Charles Zhou ’16, AppNexus

Charles-ZhouThe first day on the princeternship at AppNexus completely revolutionized my perspective on tech start-ups and the tech world. I waited in the elevator with two fellow princeterns expecting a small office and maybe forty people, max. Instead, we walked into a spacious, vibrant, and exciting workplace with well over two hundred people. In fact, they needed two floors to hold all the different groups and were just in the middle of moving computers and people one floor up, from the fourth floor to the fifth floor. And the people that I met the first day were warm and inviting, eager to talk about their challenging work and all the great things they love about AppNexus. I was blown away.

We started the day at eleven in the morning and listened to a short introduction into what AppNexus does and how they achieve their goals. The talk started with a relatively simple problem: how does an advertiser find an online site to place their advertisement? Prior to AppNexus, many companies found ad networks to help them advertise. These ad networks would then find other ad networks, suppliers, demanders, and make connectionsZhou that would lead to a long chain of ad networks, suppliers, and demanders known as a daisy chain. AppNexus, an ad exchange, is one of the solutions to bypass much inefficiency experienced in the online advertising world. The teaching was fast-paced and purposeful, giving us just enough information to get by and providing the opportunity for us to dig into the specifics on our own.

After the orientation meeting, I shadowed Justin Pines, a Princeton ’08 graduate, who works as a manager of platform integrations under the global services division. He was really friendly and brought me along to his morning meeting, where he talked to a co-worker about KPI’s, or a way to measure the success in the endeavors they undertake as a team. They started outlining different categories and subcategories, casually discussing what factors they felt were important in knowing what success in a project looks like and whether or not they achieved it. I was particularly impressed with the focus and creativity involved with quantifying success, even in cases where the definition of success itself is murky. Personally, I never realized the difficulties of knowing when success in a task was achieved or how to measure it, as I was accustomed to easily quantifiable grades in school. Then, I followed Justin to his work desk and was surprised by the openness of the work environment. There was no hierarchy, just brilliant minds talking to other brilliant minds, and I really enjoyed listening in on his team meetings. The best part was that Justin always kept me up-to-speed and explained everything he was doing, from the specifics of the excel spreadsheets he was working on to the fundamental problems he was trying to solve. I really enjoyed this first shadowing experience and it started to clear up the global services part of what the company did.

Following my first shadowing experience, I attended a panel of recent recruits to AppNexus and listened to each of their stories. Every one of the panelists loved their work and the work environment, citing their friends’ boring job atmospheres as the standard and AppNexus’ start-up culture as the exception.  I left the panel very excited about AppNexus and the electrifying energy that all the employees brought to work every day.

On the second day of the Princeternship we arrived at eleven in the morning again and I started directly with the Optimization team. I met with Stephanie Tzeng, Princeton class of ’09, and she went over her duties at the company and the various projects she was involved with. The morning started with a stand-up where all the sub-teams of optimization met in front of a white board with goals and each member talked about their accomplishments and challenges of the day. And Stephanie was just starting to head a new team focused on developing tools for the rest of the company to use and save time, while working on html code for describing this new program. I then worked with other aspects of the optimization team that worked with bidding models and optimizing their advertising budget. Each sub-team was highly specialized and worked on specific tasks to improve the overall quality of client experience on the AppNexus platform.

The last group I worked with was product development with Michael Maag, Princeton class of ’09 alum, who was in charge of the new developments and integrations of UI for clients. He was very excited to tell me about his plan to make the client user API more expansive and useful to implement new interesting ideas. He was fully responsible for this change and talked about how accountability in the real world is important, both as a motivator and as a means of tracking performance within the company.

Overall, the experience was extremely rewarding and I would like to thank Dale Levine for coordinating this experience and everyone that took time out of their schedule to show us around and explain their roles in the company. I learned so much about the start-up culture and tech-related skills, including the benefits of having a computer science background. I am now committed to improving my coding ability and would love to work in a tech start-up in my future.