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What it's like to be an American intern at Alibaba headquarters in China

Jonathan Fisher
Summer Interns at Alibaba
Summer Interns at Alibaba

(BI) You work hard, play hard as an intern at Alibaba

Working as an intern at a large tech company in Silicon Valley is an eye-opening experience.

Working as an intern at one of the most successful tech companies in the world in China is beyond eye-opening. It's a similar world filled with investors and flush with cash, yet at the same time staggeringly and wholly different.

For one such summer intern — "being a part of the company was a surreal experience."

Departing from the city of Berkeley, California, he journeyed halfway across the world to Hangzhou, China, a couple summers ago to intern at Alibaba headquarters. He worked at Alibaba as a Global Business Operations Intern, taking part in various projects within different business units of the company, from Taobao to the Microfinancial Service Group.

When Alibaba went public in September 2014, it ranked as the biggest IPO in history after additional shares were sold. For all intents and purposes, they were the most sought after company in the world. Naturally, Alibaba's hiring process was competitive and unique. When we asked our intern about the hiring process, he replied:

"After a family member forwarded me the opportunity from Alibaba's Weibo page, I applied through their online portal. The application required three written essays and a resume submission. Then, the selected applicants were given phone interviews."

jack ma
jack ma

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
He told us Alibaba was looking to hire a broad and diverse set of people across a wide range of interests and talents, without much regard to GPA or extracurriculars:

The program itself was started by Jack Ma a few years ago as an effort to bring people from around the world into Alibaba — not as a path to a future job at the company, but as a way to learn about and experience the company culture firsthand and take those ideas and observations back as inspiration and tools for their own success.

Our team of interns consisted of students, teachers, chemists, engineers, entrepreneurs and more, with ages ranging from 18 to 31 years old. Each had something unique about them, whether a dream they were in pursuit of or a success story they were continuing. I think the diversity of the interns really spoke to how the application essays were structured; the questions were broad, such as 'Who are you?' and 'What expectations do you have for the world in the next decade?'. There was no formula of GPA, extracurriculars, and skills to distinguish what an 'ideal' candidate would be.

Working at Alibaba wasn't a sinecure by any means. Our intern tells us that he and his fellow interns "performed a variety of tasks, from market analysis, financial analysis, strategizing marketing plans, and increasing customer satisfaction." Beyond that, interns were encouraged to make the most of their experience and be sponges to the world around them.

Though he wasn't able to meet the big man on campus — CEO and founder Jack Ma — he did have the chance to meet Ma's successor, Jonathan Lu.

He says, "We got to hear about his own path through Alibaba and what driving forces helped him succeed throughout his journey. He also gave us a variety of life advice, from how to pursue our dreams to dealing with obstacles. I even got to take a selfie with him!"

Jonathan Lu
Jonathan Lu

(REUTERS/Chance Chan ) Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, hugs Jonathan Lu, Alibaba during a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Taobao Marketplace, China's largest consumer-focused e-commerce website, in Hangzhou, May 10, 2013. Lu was officially appointed as CEO of Alibaba Group on Friday as Ma stepped down. Alibaba Group will take a 28 percent stake in digital mapping company AutoNavi Holdings Ltd, part of Alibaba's move to boost its competitiveness by beefing up its product lineup. Picture taken May 10, 2013.

A typical work day for a Business Operations intern consists of:

1. Waking up at 7 AM

2. Taking an hour-long shuttle to Alibaba headquarters

3. Sitting through a team meeting at 9 AM

4. Breaking up into project groups and working on daily project

5. Lunch break

6. Regrouping into teams for more work

7. Dinner break

8. Finishing up work until the last shuttle leaves at 8 PM

Alibaba office
Alibaba office

(Conan Zhou) It's a beautiful summer day at Alibaba

For our intern, the environment was fast-paced, with employees "constantly on call or working on projects. Yet, the overall atmosphere was one of fun, excitement, and happiness."

In addition to learning about Alibaba's business operations and business units, he also strengthened his Mandarin skills as a byproduct of speaking mainly Mandarin for the duration of the summer.

It wasn't all work, though. If you work at a large company, you typically get to enjoy the many perks that come with it. As the largest company in China, some perks are larger than life:

One of my fondest memories at Alibaba was the day when suddenly everyone's phones were lighting up from notifications that Kobe Bryant had been spotted on campus. I, along with many other employees, ran out of the building frantically asking where he had been seen last. Soon, we were all congregated below Jack Ma's office. After waiting for half an hour, we got to see Kobe come out, embrace Jack Ma, wave to the crowd, and leave in a heavily guarded van. I never would have thought to be able to be 20 feet away from both Kobe Bryant and Jack Ma in China!

Kobe Bryant on Alibaba campus
Kobe Bryant on Alibaba campus

(Conan Zhou) Kobe Bryant visits Alibaba headquarters

And what about the campus itself?

Each building on the campus has recreation activities open all the time, such as ping pong, foosball, and billiards. There's a gym on campus with weights, machines, and an indoor basketball court. The campus also comes with places for free massages and yoga classes.

In addition, you can find in many of the buildings fresh fruit marts, flower shops, Starbucks, and cafeterias. The food itself was "inexpensive and good, with a variety of Chinese and Western foods."

Of course, his summer internship at Alibaba provided him with the opportunity to visit Shanghai and other tourist locations on the weekends with the other interns. He sums it up succinctly: "Most importantly, I learned the life stories of other interns and their goals and passions, which gave me a lot of inspiration and motivation."

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