The White Whale team posing for a socially distanced photo in Crescent Heights


From the Bow to the Bay–An Intern's Journey

The end of summer marks the end of internship season for many people, and although, as the days shorten and the air sharpens, the feeling of endings is unmistakable, it also marks the beginning of something new. This time of year feels like a collectively reflective time, at least to us. To heighten the feeling, we interviewed our departing Data Science Intern, Shounak Ray, and couldn’t help but share his wisdom.

Shounak was in the semi-finals of the Loran scholarship interviews the spring before he graduated when he met one of White Whale’s founders, Peter Guo. It was because of Shounak’s background with some common topics of interest between the two – machine learning, big data, and scalability – that he had struck up an interesting conversation with Peter, followed White Whale’s journey, and ended up in his position at White Whale the next summer.

“Early on in high school, I was fascinated by the freedom of programming. It felt like learning a new superpower: I could create almost anything and have a computer do whatever I wanted it to do! As I spent some time learning about other fields like neuroscience, I applied this enthusiasm for data analytics to explore a predictive ML-based system to diagnose Parkinson’s Disease, among some other projects.”

Shounak’s enthusiasm carried over from his high school projects into anticipation of his upcoming internship. He remembers looking forward to the tight-knit, interactive culture of a start-up, and finding his rhythm in a workplace that gives its people the freedom to explore their interests. Over the course of Shounak’s one year term, he was able to explore freely and embrace a higher degree of responsibility than he’d been expecting, developing client solutions from start to finish, rather than making smaller contributions to projects so as not to leave anything unfinished.

“This was the most exciting for me, since seeing something through was critical for both my intellectual and personal satisfaction and growth. I learned a lot of tech skills I didn’t know before, but more importantly, also the frame of mind required to deploy high-fidelity solutions quickly, without sacrificing quality, and while maintaining the vision.”
Shounak pausing to think about an interview question.

Shounak cites the experience as having provided him with an enhanced sense of direction and purpose, from professional and personal points of view. An example is the highly valued concept at White Whale of first principles thinking, or breaking problems down into their core elements to then reconstruct and solve them with maximized creative power. Applying this approach to solving problems at work enhanced the importance he had always placed on making decisions and taking action based on principles, rather than purely instinctual responses.

“In some ways, it was exactly what I’d expected…in other ways, White Whale surprised me with the strategy of moving slow and going big.” 

The takeaway for Shounak was that with a versatile team, product, and a core set of principles, truly powerful solutions could be built, with thought and purpose, rather than delivering for the sake of delivering and having to retrace steps to get it right. As part of a team empowered to take the time to build impactful solutions, much of Shounak’s work was outside the scope of his expectations or initial responsibilities, giving him the freedom to explore truly interesting concepts, span multiple industries with his work, and even lead client meetings.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the great extent to which true freedom and fearlessness of thought inspires truly innovative and game-changing solutions.”

By this point, Shounak’s one-sentence description of the leadership at White Whale came as no surprise:

“Very collaborative, non-hierarchical and open to new ideas.” 

Essentially, the decentralization Shounak references results in a flexibility within one’s position that feeds back into the culture that it’s born from. A data science intern who comes in and ends up being responsible for ideating solutions, developing the software, and presenting it to clients pours the foundation for a sustainable, beneficial engagement – “the whole deal,” as Shounak calls it.

To summarize the lasting lessons from his internship, Shounak imagines throughout his career he’ll remember to work off of core first principles, innovate and explore uncharted territory, and be outspoken about his opinions. This last one comes as no surprise – who at White Whale can forget the 14 pages documenting a combination of 91 bugs and improvements Shounak had found while using DeepSea during his first week at work? More importantly, who can forget how well it was received by the whole team, or the productive conversations and contributions to development that came from it?

For future White Whale interns out there, take it from Shounak: you’ll develop interests and gain invaluable experience by exploring uncharted territory, working outside of your initial scope and comfort zone, and taking ownership of your own projects and decisions. In fact, this advice applies to everyone.

Shounak in the main quad at Stanford, wearing his White Whale hoodie.

From the bottom of our hearts, we’ll miss him at team runs, dinners, and floats down the Bow. But the “bye for now” is inescapable, and we wish Shounak all the very best of luck in what’s next:

“I’m heading to Stanford this fall to study Computer Science, perhaps concentrate in human computer interaction and artificial intelligence, perhaps explore management science, physics, neuroscience. Lots of “perhaps”; it’ll be fun to explore these fields and find connections to what makes me tick. Other than that, most definitely build on some of my entrepreneurial endeavours and explore the start-up culture there!”

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