Stephanie Liu is an MBA and MA Education Candidate ‘21 at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Graduate School of Education. Her professional experiences prior to joining Duolingo include product management and strategy and business operations at Unity Technologies, data analytics for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and economic consulting at Cornerstone Research. She is joining Duolingo as a full-time Product Manager in 2021.
Inspiration on a walk along the Canal Saint-Martin
During the summer before graduate school, I spent a month living in France to deepen my understanding of French history, culture, and language. My partner is French-American, and this was the perfect time to learn the language as a way to bond with his family.
On this trip, Duolingo was my travel companion. I used the app to study French vocabulary words. I listened to the Duolingo French Podcast to gain exposure to French conversations with English narrations. But still, I couldn’t muster the confidence to string together sentences to speak to locals.
One morning, I was struck by a train of thought while listening to the Duolingo podcast during a walk along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. It is an incredibly big jump to move from listening and reading comprehension to speaking with confidence. But, it occurred to me that Duolingo had unique opportunities to grow their product to better foster conversation practice. I was also noticing the Duolingo Plus ads, which signaled strategic growth levers for the business. I thought back to my previous experience as a Product Manager for education subscription products at Unity and reflected on ways I could apply my learnings to Duolingo’s products.
With some quick Google searches as I sat along the Canal, I learned that Duolingo was hiring Product Managers. That summer, I made a mental note to reach out to Duolingo when applying for MBA internships.
Applying to Duolingo
Luckily, Duolingo recruits at business schools including Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I am enrolled as a joint-degree student. Duolingo was the first company I applied for and the only company I interviewed with before signing the offer, before most companies even began recruiting at Stanford.
If you are an MBA candidate, this probably sounds unusual.
There are many pressures when applying for and considering an MBA internship. You are probably well-aware of the stress and “what-ifs” that accompany the buffet of career paths in front of you. Should I go into investing, start my own company, prep for management consulting case interviews, pivot into tech strategy or product? To make the decision even tougher, companies run on different recruiting timelines.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, my best advice is to prioritize learning something new about yourself. For me, what helped focus my recruiting strategy was an understanding of the incremental experiences and skills I wanted to gain over the summer:
- I wanted to join a company where the core products and mission were rooted in education. Ideally, the company would have a sustainable business model, a small enough product team where I could have meaningful ownership and scope, and products that users love.
- I wanted to gain experience working on a direct-to-consumer, mobile-first product. Designing mobile features that impact millions of users is quite different from designing web or service solutions that impact thousands of users. With limited real estate on the core product, mobile features need to be more detailed and optimized in nature; A/B testing and data-informed decisions are ever more important. I knew these mobile product management skills would be transferable across the tech industry in the scenario that I decided EdTech was not for me.
- I wanted to plant professional roots in a new region, having spent my career to-date in the San Francisco Bay Area.
With these criteria in mind, there were very few companies that could check all the boxes. But, what really sealed the deal for me was learning about Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker’s story of founding Duolingo on an episode of “How I Built This.” Inspirational leadership on top of satisfying all my learning goals made the decision simple.
Reflections on the internship and joining full-time
I was deeply impressed by the summer experience at Duolingo, and can only imagine what it would’ve been like sans global pandemic.
While the internship was 100% virtual, the warm, quirky culture was palpable through the enthusiastic Slack discussions and frequent team and company-level events, such as trivia night, pasta making class, the annual Hackathon, and regular coffee chats with colleagues across other departments. It’s clear that the people at Duolingo care deeply about the company’s mission and about each other.
From a career standpoint, I felt empowered to execute on my ideas and direct my own learnings. I appreciated meeting with my intern host daily to check-in and receive feedback on my projects, and the various product leaders around the company always made time to share their expertise. But perhaps what was most rewarding about the job was speaking with our learners when conducting user research, and witnessing their over-pouring enthusiasm for Duolingo’s product. This sold me on Duolingo’s direct impact on the lives of learners around the world.
At an organizational level, I was impressed by the rigorous, Google-caliber tools and culture of A/B testing put in place for a company of this size. This gave me a lot of faith in the leadership team, and I’m excited to continue learning from them as I return full-time!
My decision to return full-time is very similar to why I decided to intern at Duolingo: there are very few companies that check all my boxes. Once I found one that would offer an admirable culture on top of the learnings I’m seeking, the decision was simple.
Regardless of how you approach your internship and full-time job recruitment process, I hope you will take this unique period to reflect on what you want to learn next. If Duolingo fits in that picture, I hope we’ll get a chance to work together in the future!