The Ideal Work Term Progression for Computer Engineers, part II

With their Computer Engineering degrees now complete, my classmates (and I, in a sense) are now working at – or searching for – their first permanent full-time jobs. Looking back on the journey that got us where we are, the one thing that stands out between my classmates is the experience they got while on their co-op terms, and the quality of their resulting full-time jobs. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned about what co-op jobs you should be looking for at each stage in the Waterloo co-op progression. This article is the second in a series of 6 (parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI) on what you should be doing for each co-op work term with the University of Waterloo in order to get jobs with the best companies in your last few co-op terms; this part covers your second work term.

This series is written for computer engineering students in the University of Waterloo’s cooperative education (co-op) program, which consists of a series of 6 work terms in a repeating 4 months school/4 months work pattern for four years of the student’s five year degree. Most of the information presented here is not unique to UW students, however; students in a more traditional university program can still apply these tips by ignoring the term specifications and applying them in order to their work opportunities instead. Longer (8-, 12-, or 16-month) work terms also fit into this model; aim to be done the same things as a 4-month UW co-op student would be at that level of work experience (for example, a 16-month intern should try to complete items up to the 4th work term level by the end of their internship).

Your Second Work Term – Being Different

Plant seeds for future terms.

Now that you’ve gained some experience, it’s time to put in motion the things that will get you to the top. As long as you make the right job choices, work terms are cumulative, so getting a job that is just slightly better than your classmates your second term will allow you to get jobs that are that much better again in your third term, and the cycle repeats until you’re one of the few getting offers for top-of-the-line jobs. The key is to start doing some things that will pay off in the future – start volunteering, for instance (there are plenty of places on campus – getting an EngSoc directorship both improves your university experience and looks good on a resume, and is usually a lot of fun). Another thing you should start doing is sending a few applications to the top companies you want to work for, even if you don’t have the skills yet. Many of the recruiters follow student progress, so submitting an application starting in your second or third term may give you an edge in your later terms (don’t go overboard, though).

Avoid going back.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few that finds a job they absolutely adore in their first term, going back isn’t the best strategy. Now that you’ve got some experience, the majority of your job options will be better than your first work term position. Remember that you’re competing against your classmates for the available jobs; while some will come from behind to get great jobs in the end, it’s a much better strategy to try for a better position every term (the tortoise strategy in the tortoise and the hare) . That’s not to say you can’t go back to the same company – or even the same position – but make sure when you do so that you expect to get the same amount of experience as you would had you applied elsewhere (NB: if you haven’t noticed, it’s all about experience. Switching jobs may result in a pay cut, but should resolve itself in the later co-op terms. I took a 15% pay cut in my second term for a job that provided better experience, but as a result I was making almost double my first term salary by my fifth term). Just because it’s easy to stay where you are doesn’t mean you should do it – I’ve known a number of people who got laid-back jobs in their first term and stayed on for a second; not only did they regret the second (as four months of the same boring deal), most had trouble getting good jobs in future terms, too.

Stand out from the crowd.

Employers comb through hundreds of resumes, each one a variation on the same theme. Your goal is to stand out – in a good way! – so that they remember you when it comes time to pick candidates to interview, and when it comes time to choose who to offer a job to. What does that mean? Spend time making your resume perfect; spelling errors make you stand out, but the way you are looking for. Do your homework before going to the interview, so that you’re able to discuss the company without making wild guesses (don’t try to lecture the interviewer on how much you know, though). Have that one piece of experience that everybody else doesn’t have, be it technical or volunteer. When preparing your resume, consider mentioning something unusual about yourself (may be you play an odd musical instrument – the bodhrán, perhaps – or have an unusual hobby; anything harmless but odd is perfect). Don’t force it, but you’ll occasionally get a comment out of the blue about whatever you mentioned that cements you in the interviewer’s mind. Knowing technical detail unexpected of a co-op student can also help you stand out – I shocked an interviewer once by knowing how garbage collection in .NET worked, and diffused another one by observing that his interview question was equivalent to the knapsack problem, which is NP-complete; both interviews led to job offers.

Aim for the industry vertical you want.

This is the term to start positioning yourself for the jobs you want in your later co-op terms. If you’re looking for hardware jobs, bias your applications toward hardware positions, and the same goes for software or IT positions. At this point, you just want to make sure you’re in the right general area; you don’t need to have all of the factors (like application type (web, desktop) or programming language) perfect yet – that’s for future terms. If you started in the right vertical, great; if not, getting into the vertical is a lot easier on your second term than any other term. Most of the people I know have done the same style of jobs since their first or second term, as you need the right set of circumstances to make a change without ignoring some of your experience (I cover the best way of switching during the third work term).

Follow your stats.

This is not strictly necessary, but I’d highly recommend it – start keeping track of the number of jobs you apply to, the number of interviews you get, and the number of offers you get from those interviews. When you’re just starting out, expect those numbers to be low – but that’s OK. Whenever you get an application rejected or a job ranked or not-ranked instead of offered, review the job posting or your interview performance in order to figure out why it didn’t work out. Were you applying for a job that you had little chance of getting? Did you respond poorly to a question? Were you up against a classmate who writes compilers for fun? Figuring out why things went the way they did is the secret to making your stats go up, as you’ll know how to handle similar situations in the future. And having good stats is a blessing: you’ll either have to attend less interviews (less stressful) for the same number of job offers, or get more job offers and have more selection (at the cost of more time spent interviewing). By my fifth term, I turned 14 applications into 9 interviews and 8 offers – an 88% conversion rate from interview to offer! That same term, I knew people who did 20-30 interviews and 40-50 applications in order to land a single position; not only did they work harder, but they had less selection, too.