The Ideal Work Term Progression for Computer Engineers, part VI

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 last 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 sixth 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 Sixth Work Term – Teeing Up the Rest of Your Life

Return to your previous employer, get a better job, or try something different – it’s up to you.

If you were lucky enough to land a job with a company you could see working for full time – and don’t have any higher aspirations for a starting position – then certainly consider returning to this employer for your last work term. As was the case on your fourth work term, doing two consecutive work terms with the same employer allows you to leverage the company experience you obtained in your previous work term and gain more responsibility with less ramp up time. Unlike on the fourth work term, however, there isn’t any pressure from older students on the job supply, so if you’re not completely happy – or just want to try something different – then take the opportunity to go through the interview process one last time. Most employers hiring at the fifth and sixth work term levels evaluate their co-op students against the same standards they use for new graduates; this turns out to be a huge benefit for UW students. To start with, most co-op students have significantly more experience by their fifth work terms than students from other universities do by the time they graduate, making it very easy to surpass this standards. Secondly, most employers are very understanding of you taking your sixth work term to do something different and then returning to them full time, and will provide you with the contacts you need to land a job with the company in the future. When you combine these things, you end up with a situation that is incredibly advantageous for you, whatever you decide to do on this work term. And as long as you got a job on all of your previous work terms, you can even take this term off (though I’d suggest taking time off once you graduate instead; employers are well accustomed to it, and you’ll likely already have a full time job lined up and can afford to spend more).

Get a job with a company you want return to.

Getting a job with a company via co-op is usually significantly easier than the process new graduates follow, so using your sixth work term as an opportunity to get into a company is an excellent strategy. To give you an example, co-op students at Microsoft returning full-time to the same team usually have no other interviews than their initial 1 hour co-op interview, held on the UW campus. Switching teams requires more interviews, but its often more of a “can we work with this person” interview lasting an hour or so; your work for your former team vets your technical skills. New graduates who haven’t done an internship with Microsoft, on the other hand, face one or two 8 hour days of interviews - a very gruelling process – on the Microsoft campus, which requires flying all the way out there and back if the student is not from the area. Not only that, students from other schools start from scratch on their first day with the company, while you’ll already be an old hand by the time your first (full time) day rolls around. Using your sixth work term this way makes life a lot simpler, so consider it when applying for jobs.

Negotiate upward.

It’s hard to overstate the value of a co-op student returning to an employer; hiring good people is hard work, and your 4-month co-op term(s) with an employer serve as an extended audition. You can take advantage of this to negotiate a better position than is traditionally available to new grads – with a few caveats, of course. First, for bigger companies you’ll probably be entering on their standard “new grad” employment package, so negotiating salary/benefits/vacation time is not generally useful – college recruiters typically aren’t authorized to go outside the “standard” package. Some companies have a range of “standard” packages, but the choice of package is based on how valuable you are to the company; there’s not much you can do to change it (besides doing well on your co-op terms, of course). So what do you negotiate on? Your position! If there is a project area you want to lead, a committee you want to be on, a job description you want to have, whatever it is that relates to your job duties – just ask! Especially if you are returning to the same team under the same management, you’ll often get good results by discussing with your current manager what you are looking for in a full time position, and so long as it is reasonable, most managers are willing and able to hook you up. Even if it means working on a different team – talented people are good for a company, regardless of which department they work in – there is a good chance that your manager has been around long enough to develop relationships with the right people to get you a better job than you would normally get, and one that is precisely what you are interested in to boot. You’ll still end up starting as a new grad just like all of the other new grads, but while the other new grads are getting up to speed, you may be leading a feature area – which looks especially good come review time.

Plan for the future.

If you’ve found a company that you would consider returning to, plant seeds for the future. The people you meet may be your future colleagues, so make sure to network and do all of the things you need to do to start getting people on your side so that you have a pool of allies to help when you need stuff done. Indeed, as a co-op student you have the neat ability to use the naïveté defence of “I’m just a (dumb) co-op”, so you can even get away with asking senior people questions without repercussions – so forge relationships with some of these people by asking their advice. And since there are likely aspects of your job that will rely on the goodwill of others, make sure to start contributing when others need help. Always put your best effort into everything you do – you don’t want a colleague shooting down an idea of yours in a few years because their only experience of your track record was a couple of shoddy projects you did while you were a co-op. The boundary between co-op and fulltime employee becomes blurred on the last few co-op terms – especially if you return to the company full time – so make sure to take note and foster the image you want to have as a full time employee.

That’s it – have fun!

In the end, everybody’s co-op experience is different, and there is no right or wrong way of doing things. I hope this series has provided some guidance for the things you need to do and think about when you are working your way through co-op so that you can put yourself in a good position for a fulfilling (and lucrative) career in the computer industry.

Each work experience provides a different viewpoint on the set of skills necessary to make it to the top. If you’ve had experience in co-op and want to share your thoughts or (dis)agree with any of the points I’ve made, post a comment or send me a note (‘contact’ at this domain) and I’ll amend these posts with your feedback.