Tackling challenges: How a Platform.sh intern navigated his way through programming, Paris, and the pandemic
It was another chilly day in late February 2020, the last month before “the new normal” would begin to dominate the global economy.
The sky was overcast and fine raindrops delicately drew wavy lines outside the windows of the Platform.sh office in Paris. Inside, Mohammed Ajmal Siddiqui, who goes by Ajmal, had an exhilarating discussion about the solution to a programming problem with a fellow engineering intern when, suddenly, the cheerful voice of Platform.sh co-founder Ori Pekelman echoed across the room.
Ori was about to interview a candidate for a cloud software engineer role and asked whether the interns wanted to participate. Stunned, Ajmal wasn’t sure whether Ori was joking or not. He had only been interning with Platform.sh for about two months and thought his opinion couldn’t possibly matter—especially of an applicant. But Ori was serious and Ajmal accepted the invitation.
“It’s one of my fondest memories of my time in Paris,” Ajmal remembers. “After the interview, Ori was interested in my assessment and we exchanged our thoughts about the candidate. Even though I wasn’t making any recruitment decisions as an intern, he really made me feel like he valued my opinion.”
Today, Ajmal is a full-time cloud software engineer at Platform.sh and recently started to interview applicants for his team. Each time brings him back to the fond memory he had as an intern, interviewing alongside the co-founder of the company.
Mission impossible: Scoring a high-tech internship
Ajmal’s journey started in Hyderabad, India.
He was about to graduate from Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) and knew finding an internship would be a tremendous challenge. More than 1.2 million other engineers were about to graduate all across the country and enter a job market unable to accommodate the enormous employment demands.
“Most people score their jobs through connections from friends and family, but I didn’t have those connections at all,” Ajmal says. “I had to find something on my own, and even though I had a relevant skill set I didn’t really have much that made me stand out.”
Many of his friends spammed their resumes on LinkedIn. But Ajmal was very selective about the companies he applied to and prepared personalized applications with cover letters each time. He applied to about 20 positions, mostly out of the country to increase his chances, and was eventually invited to three interviews—one of which was with Platform.sh.
When being different pays off
“After the initial PeopleOps screening call I was invited to the technical interview, in which I spent one-and-a-half hours with the hiring manager, who grilled me with intense tech questions,” Ajmal says. “That was great!”
Based on past job interviews, Ajmal felt most interview sessions were very generic and not reflective of real work scenarios. But he found Platform.sh’s process quite enjoyable due to its discussion-based nature.
“I don’t enjoy preparing answers to standard technical interview questions, where it’s more about practicing your responses over and over until you can answer questions based on experience, without thinking,” Ajmal says. “The fun part of computer science and engineering is the thinking part! If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t enjoy it much.”
Ajmal remembers the open-ended questions about his approach to difficult situations, which gave him the chance to shine by sharing his elaborate thought process. He quickly impressed the hiring team.
After three rounds of interviews over the course of two weeks, they extended him an internship offer.
Ajmal’s excitement was over the roof about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The city of lights: Dim at first, but got brighter
But the challenges didn’t stop there.
It was time for Ajmal to navigate his way through French administration, which turned out to be just as difficult as scoring an internship in the first place. Knowing only a few words of French, Ajmal needed to apply for a visa, find an apartment, and set up some basic services during his stay. After countless unanswered emails, hung-up phone calls, and confusing application forms he was… still nowhere.
“Finding an apartment was horribly difficult. Landlords would rarely respond to my emails and hung up on me when I called. But I needed an apartment in order to get a visa. It was really unpleasant,” Ajmal explains “Eventually, I went with an online service that made things slightly easier.”
Ajmal landed in Paris on January 10, 2020, one day before the 62nd protest in a series of violent demonstrations that had been sweeping through Paris and other parts of France due to a period of political unrest. From the very first day of his arrival, Ajmal needed to adjust to public transport disruptions, street blockages, and store closures.
“It wasn’t ideal, but c’est la vie,” Ajmal says, who managed to make the best of the situation as he kept exploring the city and learning about the new culture as much as he could. Despite the public transport issues that would stretch his commute to two hours on some days, Ajmal visited the office daily to connect with coworkers and pick up as much French as he could.
“I still had a great time whether it was in the office or when my coworkers took me to explore the city. Paris is so diverse and I had the opportunity to try things I’ve never tried before. I really enjoyed every minute,” he says.
One more major public transport strike and two months later, France and many other countries would enter a national lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Solving one challenge at a time
Ajmal spent the rest of his internship in isolation as the lockdown restricted all non-essential movement outside people’s homes.
For Ajmal, who is relatively comfortable on his own, having to work from home every day wasn’t as big of a challenge as being away from his family in India. However, he was happy to feel supported by the company throughout the uncertain times.
“Platform.sh recognized the disruption and told people to take the time they needed during the lockdowns, and even granted additional compensation where needed. The executive team communicated regularly and genuinely showed they cared about all employees. It seemed so rare from what I heard from friends working at other companies,” Ajmal remembers.
Overall, Ajmal says the lockdown barely impacted his job or workflow. As a globally-distributed company, Platform.sh was already set up to function remotely. And even though he was sad not to be able to meet his colleagues in the office anymore, he joined virtual coffee breaks with his team to stay connected.
“It really showed how phenomenal our company culture is,” Ajmal says. “Even though we’re all everywhere, we do things outside of work and connect outside of work. We have a language exchange, coffee chats, board game meetups, and lots of other ways to connect with others across the globe.”
Within a short time, Ajmal became an integral part of the team, professionally and personally. Before his internship concluded, Platform.sh offered Ajmal a full-time position as a cloud software engineer, which he gratefully accepted.
Nevertheless, he made the decision to return to India to be with his family.
Looking back with no regrets
Today, Ajmal is an essential part of the engineering team.
“I absolutely love my job. It’s super fun because it’s quite challenging,” Ajmal continues. “I’m in a position to work on one of the most difficult code bases the company has. It’s a big chunk of responsibility, but I actually get to use my brain and think. I want to do the most difficult things and pull my hair out until something works. That’s what I really enjoy.”
Ajmal maintains Platform.sh’s container orchestration and infrastructure management software, which includes scoping out features, tracking releases, investigating issues, fixing bugs, maintaining related repositories, and other related responsibilities. He is also one of the select few engineers at the company with root access to production servers, so he can debug issues in a live customer environment or during outages.
That’s a lot of faith to put in one young employee. Ajmal credits that to a culture of trustworthiness, a swath of mentors ready and willing to educate, and the freedom to make mistakes and learn.
“It is a blessing that very competent and busy people will jump in to indulge me. I couldn’t have grown as I did in a company without such a culture—because I was assured that things can, and will, go wrong and there won’t be blame, only learning, and that’s when other more senior colleagues come in and help out,” Ajmal explains.
Reflecting on his time in Paris, Ajmal has no hard feelings about the political unrest, public protests, and lockdowns that affected his experience and prevented him from even visiting the most common landmarks of the city.
He jokes: “I might have made history as the only person in the world who stayed in Paris for five months and never got to visit the Eiffel Tower.”