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April 2007
May 2007

2007-04-23 »

NiR: The magic of co-op students

Here's my (edited) response to an interviewer who wanted to write about NITI's slightly infamous co-op recruitment and management processes in Montreal, notably the Human Cannonball and Evil Death Ray. As far as I know, NITI no longer uses these job descriptions in their hiring processes and of course I can't speak for their current employment policies, but here's a bit of funny historical information. The format is a bit weird because I'm actually answering some questions that I've cut out of the text. He specifically asked for some "funny anecdotes," so I did my best to comply.

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In the very beginning it was just two University of Waterloo roommates, me and Dave Coombs, along with the Corporate Dog. We designed the basic functionality of Nitix (now NITI's main product) as a fun side project and we ended up selling it to a few people. They told their friends, who told their friends, and so on, and it became reasonably successful (for a student-run business) but the time needed to do sales and support was distracting us from our studies. That's when the other two co-founders of what is now NITI, Ozzy and Greg, got involved to handle the business side (including seed financing and our new head office in Markham, Ontario). At that point Dave and I managed the technology development (in between classes and exams) while they handled sales and support. In 2001, about three years into the project, we both graduated, opened our R&D office in Montreal, and started hiring additional developers.

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We started our experience with co-op students on exactly the day we opened our Montreal office. In fact, we had to ask our students to skip the morning and show up at a restaurant for a "welcome lunch" around noon because that was when the landlord of the new office was supposed to come by to drop off the key. I had to run out during lunch to pick it up. That was when I found out the restaurant we were eating at was a 6-minute brisk walk from the office, a fact I used frequently when calculating my meeting schedules in the future.

That afternoon, Ikea delivered the first round of unassembled furniture, which we all spent the rest of the day putting together. The next day we got a load of computers shipped from our Markham office so people could actually do work.

At that time the total set of employees in Montreal was me, Dave, one other full-time developer, and four co-op students. I think having them assemble their own furniture was probably when we started getting our reputation as an interesting workplace for co-ops :)

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Inside the company Ozzy and Greg took a hands-off policy towards our R&D. In Ozzy's words, "If you keep delivering the right software, I'll stay off your back. If I keep delivering the numbers, the investors will stay off my back." So while we discussed the idea and people thought my job descriptions were a bit crazy, nobody really objected. Besides, those were the days right before the dot-com crash, so people were pretty willing to go for any kind of quirkiness to get people's attention. And it worked, of course.

The technique was surprisingly effective. Despite our tiny size, we were as well known among Waterloo co-op students as Microsoft, Amazon, or Google. They had the big names, but we had the only job descriptions that were fun to read and talk about. I heard at least one story of someone finding the Evil Death Ray job posting printed out and taped to his dorm room door, with a hand-scrawled note that said, "This is you exactly. Go apply, right now!" We ended up hiring him.

That was the real magic of the job postings - they were quirky and they sounded difficult, so they attracted a certain kind of person that was much more likely to be the kind of person we wanted. That meant sorting through fewer, higher quality resumes. A huge company like Google or Microsoft couldn't really do that because they can't afford to reduce their pool of applicants so much, but we were hiring slowly so it was easier to just have the group be self-selecting.

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We tried to keep our co-op to full-time ratio to about 1:1 (basically a mentor for each student). I think that's a higher ratio than most companies, except for the really exploitative ones (like web design companies, which have mostly co-op students, underpay them, then contract them out to their customers at a much higher rate).

Basically we had a different perspective on co-op than most companies, because the two people organizing the R&D department had just finished being co-op students a few months earlier. So we knew for sure that co-op students are capable of doing great things with minimal supervision - we were living examples!

At most companies, people jump to the conclusion that younger workers are simply unreliable and inexperienced and will do bad work, so you can only give them grunt work or simple tasks they can't possibly screw up. This isn't really true. Students are certainly inexperienced, which means they'll tend to make the wrong assumptions about what needs to be done and how to do it. That's the part you have to watch. But they're also really fast, really energetic, really flexible, and really eager to learn. So the trick is to use a soft touch, make sure they have all the guidance available that they want, but give them big, difficult things that keep them motivated.

Ironically, we found that our co-ops often did some of our best work, sometimes putting full-timers (even me :)) to shame. The thrill of changing jobs every four months means that everything a co-op student does is always interesting to them, while motivating full-timers is actually much more difficult. I don't believe in asking people to work 12-hour days and weekends, but co-ops get excited and do it all by themselves, then they go back to school and tell all their friends to apply with us next time because of the great flex hours. You can't lose with logic like that!

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My favourite part of our funny job descriptions was that they implicitly gave people permission to send in funny job applications. I have to admit that, even though it wasn't really fair, we always gave special attention in interviews to people who had funny cover letters. One person wrote us a cover letter entirely in perl. I think Dave kept some of the funniest ones.

One student showed up for the interview wearing a tuxedo, wings, and blasting the Star Wars Imperial March from a portable stereo. At Waterloo, there's a big hallway with a bunch of rooms where different companies are interviewing simultaneously. He missed our interview room by accident and walked right past us looking for it. Our interviewer leaned out of the doorway, pointed at him, and said, "Uh, you're probably looking for NITI, right?" He was. He got hired, did excellent work, and (along with another of our former co-ops) has gone on to found his own new software company in Waterloo.

In more questionable news, our past co-op students have also been responsible for the Waterloo Pantsless movement.

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