Saurav Gurhale, fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student, tells his story of how co-op completely changed his future career path.
My first two co-ops were on the mechanical side. I got into mechanical engineering not knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I am an international student ia.Before coming to Waterloo, I had taken an engineering graphics course and I was really good at it. That’s what sparked my interest in mechanical engineering and decided to pursue it.
When I started Universirty, it was completely different from what they taught us in school. I wanted to go into design but there's not many options beyond one course in the first year. After my first coop as a Quality engineer in a manufacturing firm, I realized I didn’t want to do mechanical anymore, but it was too late to switch my program. The best I could do was gear my co-op experience towards what I want to be doing.
The pandemic actually helped me do that. Most of the mechanical jobs were canceled because they were conducted in-person but there were so many software jobs available that were remote.
I had no job experience prior to coming to Waterloo, which is kind of intimidating. Some people already had a couple of experiences on their resume, but I had nothing to offer, and had exactly four months to find a job. I remember doing a lot of interviews, but I didn't get a lot of interest until the end of my finals.
I remember going into my first ever interview. I had no idea what they were going to ask me. I just went in. The interview didn’t go well, but I experienced it firsthand and learnt something new, I didn’t get that job, but I didn’t stop applying.
My co-op journey
My first co-op was as a quality engineering co-op at Tiercon Corp in Hamilton. They are experts in building body side moldings and doing all the paintings for car parts. Their customers are companies like Lexus, Toyota, GMC andGeneral Moters.
My job was writing reports every day on the paintings process. I would scrape off a little paint, put it under the microscope and measure the layers. In this role, I was lucky to have a very supporting supervisor.
The hardest part of this job was the snow. I had to commute by bus one hour both ways every day in a Hamilton winter, as I couldn’t find a sublet closer. The best thing though was I could sleep the whole bus ride because I was the last stop.
I didn't really know what to expect from the job itself as it was my first co-op. I just went in, they told me what to do and I did that. I thought I liked it and would be okay doing it in the future. At the time I signed up on LinkedIn and I looked at what other people were doing. I quickly realized that there were certain skills you could learn in your own time to get jobs in manufacturing or the design field like Solidworks and CAD. I even joined a student design team called AquaDrone at the university to add skills to my résumé. I made sure to utilize the school's résumé critiques and did a few mock interviews to help me apply to my next job. I found that really helped land interviews.
My second co-op was a company called Hibar Systems, in Richmond Hill, working as a manufacturing planning assistant. They made a pneumatic pump and lithium-ion batteries.
The job itself was very labor demanding, time-focused and repetitive, which I didn't really like. I took the bus to work and I had to make sure to arrive early every day because I had to clock in right at 7 a.m. My job was to enter and print out the manufacturing process with instructions and distribute them to the correct line workers.
I was also in charge of the material requirements planning (MRP) forecast, tracking and documenting what we bought, and the number of parts we made. After a while of writing the same instructions repeatedly, I created an Excel sheet to track the parts and instructions so we could re-use them, better streamlining and organizing the operation.
My third co-op was supposed to be a project engineering job in Brampton but unfortunately COVID hit and they had to recind their offer. I had to find a job at the last minute. I applied to a new system created by Waterloo and got the role of online learning assistant at the University. They gave me the option of teaching a cohort of first year students either coding for mechanical engineering. I took on this opportunity to learn more about programming. I worked with professor David Lau and was tasked with overlooking the student's projects and assignments. If they had any questions, I would host an open meeting every Thursday to address them and help them with their code if they needed it.
Through this co-op, I discovered my interest in coding. Professor David Lau took the time to teach me the basics and I learned I could actually code. I didn’t get the best marks in the coding course for my degree which left me intimidated and thinking software jobs were not for me. But this job showed me grades don’t justify interest as you might be interested in something you’re just not good at yet. The practice of explaining coding to others was the best way to teach myself. I got to learn and teach Python, C++ and MATLAB. The job was also completely online, which was a new experience. Overall, this job was my turning point of moving from mechanical roles to software roles and shaped the rest of my future co-ops.
My fourth co-op role was a continuous improvement engineer at Signode. Signode is packaging manufacturing company, their Canada division dealt with the logistics and shipments of new products, it is essentially a large warehouse. My team had One operations head and three co-ops including me. Signode is a manufacturer and distributor of protective packaging systems.
The problem with their operation was they did everything on paper, nothing was online or automated. To get a purchase order they would have to log onto an old Windows 97. Software's for enterprise resource planning or ERP system couldn't communicate with any modern interfaces or applications. Therefore, they were forced to print everything before it went to shippers. This was a very tedious process. Some papers would get lost and they had no idea when they would ship the product or what was shipped in the past. Sometimes people forgot to scan a certain page and they would lose the whole recorded inventory. At the end of the year when they check the inventory, they would have to check the unreliable stack of physical payables.
The manager wanted to eliminate the paper system. We had to find a workaround to make the shipping ticket system digital. To do this, we took the original PDF order page and created an object character recognition algorithm that could read and store the data from new orders in the database. With this now digitalized data we created a webpage for staff to use and for order information to be recorded and archived.
This paperless change was even more vital as COVID forced everyone into remote online work. Since staff couldn’t come into the office, no one had access to any records with the paper system, especially the customer service representatives. With the new website, customer service staff can work from home as all the tacking information is logged onto the website. They were very happy.
Before doing this co-op, I had done a few small courses on YouTube and Udemy on how to build webpages, which really came in handy. I got to use this and my coding knowledge at this company and it was the best feeling ever seeing what I accomplished.
I enjoyed the company so much I continued to work part-time with them through my school term, continued my fifth co-op term and again part-time in my next school term. They needed me during that time because no one else knew how to debug the code if any problems occurred.
Going into my last co-op, I knew what I was doing and I knew I loved software roles. My previous co-op experience was a year-long Signode project that every interviewer was impressed by and I ended up getting three job offers from good companies. I ended up taking a job as a software developer at Replicant AI.
They automate customer service roles with artificial intelligence, with customers such as DoorDash and AAA (roadside assistance). My role was to add new features to client facing dashboard. This contains all the metrics for the calls including why customers called, the number of calls, and whether it was a query, an emergency or just an angry customer.
I had experience building websites before, this was just more high-tech because it was a bigger company. My previous co-ops were different because I built everything from scratch. So, I knew everything about it. When I started here, it was all new systems that I didn't know existed. So, I had to learn on the job.
This job was also remote, so I learned that communication is key. They had this startup culture, where they were very open to ideas and opinions. I think that’s the best part of any company, when students have a say in something and are listened to if they have any possible improvements. I think this was my best co-op experience so far.
My advice would be to explore many different things, many different experiences. It is up to you to decide what do you want to do and you learn that by trying new things.
You can have multiple résumés and you can apply to random jobs. When I had no software experience I had two resumes, one for mechanical and one for software. I applied to as many jobs as possible.
Do not be afraid to try out new things because students can be burdened with the heavy course loads in Waterloo and it's difficult to find time to do new things that they wish to do or maybe just want to try. But it is important! I understood in my second year that grades are not going to give you everything.
I started focusing more on my side prospects, because that's what built my portfolio because that's what companies look at. No companies asked why I wanted to get into software while studying to be a mechanical engineer. I feel like they didn't really look at my education, they only looked at my experience and side projects. I even built a personal website and LinkedIn page for myself listing all my side projects and work experience. Having a portfolio page with links to your work and experiences and an up-to-date LinkedIn page, is the best way to level-up and showcase your work, employers care about your past experiences, and you should make it easily accessible to them.
If you really want to see what you can do in future co-ops, make sure to showcase all the side projects you have done and are currently working on and talk about them in the interviews.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the interviews. It's just 30 minutes that decides whether or not you're going to get a job. And if you're able to explain how you went out of your way to figure out things and do interesting projects no one else does, you will get recognized.
When I first came to Waterloo, I thought I wanted to be a mechanical designer of some kind. But my experiences in co-op have shaped me into who I am now and showed me what kind of opportunities I want to pursue as a career.
Co-op sparked interest in me that they don't teach in school. Co-op teaches you something different. You have no idea whether you like sales, or coding or some other business just from courses. You only know when you experience it. When you go into the real world, you will see there are many more possibilities around you than just focusing on your major.