I recently ended my first co-op as an RIT student. I had a fantastic experience, and am immensely grateful to my managers for their support. Even though it was not completely in line with my major, I do not think I could’ve asked for a better experience, and I have learned a lot that will influence what I look for in the future.

While pay is an important part of a co-op, it is not the only factor. Especially while in college, you can and should take the time to launch your career and think not just above what will offer you the the highest pay, but also what will be fulfilling and launch your career. There are five factors (besides pay) that made my experience so fantastic.

  1. Your Co-Op has Great People
  2. How to Find Great People
  3. The Co-Op Work You Do Matters
  4. Your Co-Op Pushes You Further
  5. Your Opinion is Valued
  6. You can Make Mistakes

Your Co-Op has Great People

The people I work with matters more than anything else to me. I loved working a with passionate, motivated, and welcoming team. I know some people liked having an “easy internship,” but I would highly recommend taking one that pushes you, since it will offer much greater long-term benefits. Sure, getting paid for doing nothing might be nice, but your employer will be less likely to offer a full-time position. Even if you don’t want to go full-time, I find much greater value in doing real work. Plus, who wants to just sit around, bored?

How to Find Great People

If a trusted person recommends that you join, that is a great sign. However, if you are like me, you may not know the people that you will be working with. Here is where interviews matter. Especially if you have an interview with your potential manager, take the time to get to know them. I know that it sounds vague, but I really “vibed” with my manager when I had my interview. The interview is not just your company meeting you, it is also a time for you to meet your company.

Pro Tip
Academic clubs, like RITSEC, can be a fantastic way to build your network and hear about where are good places to work. They also help build your resume. RITSEC was invaluable for me to get an internship offer, and I highly recommend that you get involved with your academic club to be co-op ready.

The Co-Op Work You Do Matters

During my internship, I ran the mobile network that powers millions of devices like Tesla cars

One of the most fulfilling things about my last co-op was realizing that the work I did actually mattered. It can be difficult to tell what project you will be doing when you join a co-op. I did not have a good idea of what I would be doing. I lucked out. It is an amazing feeling to be able to drive around and know that in a parking lot, the majority of cars are supported by my software. If you can get on a meaningful project, that will lead to a much better experience and is completely worth it. I would happily take somewhat of a pay cut to be on a meaningful project with amazing people than a meaningless project with uninteresting people.

Your Co-Op Pushes You Further

One of the things that I loved about my co-op was how it pushed me to learn and do more than I would’ve done on my own. Especially when you are an intern, you can take a lot of risks. It is a bad idea to stay in your comfort zone when you have the opportunity to go beyond. Not only will be better prepared for future jobs, but your managers will also recognize your initiative. I knew nothing about mobile networking before I joined Jasper. Now, I have a much better understanding about mobile networking and networking more broadly.

One of the great ways to do this is to identify blind spots and offer to address them. Every team has something that they are not thinking about. Is your team not following secure software development lifecycle? You can offer to do research on your company’s policies and industry standards. Not only will you learn a lot, but your manager will likely recognize your efforts.

Your Opinion is Valued

I am a very opinionated person, and I imagine that I can often be annoying to deal with. However, both within my team and within the enterprise-wide Security Enthusiast chat, I always felt that my opinion was valued. People seemed genuine about getting to the best solution, not just their solution. You should, of course, reciprocate that culture. However, I think that, especially as temporary employees, working with people who value your ideas is a huge differentiator.

Personally, I gave feedback and worked with people on more than just security. My manager was more than willing to listen to my ideas on how to make our project management more efficient. I worked with other interns on their projects, and they gave feedback for mine. Everyone was working together towards a common goal, and I am immensely grateful to have been part of such a welcoming team.

You can Make Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, but people with little experience are more susceptible than others. While there are, of course, limits of what are acceptable mistakes, a good manager and co-op will look at your mistakes as learning opportunities. You are an intern (and paid as such) because you do not have the experience of full-time employees.

My managers were very forgiving when it came to making mistakes, and indeed dealing with my questions. While everything else was fantastic, I think that looking back, that is what I am most grateful for. I was given the space to make mistakes, but also given help to get back on track. You can’t tell a lot about a team’s culture with this before you join. However, if you are given the space to mess up and learn, take advantage of that. Not every company is as willing to let me grow as Cisco.