Being a student at the University of Waterloo has had a profound effect on my career as a student, and even more so as a software engineer. In a world where post-secondary degrees are seen by many as a necessary expense for a successful—in the eyes of many, simply a well-paying—career, it’s sometimes hard to justify what actually makes a school “good” other than its ability take your money and award you a degree. Having almost finished my fifth internship, I’ve had a moment to reflect on my experiences with Waterloo’s co-op program, and what about the system makes it great.
In a nutshell, Waterloo’s greatest asset to students is its focus on cooperative education (i.e. internships). Quality of teaching does not get you as far as you would like to think. My anecdotal evidence for this comes from the fact that I’ve had my share of awful professors (to be fair, only two have truly earned that title), but I don’t feel these experiences have had a significantly detrimental effect on preparing me for my career. The simple fact is if it’s actually important, you will learn the material one way or another, and chances are you will learn it on the job rather than in the classroom.
Internships Fill the Gaps Missed by Academia
Internships take the theory of what you learn and apply it to practical applications. However, that’s not their greatest benefit. For me, the greatest advantage of internships is that I’ve learned skills that I otherwise would never have acquired in the academic world.
- How to interview (in other words, how to sell yourself)
- How to communicate ideas effectively (specifically to non-technical people)
- How to be “workplace smart” (understanding corporate politics)
These are unfortunately skills that simply don’t get taught in the classroom. Courses teach you the material to prepare you for later courses, and—the university hopes—for graduate school. Some universities are recognizing the need to teach these “soft” skills, but instead of implementing a co-op program, they include extra courses as part of the curriculum that try to teach these skills (Waterloo also assigns students course work during their work terms to supplement their work experience, but it has been met with much opposition from students due to its ineffectiveness); trying to teach these skills is extremely hard in a classroom setting.
Internships Yield Networking Opportunities
Were it not for the reputation of Waterloo’s co-op program, I doubt I would have been able to get my foot in the door in some of the companies I’ve worked with. I’ve met some incredible people at these companies, as I see them not only as great mentors, but also as valuable connections. Professional networking has many uses, but at its core it gives you opportunity, and more opportunity is always a good thing. Being able to utilize connections to take advantage of new opportunities down the road gives a greater sense of flexibility in one’s future career path.
Internships Are Fun
This may seem like a fluffier point, but the reality is that being an intern is awesome. Most serious software companies understand just how important interns are. More than just cheap labour, interns are a sampling of the future talent pool from which a company can hire, and interns each have social networks which can positively or negatively effect your company’s image (word-of-mouth can be a very effective—or damaging—marketing strategy). The net result of this is that interns get some pretty awesome perks from those companies who want them to leave with a positive impression.
We Learn Through Experience
One crucial idea I’ve picked up on throughout my experience as a co-op student is that students seem to learn better from experience than from teaching. A lot of what we learn in our education tends to be forgotten within a few years (with some courses, even a few months). Those ideas which manage to stick around in our minds tend to be those which get revisited, which more often than not are those skills we apply in the real world. If the evidence is any hint to us, human beings were built to learn through experience; it’s time we saw some more schools start to embrace that fact.