was a bug on the client side or the backend, or if it was a confusing test to write, or anything else like that. Some people just knew the code base so well that they immediately knew where to look whenever I hit a roadblock and had a question for them.

Sometimes, problems were a little harder to solve, and required more than just a single person to power through the issue. This is when I noticed how much engineers at Gusto love helping each other out. No matter what an engineer was doing, if someone asked him or her a question, they would stop what they were doing and spend time trying to solve the issue together. The amount of trust shared among the engineers here brings a quality of work and passion that empowered me to always try my best and keep working, even if it was a problem I didn’t exactly know how to do on the top of my head.

Looking back at it all

Like at the running store, there were some days at Gusto in which I had to put in longer hours, sometimes late into the night after everybody left. But the great thing was that it never really felt like I was working, but rather learning how to do things and use certain technologies for myself with the helpful guidance of other people. Seeing other people work hard and knowing that what I was doing was helping people had a weird feedback loop effect on me. I kept pushing myself to learn more because I began to believe in the product so much. I started to work #withGusto, as people around here like to say.

The work I did here ended up being incredibly meaningful to me and satisfying, especially because of my past experiences at that running store. The fact that I was helping people like my old boss focus more time on their businesses rather than on taxes or forms was always on the back of my mind.

There are times when I will look back and be thankful for what I learned in the running store, because working there humbled me and helped me become a better person, and ultimately a better prospective engineer. I will sometimes look back and also realize how far I’ve come, from learning HTML and JavaScript through Codecademy in the backroom of that running store, to now being able to contribute to a great startup in the heart of San Francisco. Working at that store also showed me that every opportunity, no matter how small and seasonal it is, can have an immense rippling effect on not only your own development but the community around you.

I was actually able to talk about my experiences at the running store while interviewing for Gusto, and how it helped shape my mentality today. I realized that being able to look back at this journey helped me appreciate this internship at Gusto so much more. Interning at Gusto also reinforced for me the message that each small business is a world of opportunity and a textbook full of lessons for everyone, from the employees themselves to the customers who choose to support and explore a local business over a larger vendor.

I still go back to that store. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where I will buy my running shoes, purely because the owner was the only one that took a chance on an 18 year old who didn’t know the first thing about having a job. I actually found out that my old boss now uses Gusto too, which makes my whole journey a little poetic in some way. I’m so glad that I had that first job because I learned so much from having that opportunity, and working at Gusto made me feel like I was paying it forward.

Gusto’s mission is to put people first over everything else. We believe that people aren’t resources, and that people are the center of every successful endeavor, especially businesses. We believe that every employee matters, and that stuff like Payroll, Benefits, and HR should be easy for everyone. Just like how small businesses put an incredible investment into improving the culture of their communities, Gusto puts an investment into helping the people at these businesses do more by letting us take care of the hard stuff, and making work a joy rather than a pain.

I’m convinced that by letting these businesses and their people do the best work of their lives, Gusto is doing what it can to make the world a little better, one small community at a time.

Note: I wasn’t able to mention this in the original posting, but if you ever find yourself in Cupertino, CA, check out Fitgeek Sports 😉

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