When Theo — employee number 007 — appears on my screen, the Perseverance Rover looms out of the Martian landscape behind him.
Theo is the youngest Engineering Manager I’ve ever met. He began his career at Forma.ai just a few busy years ago, and today he is here to talk to me about how that happened and what it was like at Forma.ai in those early days.
How long have you been working for Forma.ai?
I’ve been working here for a while now, nearly four years. I came from the University of Toronto Computer Science program, so I was looking for an internship and came across Forma.ai through one of the intern job boards.
What made you set up shop in Nabeil’s kitchen?
Well, I think when you’re young, it’s crucial to put in as much effort as you can early on, to give yourself the best chance. That effort won’t pay off in every organization, but I felt like it would with Nabeil.
Yeh, it was a bit strange because I had no idea what sales incentive compensation was, but I was interested in finding out. The coolest part was the opportunity to be way more involved in growing the company, as well as the engineering projects. Not many interns get to do that.
I’m not much of a routine person either, so it was attractive not to have to go to a fixed schedule for the sake of it. The flexibility was appealing but what mainly drew me was that the focus was on what outcomes you delivered, instead of just clocking in for X hours a day.
What was Forma.ai like in those early days?
I was in the second group of interns that joined but still only a handful of people at the company — about ten.
We were located in Nabeil’s house in Cabbagetown, and there wasn’t a meeting room, so we used to do our 1:1s walking around the block. If you live in Toronto, you’ll know Cabbagetown is an eclectic part of town. People were drinking in the street at all hours of the day and things like that. Once I saw a guy riding a bike with a snake wrapped around his shoulders.
My favorite tradition was our lively Friday team lunches at House on Parliament. Most of us woke up on Nabeil’s couch (which was also the office couch) at one point or another. Nabeil and his wife made me breakfast after I woke up there the morning after the holiday party.
One evening we were grabbing some beers for a late shift, and on the way back from the shop, our Product Manager gave a homeless guy a beer. The guy was so thankful he hugged him. Martin was itchy for the rest of the evening. A couple of weeks before we left the area, we realized there was a really nice area just around the corner.
What sort of work did you get to do?
Back then, we were still working to prove out the product and that meant there were a lot of deadline crunches — a lot of updates went out just a couple of minutes before they were due! We felt like we had to prove to the world this idea worked.
Mostly, I was working with Stryker Canada, our first client, and getting a taste for solving all types of problems — not just development! I didn’t even know what I was good at when I started, so I tried a lot of things.
I got to work on everything from setting up dashboards in the front-end to building out our first iteration of containerized cloud infrastructure. I also got involved in lots of client demos and it was really cool to prototype what the product would look like in the future.
Why did you stay at Forma.ai?
After more than a year of solving real problems with some brilliant people, I didn’t want to go back to school — it seemed boring in comparison. So, I decided to stay at Forma.ai and study part-time to finish my degree.
Partly, I was surprised Nabeil wanted me to stay — I think I spent the first few weeks just breaking code and causing problems! I even messed up a client demo once — and we didn’t get that customer. It was terrifying because I thought Nabeil was going to fire me. But instead, he turned into an opportunity for me to learn.
Over time, I was able to take ownership of a few products. The prospect of scaling those and growing the team needed to do that really excited me.
What was Forma.ai like in those early days?
Even though we’ve grown a lot since I joined, interns are still involved in product and engineering much more than they would be in most larger companies.
They’re involved in supporting peer reviews very early on, which is a skill that folks don’t get to develop until later in their career.
Our interns can pretty much take on whatever problems they feel comfortable with, or better still, the ones they’re not comfortable with. They’re not “just an intern.” We trust our interns and consider them part of the team.
Our approach is that all interns are created equal. It’s pretty much square one for everyone. We try to allow them to experiment with different programs and problems and projects, so they can figure out what interests them.
What makes Forma.ai internships unique?
We’re in a really unique place right now. When our current interns started 12 months ago, we were a team of about 30. By the end of their term in August, we’ll have fully tripled in size — and we have no intention of slowing down after that. Exposure to that sort of exponential growth can really catapult your career.
We have a very long program — longer than most now the trend is for multiple shorter internships during your PEY. We insist on it because we’ve seen the value that interns get in having those close mentoring relationships, both as mentees and mentors.
The final four months are — in some ways — the most exciting because you get to coach your replacement. That pushes you to really test all you’ve learned and discover what you don’t know, as well as what you do.
Do many interns stay on at Forma.ai?
I’m definitely not the only intern that stayed!
Kyle, Jeremy, and Haoke are all interns that ended up staying. We have two interns from last year, Jitesh and Jonathan, who just graduated and will return to us next week.
Many of those who didn’t stay are finishing further education and hopefully will return to us too. They’ve been foundational in building the company and we’re happy to have them back and give them further opportunities to grow.
If people are interested in learning more about being an intern at Forma.ai, our VP of Engineering did a Reddit AMA a while back, which I encourage people to check out.
Any advice for people looking for an internship?
The one thing you need to optimize your career for right now is growth. That can mean things like freedom, networking, and mentorship. If you’re looking for an extra $10k at this stage, you’re missing the big picture. But it is tough to tell which companies will give you the best opportunity to grow.
It mainly comes down to your personality: if you’re the type of person who thrives in structure and being creative within fixed boundaries and processes, you’ll probably enjoy being at a huge enterprise.
If you’re more interested in tackling problems that are a little bit out of your depth, and you don’t know if you can solve trying out different things, you’ll probably do better at a small, growing company.
There’s a lot of pressure to go out there and get a FAAMG job for clout, but that won’t automatically result in the best development and career opportunities. My experience at Forma.ai has allowed me to develop my career and tackle new, challenging problems with some awesome people.
If that’s what you’re looking for in an internship, I’d recommend applying at Forma.ai!