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6 Interns Who Ended Up Running the Company

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Many of us started out at jobs way down at the bottom of the food chain. Getting coffee and stuffing envelopes isn’t exactly a dream job for most people, but if you’re doing it now, take heart in the fact that these people started out as interns as well – and ended up running the joint.

1. Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner


These days, most people know Roger Goodell as the NFL Commissioner. But 30 years ago he worked hard to even get a lowly intern position. After receiving rejection letters from pretty much every team in the league, a young Goodell tried the NFL itself. Then-executive director Don Weiss replied to say that there wasn’t anything available, then blew him off with the trite, “Hey, if you’re ever in the area, stop by.” Though he was hours away, Goodell picked up the phone and said, "What do you know? I am in the area, so I’ll stop by tomorrow." He drove seven hours overnight and “dropped in” on the league headquarters the next day, where they hired him because he seemed like a nice guy. It’s that kind of tenacity that landed him the plum Commish role 25 years later.

2. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox

In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to helm a Fortune 500 company. But back in 1980, she was a 22-year-old mechanical engineering summer intern at Xerox. After her summer at the technology giant, Burns joined the company full time in 1981. Though she nearly left for a cushy position at Dell, Vernon Jordan – then a member of the Xerox board of directors – personally called and asked her to stay to help boost employee and consumer confidence in the company’s stability.

3. George Hu, COO of

A mere 10 years ago, Stanford MBA student George Hu joined as a summer intern. Now he’s the chief operating officer. Hu was tasked with investigating new markets for to pursue, and in the process, his research ended up showing that the company was throwing millions of dollars a month away on direct mail campaigns that had generated exactly 14 leads in six months. After that, he quickly climbed the ladder at Salesforce. In October, CNN named him one of the 20 highest paid under 40 – and that was before he was named COO in November.

4. Daniel Hesse, former head of AT&T Wireless

Daniel Hesse didn’t let a little thing like college preference stand in the way of getting an internship at AT&T. As a student at Cornell, Hesse was determined to get a job at AT&T. The problem? Apparently the telecommunications company was only interested in Harvard-educated interns, because that’s the only place they advertised. Hesse caught wind of this and sent his sister, who lived near Harvard, to see if she could find any flyers hanging on bulletin boards. She managed to find the information and got Hesse an application. When AT&T received his paperwork, they called him to see how a kid from Cornell managed to apply for an internship that had only been advertised at Harvard. Hesse says when he explained himself, the recruiter said, “I want to meet you.” The recruiter probably felt pretty good about her choice when Hesse was promoted to the head of AT&T Wireless in 1997. He's currently the CEO of Sprint.

5. Rob Cavallo, Chairman of Warner Bros Records

Rob Cavallo landed a sweet gig as an intern at Warner Bros. Records in 1987, where he worked with Black Sabbath. Seriously, can you imagine comparing notes with your friends? “I had to order lunch for everyone today. What did you do?” “Uh, I scouted out some bands to maybe tour with Black Sabbath.”

After his successful internship, Cavallo made a name for himself in the industry by producing Green Day’s Dookie album. After kicking around as Senior Vice President for a few years, Cavallo left the company for a while to pursue things like helping Phil Collins win a Grammy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Tarzan’s “You’ll Be in My Heart.” But he came back to Warner in 2002 and was named CEO in 2010.

By the way, Warner has a history of promoting people from the bottom rungs. Tom Whalley, the Chairman before Cavallo, started out in the mailroom.

6. Bill Summers, CEO of McDonald & Co

Though it would make for a good story if Bill Summers started out his career as a clown, we’re actually talking about McDonald Investments… not the fast food behemoth. Summers was a lackey in the Municipal Bond department in 1971. When he retired in 2006, he was the president and CEO.

These guys don’t quite fit the bill, but they’re close enough to warrant a mention:

Dick Cheney interned under Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger in 1969, three weeks before Nixon was inaugurated. Steiger and Cheney were only three years apart in age and ended up becoming close friends.
Ira Glass “talked [his] way into” an internship at NPR when he was 19. “Like most teenagers, I had never heard of public radio,” he said. The unpaid internship led to a job soon after, and now he’s the host and producer of This American Life.
Roger D. Hodge started at Harper’s Magazine as an intern in 1996 and was hired as a fact checker when the internship ended. He served as the editor from 2006 through 2010.
August Anheuser Busch IV, the former president and CEO Of Anheuser Busch, was once an intern/apprentice brewer. It will surprise no one to learn that he is the great-great-grandson of company founder Adolphus Busch, so his internship and rise to the top isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story.
George Bodenheimer was once a mailroom clerk at ESPN who graduated to selling ESPN to cable operators around the Midwest. After serving as the president of the company for more than a decade, he was named Executive Chairman of ESPN, Inc., earlier this year.
Dick Grasso, former Chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, left the Army in 1968 and joined the NYSE as floor clerk for the mailroom. He was the chairman and CEO from 1996 to 2003.
Sidney Weinberg made $3 a week assisting the janitor at Goldman Sachs. That was in 1907, and by 1925, Goldman Sachs had purchased the junior high school dropout a seat on the NYSE. He was partner two years later, and from 1930-1969, he led the company.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]