For super interns in tech, the hustle starts early and comes at a cost

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In her second year of university, communications and new media undergraduate Nicole Ong started to take on an internship, part-time gigs and freelance work on top of school.

A typical day would start with classes at the National University of Singapore (NUS), interspersed by work projects or meetings during breaks, then rushing down to the international school where she taught robotics part-time.

After dinner, the aspiring user interface/user experience (UI/UX) designer would sometimes squeeze in an extra-curricular activity, then continue working late into the night.

To save time so she could get more done, she would stay in her university hall over the weekend instead of travelling back home. Her loved ones and her studies took a backseat.

“I knew something had to give, so it was time with family and friends and academics,” said Ms Ong, 24. She hung out less socially, and “school was like, ah just get it done”.

That was early last year. She remembers it as the semester when she lost many friends, and when her skin would break out in rashes from the stress of trying to do it all. Getting work experience while studying is not new. In fact, it’s a graduation requirement for many computer science or equivalent degrees, including at NUS, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University.

But CNA’s interviews point to a growing trend of students who hope to work in the technology sector taking on multiple internships above and beyond what is required.

The pressure starts early, and these internships are often done at the expense of school as students put academics on the back burner in favour of industry experience.

Mr Gao Xinrui, a 25-year-old computer science undergraduate at NTU, said there is a consensus among the majority of his cohort that having good grades is not enough to gain an advantage in the job market.

For months at a time, he has juggled internships at large technology firms – including a financial services giant and a global crypto exchange – with lessons and exams during the semester.

He currently earns about S$4,000 (US$3,000) a month as a software engineering intern for a mobile super-app.

“You can definitely get by university without doing a lot of internships. You can ... just sort of lead your life as a normal student, just completing one internship, and you could definitely still get a decent-paying job,” he said.

But securing a higher-paying job with a prestigious company will likely require more effort, and he considers this a “fair trade-off”.

Ms Ong has completed nine internships in five years in polytechnic and university so far.

She spent her first semester as a computer science major before transferring, and said the pressure to get internships kicked in as early as her first year.

This pressure is university-wide but especially intense for computer science and business students, she said.

“After a while, when you hear of peers doing all kinds of internships or excelling in their own way, then you feel the need to find your thing,” she said.

Among her friends, it would be “very unusual” for someone to simply be on a break during the school holidays.

“I think there came a point where I didn’t know how to rest. I just felt like, what do I do with all this free time? I should go apply for an internship,” she said.

As a UI/UX design intern, she draws a monthly salary of about S$1,000 to S$1,200. But with freelance gigs, her income reaches five figures in some months.

Her “intense hustling” started after she came to understand the job market into which she would be graduating.

“You understand how competitive (it is), and how inflation is going to wreck people. I think it started to become very tied to money as well,” she said.

“The fear of not having enough to sustain ... how I wanted to live in the future made me hustle a lot.”

Those interviewed agreed that internships are a chance to both explore their professional interests and stack resumes to impress future employers.

In fact, internships started to eclipse school in importance midway through their studies.

Software engineer Wang Rizhao, 24, said that while some students focus on getting good grades, his objective in university was primarily to find a job.

He believes that grades are like “arbitrary criteria” without work experience, and that multinational companies care less about a candidate’s degree compared to “more traditional, local companies”.

“I didn’t care that much about school other than during my first two years,” the NUS computer science graduate said.

After learning the basics, "it’s a lot of very complicated things that you don’t really see in the working environment", he added.

He graduated earlier this year and now works at the global financial services platform where he was previously an intern.

Mr Gao credited his first private sector internship with teaching him how to think like an engineer “instead of just being a coder”.

He was eager to get down to coding when he started, but discovered to his surprise that writing code is actually “kind of discouraged” in large internet companies.

He learnt that thinking through the implications of a piece of code and the reasons why it’s needed are considered more important, to avoid writing unnecessary code.

Unlike school, Mr Gao felt his internships taught him how to approach problems “instead of just using code to solve it”.

He eventually decided to dedicate more time to internships as he felt that grades weren’t “super important”, and his were already satisfactory.

While taking on internships during the semester is not very common among his peers, it is also not rare, he said.

Ms Ong estimated that up to 90 per cent of what she knows about UI/UX design is self-taught.

“I might be biased, but I find university quite useless,” she said.

“If (university) taught me anything, it’s just learning how to learn. And maybe it improved the way I think, like my thought processes, the way I communicate, but not so much on the hard skills.”

This sense of what employers are looking for was borne out by recruitment experts who spoke to CNA.

“Work experience will almost always carry more weight than academic grades because of the complexity of real work projects,” said Ms Chee Sze-Yen, executive director of Career Agility International.

“Candidates who have been exposed to multiple stakeholders and differing expectations all while keeping an eye on the budget and producing quality output will have a competitive edge.”

Hiring for technical roles mostly focuses on the candidate’s performance during the technical round of interviews, said Mr Sachet Sethi, senior manager of technology and transformation at Robert Walters Singapore.

“Especially for the tech industry, practical knowledge and experience are quite relevant to support innovation and transformation,” he said.

In Mr Gao’s experience, a lack of industry experience could mean not being able to answer some of the technical interview questions even for internships.

When he started applying for internships in his first year, competition was such that he received only one concrete offer out of 20 applications.

The single offer came from the public sector. According to Mr Gao, government agencies seem more open to hiring less experienced undergraduates.

Those interviewed recounted good internship experiences mostly at large internet companies.

Mr Wang felt that he was given many opportunities and did “pretty impactful” work during his internship at a leading social media platform.

At the crypto exchange where Mr Gao drew about S$3,500 a month, he felt like there was almost no difference between himself and a full-time employee.

“I’m working on smaller scope projects, but it’s probably used in actual production and I’m actually able to sort of contribute to the real code base,” he said.

The recruitment experts pointed out that hiring interns is also beneficial and cost-effective for companies.

From a long-term perspective, hiring interns allows companies to identify and groom high-potential individuals, said Mr Sethi.

Employers get to “try before (they) buy” and save time and effort in hiring, as interns who perform well can skip interview rounds, added Ms Chee.

Ms Ong is also active on YouTube. She occasionally posts productivity vlogs following a single day in her life during exam season or an all-nighter for work.

She was recently called out for these videos on a social media post that criticised her and other local university vloggers for promoting hustle culture.

It was frustrating to receive such judgment, she said.

“Nobody likes to slog away at work. But you know, if we’re putting in the effort and the hours to improve and try to work hard for our future, why put us down?

“There are consequences to putting all your time and energy to wanting to work so much,” she said. “The intention for posting these things is never to tell people, oh you should be working hard as well.”

For her, the vlogs are about sharing her journey authentically, and that includes talking about the costs of hustling so hard.

“Hustle culture has a negative connotation, right?” she said. “But I think there’s a healthy level of working hard, and there’s a toxic level.

“If you work hard and have good work ethic, and you know how to manage your stress, I think it can be quite a good thing to hustle,” she said.

“If you’re fuelled by fear of the future, maybe that’s when it becomes very, very anxiety-inducing.”

Now just one semester away from graduation, Ms Ong said she feels better compared to when her workload was at its unhealthy peak.

She still believes in the value of hard work.

“If you put in the effort and work hard, I still feel like – it doesn’t always happen – but at least you deserve to see some reward for the hard work that you’ve put in.”

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