Life outside lectures: The value of technical jobs and internships

by Clare Lyle, Web Developer

(Domi Biehlmann / McGill Tribune)

Under the shadow of exams, assignments, and endless lectures, the pressure of academic life can turn the McGill bubble opaque. Although we call ourselves McGill students, there are four months of the year during which most of us are not studying at McGill University.

Many students use their respite from classes and exams to undertake professional opportunities. Student employment in Quebec is among the highest of all the provinces in Canada. According to the Institut de la statistique du Quebec, during the summer of 2015, over half of the students in Quebec between the ages of 15 to 24 were employed. Summer internships can also lead to employment opportunities after graduation. For example, according to a Seattle Times article, at Microsoft, 85 per cent of interns receive full-time offers at the end of their internships.

Students can find employment in a myriad of different places, and some opportunities may even take them to other countries. Michael Ho, U4 Software Engineering, has used his summer breaks to intern at a number of major software companies in the United States, including Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. He described his internships as invaluable learning experiences.

“Writing code for an assignment is so different from writing code which will scale on hundreds of servers and affect millions of customers,” he said. “I learned a lot about software engineering practices, the entire process of planning, designing, implementing, and testing code, which eventually goes into production to millions of people. Being a software engineer doesn’t only require technical skills, but also tremendous social skills, as communication is key when you have a project in which hundreds or even thousands of engineers contribute together.”

Googleplex, located in California, United States (

Ho emphasized the benefits of interning with multiple different companies over the course of several summers. In his mind, beyond just being enjoyable experiences, these internships gave him an idea of what he wanted to do after graduation.

“Every company is different in terms of culture, engineering practices, goals, and much more,” he said. “An internship allows you to discover a new place, dig into its internal secrets, learn from different perspectives, [and] all of this without permanently settling for a company. Working at Microsoft with 22 years of legacy code was pretty special, while working in Apple’s absolute secrecy is absolutely astonishing. Having multiple internships gave me so [many] insights on what’s really out there in the industry. This allowed me to better decide where I really want to go and gauge the right fit for a permanent position upon graduation. Nonetheless, it also gave me a very nice network to start my career with.”

I’ve learned so much over the course of four months, working with world-class engineers, data scientists, linguists, translators and artificial intelligence specialists [....] The project [...] affected more than 100 million Apple users. It feels great to know that the code you wrote [can have an impact on] millions of people around the world!

As Ho explains, internships and short-term employment are an integral step for students to set their foot into the working world, allowing them to experience the work environment and develop a professional network. McGill, as well as many student associations and clubs on campus, offers a number of opportunities for students seeking technical internships to interact with companies that are looking to hire. For example, the Fall and Winter Tech Fairs, as well as sponsor booths at events like code.jam(), RoboHacks, and McHacks, bring company recruiters to campus. In addition, there are a number of interview and resume-writing workshops hosted by the Faculty of Engineering and the Computer Science Undergraduate Society each year. In addition to opportunities presented by McGill and its community, events like the Montreal Startup Bus in the Fall and competitions on websites like HackerRank can also help students looking for summer work to gain exposure to companies who might be interested in hiring them.

There are also more general organizations and services that aim to help students from all academic background to discover various long-term and short-term work options. Career Planning Services (CAPs), offers career advising services to McGill students, among many other resources to help them find employment. AIESEC McGill connects students with international internship opportunities in various fields, such as teaching and business.

While there are countless external job opportunities, some students prefer to stick closer to their academic roots during the summer. Research jobs are opportunities for students considering grad school to test the waters before committing to a research degree. Gaining research experience can also help set an applicant apart from the masses when it comes to grad school admissions.

Miles Cranmer, U2 Honours Physics, spent his first summer after enrolling at McGill working on “parallelizing a pulsar search algorithm over a supercomputer, with a particular focus on GPU-acceleration.” This means that he worked on developing software which can detect a rare type of star. This experience sparked an interest in developing software for astrophysics, which then led him to get in touch with radio astronomer Lincoln Greenhill, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Astronomy at Harvard. This correspondence eventually led him to a summer research position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (

“I found out about a cool project that one of his other post-docs had started, a software called ‘Bifrost,’ named after the Norse mythological bridge,” wrote Cranmer in an email to The McGill Tribune. “This software is aimed more generally: To be a framework for radio telescope software. I thought this sounded like a fun project. It involves things I am interested in, and is extensible to many other projects. It is also of a bigger scope. Multiple radio telescopes can use Bifrost.”

(Photo courtesy of Miles Cranmer)

Students interested in participating in research at McGill can visit their faculty’s research page on the McGill website, or email their professors to inquire about any projects they might be working on. CAPs also has an extensive list of research job opportunities available both in and out of McGill. Once a student has found a professor and a research project, there are several ways to receive funding for summer research at McGill, such as Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Undergraduate Student Research Awards, McGill’s Science Undergraduate Research Award initiative, and funding from individual labs.

Once a student has found a job prospect that resonates with them, there remains the challenge of standing out to the employers and ultimately getting hired—oftentimes through stiff competition. Understanding how to prepare an effective CV, cover letter and showcasing strong interview skills are all key requirements to getting hired. When asked for advice on how to prepare for technical interviews, “Practice, practice, and practice!” was Ho’s recommendation.

“I read CTCI[Cracking the Coding Interview], solved lots of problems on [.…] But really, nothing prepares you more than actual technical interviews, the pressure to find a solution, code it nicely while continuously explaining your thought processes, all of this [in] under 45 [minutes]. It takes a lot of practice to master,” Ho said. “On top of that, you need to learn to bond with your interviewer and display your passion for software engineering over the phone. I failed interviews with the first nine companies I interviewed at, some of them rejected me after the fourth round. The tenth company, Yahoo, gave me my first internship offer!”

Like Ho, Madeleine Pawlowski, who graduated from McGill Arts in 2015, emphasized the value of preparation when it comes to interviewing for a position. She believes that diligence and thoroughness were key factors behind how she was able to secure her position as an intern at the World Health Organization during the summer of her third year.

The World Health Organization Headquarter in Geneva, Switzerland (

“There is no such thing as being too prepared,” she said. “You can write out all the questions that might be asked of you on sticky notes and brainstorm good answers ahead of time. Make sure you are preparing for questions that are specific to the job you are up for and spend a good amount of time reflecting on how your past experiences can contribute to this new position.”

Pawlowski also spoke about the importance of going out of one’s comfort zone. One of the most valuable opportunities presented by the summer months, according to her, is the chance to branch out of one’s academic focus and explore careers that one may not have considered before.

“Your summers in university are a wonderful way to try new things, whether that be in the non-profit field, in the corporate sector, public policy, or an entirely different field altogether,” she said. “Talk to parents friends or professors about ideas for summer work. Never discount an opportunity, you never know what you might learn!”

As Pawlowski suggested, flexibility and willingness to explore is an important quality for succeeding in the professional world. Kirk Wright, U2 Honours Economics, spent his last summer working on a community development project in El Salvador. Alongside Daniel Teodoro, a Salvadoran graduate student and founder of Tasajera Tides, a community development collective, Wright worked towards the implementation of community indicators in rural El Salvador.

“We [...] co-founded Tasajera Tides, a community indicator system for Tasajera, El Salvador and spent the summer on the ground working with the community to establish the system,” he said. “We combined existing quantitative data with traditional storytelling to provide a simple, comprehensive hub for community information.”

After obtaining an internship, an equally challenging task can be getting the most value out of the experience. There are two sides to this: First, learning as much as possible from the experience; and second, being able to contribute in a meaningful way to the organization and community in which the internship occurs. Ho believes that displaying proactiveness and integrity is most important in meeting these goals.

“Don't be afraid to ask questions,” recommended Ho. “You want to learn the most out of [your internship] and start making impact as soon as possible. In terms of impact, there's only one question to ask yourself: ‘What can I do to help my team?’ Oftentimes, there are a lot of small tasks you can do even if you're not asked to, which your teammates would really appreciate.”

Regardless of your intentions, you have more capacity to do harm than to do good. To ensure that you're contributing in a positive way, you have to do more listening than acting and appreciate your role within the project as well as the larger community.

The impact a project has can often extend beyond the employer to affect the broader community. According to Wright, meaningful work entails listening to the community one is trying working in and educating oneself about their needs.

“It is important to keep a strong sense of perspective when working in a community that is not your own,” said Wright. “Regardless of your intentions, you have more capacity to do harm than to do good. To ensure that you're contributing in a positive way, you have to do more listening than acting and appreciate your role within the project as well as the larger community.”

The community affected by an internship can extend beyond a single town. Ho recollected a favourite memory from his internship at Apple: Introducing machine learning to Siri. On top of the knowledge he gained over four months working on the project, he cited the satisfaction he felt in knowing that his work would impact so many people worldwide.

“In a team of three software engineers only, we built the frontend to Siri’s new natural language processing system,” he said. “I’ve learned so much over the course of four months, working with world-class engineers, data scientists, linguists, translators and artificial intelligence specialists. We built an interface for developers to integrate Siri into their apps and train Siri to understand new intents [....] The project [...] affected more than 100 million Apple users. It feels great to know that the code you wrote [can have an impact on] millions of people around the world!”