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Co-op placements prove successful despite COVID constraints

Submitted on Thursday, August 27, 2020

by Suzanne Bowness

While almost everyone’s life has changed as a result of COVID-19, many Faculty of Information students were still able to go ahead with their co-op placements this summer and get valuable real-world work experience in their chosen fields. True, that real world turned out to be a virtual one and the students worked from bedrooms and kitchen tables rather than offices and cubicles, but, on the plus side, the clothing was more comfortable and they got the chance to put  their classroom-acquired skills to the professional test during some very unusual times.

Coffee connection

For Mounica Thanam, an international student from India who is pursuing her Master of Information (MI) with a concentration in Human-Centred Data Science, connecting to her co-op employer also happened in an unusual fashion. She met her current supervisors while working part-time as a barista during the program. “I was networking all the time—I was doing coffee chats, informational interviews and attending corporate events. I’ve noticed that most people are very friendly and are willing to help,” says Thanam. Her own friendliness paid off in a placement with QuadReal Property Group, a global real estate investment, operating and development company.

From the start, supervisor Colton Creber could tell that Thanam’s skills would be transferrable to her current role. “Even in that very brief interaction (at the coffee shop), you could tell that she was extraordinarily smart. And her major in the program fit very well contextually within conversations we were having at the corporate level. It was serendipitous,” he says.

The company tasked her with a variety of projects in different areas, plugging ultimately into the investment management team. She worked with operations, sustainability and research, to name a few. She tackled a machine-learning project and undertook a risk-analysis project that looks at understanding changes in consumer preferences and economic impacts during this downturn.

Thanam brought previous experience working for Accenture (and by extension, Facebook). She wondered however, if her lack of real estate experience might hinder her progress. Turns out the company wanted that different perspective. “My team made it very clear that they’re not just hiring another analyst. They wanted someone with a complementary skill set and a different set of eyes, who would add value to the team. I’m glad to have made the decision to join them,” she says.

Over at Autodesk

Abigael Pamintuan liked not having to commute for her co-op placement, but she missed out on spontaneous hallway conversations.

In another home workspace, Abigael Pamintuan, an MI student with a concentration in User Experience Design (UXD), started her internship at Autodesk by analyzing her own user experience while learning the company’s Maya software, a 3D computer graphics program, used by animation and gaming studios to create models. Taking a “crash course” approach to the complex program, Pamintuan first learned to animate a bouncing ball, a common basic test for animators. “As a participant, that experience enabled me to understand some of the problems that first-time users would have with Maya,” says Pamintuan.

Her subsequent work followed more traditional UX testing, observing new users (often fellow interns) go through the learning process and “think aloud” their steps as she observed and took notes, writing up the results of many tests as thematically coded research reports. Working from home, she did the tests over Zoom, where screensharing and video cameras helped her to observe task pathways and body language.

Pamintuan’s supervisor, Trevor Adams, says that her work impressed him enough to hand over even more responsibility. “I saw an opportunity for her to do a lot more because of her wide range of skills. So, while she’s continuing to run our usability tests, she’s also now a co-designer on our project team, helping us research, design and validate new features and tools that we hope will make Maya easier for new users to pick up and learn. She now has a lot more say in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Another UXD experience

While Eric Hanson had already worked as a freelance designer, he still found it challenging to figure out how to be a part of a workplace community while working virtually.

The work of another UXD student shows how varied the specialization can be. Eric Hanson completed his placement with the University of Toronto’s Rotman Commerce, helping Sheri Browne, the Assistant Director of Student Life – Experiential Learning and Leadership, with tasks ranging from re-imagining online events to redesigning course modules for campus activities. For Hanson, the experience of re-thinking learning under pandemic conditions felt especially relevant.

“This was actually a really good place to be in terms of dealing with the problems that current institutions have, transitioning in-person work to a virtual, more digitized working environment. There are a lot of different issues to think about, including technology, policy, organizational structure,” says Hanson.

His supervisor was equally grateful for Hanson’s new perspective. “He helped us to challenge a lot of assumptions that we would usually make about helping students in the virtual space. He has exceptional skills and abilities, and is able to be very thoughtful on things that we wouldn’t have considered. Having that lens was very valuable,” says Browne, who herself transferred part way through Hanson’s internship to a new position with UofT’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

Hanson observed virtual events and event recordings, and he made several recommendations, such as adding music or making presentation structure more intentional, say by adding a moderator to provide an introduction for a speaker. He also reformatted existing courses and even started researching new platforms that might better capture the energy of a live event, such as the business case pitches that are central to the school’s culture. “Online is a totally different animal and you have to put a lot more production values into it,” said Hanson. “You can’t just have slides and somebody talking and expect everyone to be engaged—now you’re competing with somebody’s house, where they can walk around with their phone and get distracted.”

A different year for co-op students

While each co-op student may have worked for different employers, in this strange year they had a common framework in working from home. For Hanson, even though he had already worked as a freelance designer, the challenge was still in figuring out how to be a part of a workplace community when working virtually. “I think there’s only so much you can do to really make it seem like you’re in an office when you’re not,” he says. He adds that instituting weekly meetings with his supervisor, plus using a variety of communications channels from MS Teams to the phone, helped to make conversation more organic. At both Autodesk and QuadReal, Pamintuan and Thanam also had regular daily check-ins with supervisors and weekly meetings with their teams.

Larger workplaces also provided infrastructure for more company-wide events. At Autodesk, a multinational organization with over 10,000 employees, the intern offerings included a TED-talk style virtual speaker series and Q&A. The interns also have a dedicated Slack messaging channel, set up with a plug-in called Donut that introduces people randomly through the organization. Pamintuan connected with new people weekly through the platform, including interns in a variety of roles and locations such as a software developer from San Francisco. “They’re doing a great job of keeping us engaged,” says Pamintuan.

At QuadReal, the same type of “fireside chat” series helped provide exposure to different areas of the firm and connect with peers in different teams. They also had case competitions for the interns, one of which Thanam won along with her teammate from the sustainability team. At Rotman, Hanson’s supervisor connected him with new people over the School’s chat program.

While the interns say they felt very supported by all these efforts, each admits it was still a challenge. “It is definitely more difficult to meet new folks or to network,” says Thanam. “I put in a conscious effort to talk to at least one person every week, to get to know them on a personal level, but I definitely know that I would have made a ton more connections if it was in person.” Pamintuan agrees, “It’s very hard to have a casual conversation because even just messaging someone feels more scheduled. Whereas in person you could easily turn to someone in the same space for a hallway conversation.”

Another challenge was separating work and home life, even if it can have its upside. “I don’t mind sleeping in and not having to commute,” says Pamintuan. Good news, because Autodesk has asked her to stay on until the end of the year.