Facebook internship: getting there

published on October 17, 2011

Saying goodbye

I didn’t expect the goodbye to be easy, but I never expected it to be so hard, either. I think it was one of the hardest things I ever did, on that 23rd of September, 2011.

I was going to miss my friends and family back home, but that’s absolutely nothing in comparison with the goodbye to Anneleen (my girlfriend — she’s awesome!). It was very hard. We barely managed. I wish I could’ve taken her with me. The only way we managed was by telling ourselves that it’s too big an (career) opportunity to pass on, and that the experience I’d gain at Facebook would help my career and thus us for the rest of our lives.

The flight

Facebook booked the flight with British Airways. I’m used to flying with lowcost airlines such as Ryan Air, Brussels Airlines, and so on; so I expect to have to pay for everything.

Well, that simply doesn’t apply to British Airways. The flight booked for me by Facebook’s travel agent to London was in Economy class, but the one to San Francisco was in “Club World class”1. More about that later.

I checked in in Brussels airport, where the (very friendly!) hostess told me I could wait until just a mere 30 minutes before my flight would depart before going through security, since there usually isn’t a big line. I’m not sure if this made the goodbye harder or easier.

First there was a 45 minute BRULHR flight. The arrival in London’s Terminal 5 implied going through security again. And then being wowed by the design of Terminal 5. Incredibly fancy.
While making a panoramic photograph of the terminal, a security officer came to me; apparently it’s not allowed to take pictures that even vaguely include the security checks. He asked me to delete the pictures. Fair enough.

Then I went to a BA (British Airways) counter to confirm that my flight was still leaving at the planned time. Apparently, it had suddenly become overbooked. I got a free (yet involuntary) upgrade to business class. Wow!

'Involuntary upgrade due to oversales'

By now, the flight was also delayed. So I had plenty of time to take a look in BA’s lounge. I did not get access to the business class lounge, only to the Club lounge2.
There were two such lounges in Terminal 5 alone.
I entered one.
Holy shit.
So fancy. So much newspapers. So much food. So many drinks. So many snacks. Wi-Fi.
All free!
I really don’t want to know what the business lounge looks like, then…

While enjoying some of the food (and fixing an issue on my server that had just popped up), I became fairly relaxed. The flight was now postponed to 14:20 GMT. But the boarding was actually not marked as postponed. Boarding was not at 14:00, but at 13:40. Or so it seemed. I only noticed this at 13:35. So I ran.
And made it there just in time (even though this involves going down two staircases, running a few hundred meters, taking an elevator and running up two absurdly long staircases), only to see that the check-in was actually only going to begin at 14:00. Argh!

When the boarding finally started, I could board immediately, since I was now one of the lucky few that’d fly in business class. So strange!
Entering the plane, I wondered what my seat was going to look like. I just expected regular seats, but with a lot of leg room. Boy, was I wrong.
My seat basically was a remote-controlled, electronically readjusting chair that could be morphed into a bed, with a pop-out screen (where you can choose whatever movie or tv show you want to watch) with another remote control. Also included: blanket, pillow, full-on over-ear headphones, power plug and a tray to store your laptop in. Holy whackamony!

I couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me when I stretched my legs!

Can't touch the next seat with my feet!

The number of times I was asked if I needed anything was almost annoying. In the 10:45-long flight, I’ve been asked that question at least 15 times, if not 25.
While I didn’t quite like the food, I did have the choice between a large variety of wines and champagnes, several starters and main courses and half a dozen deserts.

I managed to sleep a few hours. First time I ever slept on an airplane. I doubt I could’ve slept if I hadn’t flown in business class.

“Welcome to San Francisco”

Upon arrival, I had to make sure I had filled out my customs record and an I-94 form. Within 10 minutes, I had my both of my suitcases — usually I’m one of the last.
After waiting 20 or so minutes in line, a security officer reviewed my paperwork. Just a few minutes later, I was deemed okay and could enter the United States! Passing through customs was a breeze, since I didn’t bring any food whatsoever with me from Belgium.

San Francisco: entrance or exit?

Too tired to give the local public transport system a try (a very good thing, in hindsight), I grabbed a cab to my hotel ($120, by the way).

The Credit Card Crap

So there I was, checking in to the hotel, craving for a shower and some sleep. Almost there!

The last hurdle — quite unexpectedly — turned out to be my credit card. The (very expensive Crowne Plaza Cabana) hotel was unable to charge my credit card for incidentals3. Huh? The manager retried three times. I had no idea what was wrong. A $50 cash deposit would work as well — great!

Finally having entered my room, I looked up my credit card’s balance online. Huh? About €700 was charged on September 22? Two charges by HOTWIRE-SALES FINAL, worth $942.46 in total. So I effectively no longer had a credit card with credit on it, and it’s weekend already in Belgium, so there’s no way to recharge it. Great start!4

I staid up until 23:00, when Anneleen was supposed to call me (since there’s a 9 hour time difference, it was 08:00 of the next day in Belgium). By this time, I had been awake for about 28 hours, minus the few hours of (light) sleep I’d had on the airplane.
I hadn’t eaten anything for about 6 hours, and hadn’t eaten anything substantial for more than 12 hours. I fel crappy, but couldn’t get any food in.

The call was hard.

Jet Lag

At $17, you’d expect such a fancy hotel to deliver a breakfast that’s at least acceptable. But man, was it crappy! I didn’t gain much energy. Lunch at Armadillo Willy’s (a fastfood restaurant) did help me a lot. My first “truly American meal”. The extensive walking and thus the fresh air made me feel significantly better. But I still could tell that I was severely jetlagged. Hefty nausea, extreme fatigue, sore throat, unable to think clearly. Bah.

Armadillo Willy's: Turkey Bacon Stack + side of Fresh-cut Fries

The subsequent day, I went to Esther’s Bakery (a German bakery) for breakfast. It was at least a little bit like the food back home. A pizza margherita at Oregano’s Wood Fire Pizza for lunch. Feeling better and better.

Then moving to the Zen Hotel, where I was going to stay until next Saturday; then I could move in to my “apartment” (it’s really just the rear suite of a house).

Being in Silicon Valley, you’d expect the internet to be awesome. But no. Mobile phone reception is spotty at best (at least with AT&T) and the hotel’s Wi-Fi is the most crappy one I’ve ever encountered. Low latency, sure. But it took me 5 minutes (really!) to just load the authentication page.
Relocating to another room didn’t help. They were aware of the problem and would solve it “soon”, but I didn’t hear back from them all week.

But remember the credit card thing? How was I supposed to pay my ±$1000 hotel bill without a credit card? Fortunately, they agreed to let me pay in cash… (That 20 minute walk with $1000 cash in an unknown area felt rather strange, for what it’s worth.)

After this was all settled, I tried the commute I’d have to do the next day — September 26 — for my first day at Facebook.

Facebook offices

Excited as I went to bed, I was really hoping that I’d be feeling much better when I woke up!

  1. You could see this as business class with far fewer perks. ↩︎

  2. My flight was actually booked as a Club World traveller, remember? ↩︎

  3. Using the hotel room’s bar, consuming the bottle of Fiji water (WTF!), or taking the bathrobe with me for only $69. Obviously this is way too expensive, which is why I went to another hotel after the first 2 nights, which were covered by Facebook. ↩︎

  4. I called them the day after I arrived. They found only one of the two transactions. But they wouldn’t tell me what hotel it was charged for. After all, they couldn’t be certain that I wasn’t the credit card thief… Although there are plenty of horror stories to be found about Hotwire, so I seriously doubted whether they were free of guilt. ↩︎


Sam's picture

Interesting read, keep us updated! :)

Wouter's picture

Very interesting read indeed. Glad to see you’re having a good time and a lot of interesting (and sometimes less interesting) things are going on.

And now I’m looking forward to the blogpost about the actual work at Facebook itself, how they work around there etc…

Wim Leers's picture
Wim Leers

That’ll be in the next blog post… :)

It’s already been approved by Facebook’s legal department — I’m not taking any risks. Plus there is some information in there that’s fairly “internal” and that to my knowledge has not been published before!

Marijke's picture

Good luck with “the lack of Anneleen”! It would be absolutely nothing for me. The goodbye-moment sounds terrible.. When is she visiting you? Keep us up to date! And don’t become a “Fatboy”, please :P

Wim Leers's picture
Wim Leers

It’s absolutely nothing for me either … and it’s definitely not something I’m willing to do again! Ever.

As for becoming the archetypical American as we imagine them in Belgium: that definitely does not apply to people in California! I’m eating relatively healthy and (since yesterday!) am getting plenty of exercise on my bike :)

Philip Paeps's picture

And now you know why I insist on crossing oceans and continents in business class (or higher ;)). Pity the food didn’t work out for you. I tend to fly Lufthansa and their business class food is usually quite tasty (for airplane food).

When traveling around dodgy third world countries like the US, it helps to have a backup credit card for ‘emergencies’ which you never use for paying in restaurants. I hate it when in the US they walk off with your credit card for twenty minutes before coming back with a soggy slip of paper for you to sign. Who knows how many copies of your card are circulating?

I use my Amex for most of my day to day expenses in the US, but I have a Visa which I only use in Europe (pin machines…) just in case the Amex bounces in a hotel or another inconvenient time.

Have fun in California.

Wim Leers's picture
Wim Leers

Well, it was more tasty than any other airplane food I’ve ever had. But it was not definitely not great. It’s a matter of what you’re used to, too, of course.

The problem is that I can’t get another credit card. All other banks require you to have a regular income, i.e. they require you to have a job. Citibank seems to be the only one (in Belgium, that is) that provides credit cards for students. I did try. And yes, I hate the incredible lack of security for their payment systems. The country that touts anti-terrorism measures can’t even properly protect payments. It decreases traceability, too. But I guess it does create more jobs: manual inspection of credit card slips?

Philip Paeps's picture

You think someone actually inspects them? ;-)

I have “Ask for ID” written in the signature field of all my cards. The number of instances I get asked to produce ID annually (when paying a bill - not when entering an establishment where immoral substances such as gasp alcohol are sold) can be counted on one hand. You think someone goes and checks later? :)

In general, I’m in favour of the Belgian system of checking whether someone actually has an income before throwing a credit card at them. Once your internship starts paying, you’ll probably be able to convince some bank (either in Belgium or in California) to let you have a credit card though. You could also look into prepaid credit cards or Visa-branded debit cards. It’s an unfortunate reality that the US basically runs on one-dollar bills and credit cards, with nothing in between. I’m sure you’ll get used to the system once the initial frustrations wear off. :)

Airline food is universally bad. But business class food usually at least qualifies as “food”, rather than as “random collection of calories thrown together in the least tasteful way possible”. It’s still “chicken or beef”, but at least recognizibly so. ;)