Friday, May 23, 2008

Engineers, Experience, and Education (Part 1)

My first real experience with a co-op started as I waited nervously at the Gainesville Regional Airport. If you've never been to anything but a big international airport, you're missing out.

The Gainesville Airport had two gates but they didn't have those motorized hallways that dock to a plane. At this airport the passengers were faced with two normal doors that opened directly on the tarmac. At boarding time everyone was expected to walk across the taxiway, step on a stool, and climb into the plane. Just like Casablanca.

I didn't pay for my ticket. A rental car and a room at the Embassy Suites awaited my arrival in Austin. All my expenses were covered by the interviewing company. The next day would be busy with a drug test, interview, and flight back to Florida. I was nervous, but I was excited too.

Why You Want an Internship or Co-op

I distinctly remember how exciting internships and co-ops seemed when I first learned about them. Sadly, I was probably almost three years into my degree. When a professor encouraged my Microcontrollers class to get co-ops (or an internship, they're similar), this is what stuck in my head:
  • Co-ops are paid! Instead of me paying to learn, some company might pay me to learn. Not only that, but many Co-ops pay quite well.
  • Co-ops often will take you to new cities, even new states. Sometimes a company will fly you out somewhere, feed you, and entertain you just for an interview. If you get an offer, many companies will pay to help you move there and then back to school.
  • No homework. Go to work to work. Come home and relax, just like a normal human being.
  • Get real experience to put on your resume and discuss in interviews.
  • Work on real problems. Unlike school, people actually notice when you solve a problem. Your work is appreciated.
Co-ops and internships sounded awesome. A semester of adventure instead of school. How had I not heard this before? I told all my engineering friends and immediately started to look for opportunities.

When the career fair came to campus, I attended with the goal of getting an interview for a Co-op. The fair was held in the O-dome, a big sports arena with a air-supported roof. Inside, both levels of the arena were jammed with booths for every sort of company imaginable. There were Fortune 500 giants next to tiny companies I'd never heard of.

I walked up to the first big booth and stepped in line. In front of me, four or five students in identical black suits waited for the chance to talk to a recruiter. I watched each in turn perform the same ritual.

Each student would step forward, shake hands, and hand a resume to the recruiter. The recruiter and student would chat for a few minutes. The recruiter occasionally made a mark on the resume. Then finally the recruiter would hand the student a brochure, pen, t-shirt, flashlight, or some other marketing device before the student left. The resume fell into a huge stack. It was an assembly line.

A similar performance repeated for me at each booth. A chat, a trade of papers, and goodbye. Although I stopped at lots of booths, I never got an invitation to further interviews. It felt like an awkward school event. I talked to a bunch of girls, but I never quite figured out how to ask for a dance.

And yet somehow I ended up with an interview and an actual co-op a few months later. But I'll save that story for a later post.

The Book on Internships and Co-ops

If you're a student, especially one in a technical field, please check out my recently published book Conquering Your Engineering Internship: Planning, Getting, and Making the Most of an Internship or Co-op. I think the book is a great resource to help you with every aspect of an internship or co-op: getting hired, learning new skills, making a good impression, having an adventure, and otherwise changing your life for the better. Others agree -- just check out the reviews on Amazon.

I strongly believe that engineering students and recent graduates will benefit greatly from the knowledge in my book. I believe it so strongly that the book is currently available for free download on my publisher's website. Even if you can't afford the paperback, please take a look at the download -- you can buy the hard copy when you get a paying internship. I'd love to know what you think.

1 comment:

Jeff K. said...

So glad to see you've been published, cuz!