Culture of Empowerment

Rowdy Larson, NetDevOps Engineer Intern

Rowdy

Since I was a kid, when my parents gave me a MacBook, I’ve been interested in technology. From there, I fell down the rabbit hole — I knew right away I wanted to grow up to have a career in technology. I started out learning things like PhotoShop, then progressed to programming in high school, and now I’m in my last semester of my bachelor’s program in computer science at UT Austin. Once I got to college, I started looking for high-quality internships to prepare myself for the professional world of software engineering. 

Cybersecurity always interested me, but I didn’t really see an overlap between it and software engineering until I found the Palo Alto Networks internship program. The program was three months long, from May through August, and my work was in NetDevOps, which is the intersection of networking and development operations that involves automating network design and changes. 

Since I joined the team in May, I’ve been working with Panorama, our firewall management product, to create tooling for our firewalls in order to increase the transparency of how they’re managed. I write many supporting microservices and libraries in Python to interact with services like Okta, ServiceNow, Panorama, and databases. I’ve also automated some of this work through Jenkins or CI/CD pipelines.

Being in the midst of a pandemic, there was no other choice but to do the internship remotely. Fortunately, I was still able to do everything I needed to do from my home here in Prescott, Arizona. It was definitely a challenge, particularly in the beginning. I wasn’t sure how to get the support I needed when it seemed like everyone was so busy, and I couldn’t just walk over to ask for their assistance. That first week mostly involved ramping up, setting up my computer; figuring out how the team works and who provides approvals at what stages; and learning the goals and objectives. But soon I figured out how to navigate those issues and get the help I need, and it was really rewarding to be independent and find answers on my own. I also found that I really enjoyed the flexibility of working remotely. I would say one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through my internship is how to work autonomously — to find or develop solutions on my own. I think that will serve me well in my career.

I started learning right away, and it hasn’t stopped. The interns here are constantly getting new projects to work on, and you have to learn quickly  — though I find I’ve really enjoyed that fast pace. I also had previous internship experience, so I was familiar with having challenges thrown at me and having to push through my uncertainty and address them. Plus, speaking professionally, having that experience prepares me more for my career and will show future employers that I can work independently, think on my feet, and operate in a deadline-oriented environment.

Another thing I’ve learned that I have found tremendously valuable is proficiency in Python. Prior to this internship, I was self-taught but I’m very idiomatic in it now. Knowing it well and writing in it concisely is an important skill for the future.

Socializing and connecting with other interns as well as Palo Alto Networks employees has been a bit harder, obviously, because of the nature of remote work, but University Recruiting has put on some fun virtual events that have helped with that. 

Even though I’ve been working on my own from home, I’ve definitely been treated as a member of the team, and my work has been meaningful and important. Just because I’m an intern doesn’t mean that I’ve been given menial tasks. In fact, a lot of my code has been used in important projects. In some companies, interns work in silos, removed from the teams, but I’ve been given assignments that were time-sensitive, where I’ve helped someone who was relying on my work to ship a big project. It was a little intimidating at first, but it was also really exciting to be contributing in a real way. 

There’s a culture of empowerment here, and we’re all empowered to take on responsibilities and find solutions. Interns are encouraged to participate and complete projects with real stakes attached to them — not just meaningless, fluff jobs — and my code actually makes a difference. For me, that makes this the gold standard of internships. 

And that leads me to another valuable lesson I’ve learned along the way, which is taking ownership of projects. I haven’t shied away from opportunities to learn and push myself. For example, our team uses remote contractors, and there have been times when they needed help clarifying spots in the code that were unclear or buggy, so I had to jump in and take ownership — identify places that needed improvement and take it upon myself to make those changes. In fact, I was strong enough in designing microservices that I got the opportunity to mentor another intern in that. So I’ve had a chance to both lead and follow during these three months, which doesn’t often happen during internships. 

We’re exposed to people at all levels of the organization. We had an organization-wide intern fest, and we were on a call with high-level executives and the CIO, and I’ve even had some small group sessions with him. It’s really cool, and I’d never expected that from a big tech company like this. 

Prior to this experience, I didn’t know what went into next-gen firewalls, and I honestly didn’t know much about what Palo Alto Networks did. But it’s been rewarding to see how all these things fit together, and I like that we’re doing something important — we’re securing companies, which is really exciting.

If I were to offer some advice to future interns, it would be this: Learn as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially early on. It might seem like you’re being a nuisance, but no one expects you to know everything right away. Come in with a positive attitude, be open, and expect to learn a lot.