Do you believe in aliens or ghosts? What about alien ghosts? What about ghostly aliens? These were the tough and passionately debated questions bounced around at lunch on my first day. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a person from their supernatural philosophies, and it makes for quite an interesting first impression of software engineers.

Until I joined Gusto this summer, I had never had an internship. I had never done much more programming than in the classes at school. And I had associated software engineering with some nebulous career of coding. A lot. But, as someone majoring in computer science and going into her fourth year of college, it was something I figured I should try, demystify, and experience at least once. I didn’t know where I wanted to work, or what kind of work I wanted to do, and payroll had certainly never crossed my mind. But as I interviewed with the engineers here, it became clear that this company wasn’t just about paying people on time (although that was a critical part). It was about people and giving them the best possible experience. That really resonated with me and so I chose to come here. And given my first lunch chat, it definitely was not a mistake.

tl;dr I experienced and learned a lot about a lot of things.

However, that is hardly surprising; given my familiarity with this field was zero, it was impossible not to learn a vast amount because everything was new. Of course, there is the technical aspect, listing out the languages and projects like a resume, but there’s always much more than just that, especially here. My 12 weeks at Gusto were filled with code and people and moved at a full-throttle pace, but when I reflect on my time here, a lot of it isn’t just based around the programming or the features I finished. I mean it was – coding was my job – but I think you can learn that technical side almost anywhere. What makes it worthwhile is the culmination of everything else. I had no baseline going into Gusto, but the things I believe I got out of this experience would have been critical and just as new and enlightening. Amidst coding, shooting (and missing) archery targets for team bonding, and changing project ideas halfway through the summer, it’s been quite a ride, and these are just a few snapshots of the things I’ve learned.

Startup stereotype

Yes, there is free food. Yes, the office space has a very open concept. And yes, people do work long hours. But in terms of the checklist of the startup stereotype, Gusto doesn’t fit in that box. It’s much, much more than that. It has a strong backbone and a solid foundation with a vision that has a much longer shelf life than a few years. The cofounders want this to be their last job, their only job, and that marathon mentality is admirable and shared by the company, which gives it incredible, staying power.

The technical gambit

Front-end, back-end, frameworks, even a little payroll, and I had indeed been correct about the code. There was a lot. And it was completely overwhelming to say the least. A labyrinth of code, and each new story I was assigned seemed to drop me in a new arena. A full-fledged team member from the get-go, and the expectations were high, but just as high was everyone’s eagerness to help me. And with a growing willingness to explore, a lessening fear of breaking things already in place, and the ever-present support, I started seeing things more clearly, and my fumbling became familiarity.

Fast, vibrant, absurd growth: Over the span of three months we went from one office space to three, with a Denver site picked and prepped for a second, central location. After the first month of my internship, I was still meeting new people every day. Three weeks into my time here and I was considered old hat, a veteran employee. It was truly exponential growth in human form. But the caliber of the people did not falter, we weren’t hiring for the sake of hiring, and that was pretty intense and amazing to be around.

Culture is foundational

On my second day of work around 11:30am, every single engineer started closing up his or her laptop and gathering at the front desk. This I found would become routine; this was engineering lunch, one of the many, purposeful times to step back and relax, regroup, and rethink. Culture is a remarkably core part of Gusto, the axis it spins upon, and I didn’t realize how important of an asset it could be. From all-hands meetings to address issues upfront, to engineering offsites for the team to take a breather, to the values and the principles that were created by them and for them, culture is pervasive in the space and embodied by every employee. The way that things get done and the way that decisions are made is really what drew me to Gusto.

People are fundamental

I can’t remember how many times I had to ask questions, mainly to my mentor, about everything from what the MVC model entailed to what was the shortcut to find all instances of in RubyMine. I believe I’m an introvert, so people are sometimes hard for me, but being here was a very good reminder of how essential they are. In school, working with people is cheating, but in the real world it’s the best thing you can do. And these were some of the best people I’ve encountered. They broke the mold or caricature of the stereotypical programmer, all dark spaces in isolated places, coding for hours on end. Every engineer I have come across is willing to pair or play ping-pong, and the space feels open. Open in the physical sense of the office and open in terms of ideas and issues. Communication and collaboration are key, both within and across teams, and everyone cares so, so much. It’s not perfect, but it’s something they’re definitely doing right.

Where Gusto's culture, growth, and people will take them in the next five, ten years will undoubtedly be crazy and extraordinary. They’re always iterating and improving and I feel very privileged to have spent my summer working here with people who are passionate caring. I was all tongue-tied, terrified jitters and hesitancy when I first started but, as cheesy as it is, I’m glad I did. I think the ghosts helped.