As the summer draws to a close, I’ve been forced to reflect on the twelve weeks I’ve spent at Altitude as an engineering intern. In a few weeks, I’ll be returning the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start my senior year. I study mechanical engineering and product design, and am also hoping to complete a minor in anthropology.
Transitioning from MIT to Altitude involved a bit of culture shock. For the past three years, including my prior internship at Northrop Grumman, I have had technical problem solving skills pounded into my head. When given a difficult problem on homework or an exam, I’ve been trained to blast my way through them, equipped with scientific principles, equations, and sheer determination. Getting to the answer is undeniably satisfying, regardless of the frustration, self-doubt, and sleepless nights that come before it.
Design thinking is the antithesis of this brute force attitude. At Altitude, I have learned to take steps back, instead of bashing my way forward. I’ve re-learned the critical question of minds that don’t think they already know everything—why? I’ve learned to question assumptions and traditions for a deeper understanding. Here, I’ve learned to give myself context and reasoning for which questions hold valuable answers, instead of trying to solve all of them just because they’re there.
To summarize important insights that I want to take with me back to MIT, I’ve divided the lessons I’ve learned into three categories.
1) Empathy is crucial: Technical skills can only take a product so far. I’ve seen incredible technology placed in products, but do not effectively solve the right problem. Being able to understand and empathize with the end user is an invaluable skill. No matter who the user is, being able to design with those people in mind will help make the product more usable, more adoptable, and more successful. Thoughtful engineering is critical, but well executed user centered design is what makes a product stand out.
2) Effective problem solving requires flexible thinking: I touched on the differences between what I’ve learned at MIT and what I’ve learned at Altitude earlier, but a strong engineer or designer has to be able to do both. There is a delicate balance between the big picture and minute details, but both have to be kept in mind. MIT has given me the hard skills, but Altitude has helped me learn where to apply them. Being here has also taught me to not get too attached to my work, no matter how long or hard I worked on it. Ideas change frequently in the iterative design process, and letting personal bias into the work only bogs down this process.
3) Don’t be afraid to speak: This is the biggest personal lesson I have learned during my time here. “Imposter syndrome” is a common feeling shared among students from top universities, and I was definitely a sufferer. I spent the majority of my first two years at MIT questioning whether or not I deserved to be there. I never felt this way at Altitude. The open and collaborative environment gave me constant opportunities to quench my curiosity and share my own insights. The positive and encouraging responses from my co-workers encouraged me to speak without reservation, even during meetings with intimidating clients.
These twelve weeks have had a significant impact on the way I view the world around me. It helped me discover meaning in my insatiable curiosity. It forced me to question my education and to find the value in it. It forced me to embrace my strengths and work on my weaknesses, with the support of a welcoming interdisciplinary team. Ultimately, being at Altitude has trained me think more critically about how to become a better student, a better engineer, a better designer, and a better human.