Co-Op Spotlight

Mahdi Khandaker – University of Waterloo

I recently made the jump to a start-up. Before that, I built my career working primarily in large financial institutions. My prior roles included managing co-op programs where there would be upwards of 125 co-ops in a work term. These programs were highly structured, offering students exposure to different individuals at different levels throughout the firm and, where the role or work allowed, the ability to build something with hopes that its impact lasts far beyond their work term. 

How does a work term experience in a large company compare to that in a start-up?

I had a chance to speak with Mahdi Khandaker, a 2nd-year University of Waterloo Co-op student who recently completed his Fall 2019 work term with us.  

Madhi had a good mix of work experience and exposure to development applications we could benefit from. By the time he joined us in the Fall, he had already completed three different work terms as a software developer and information architect.

He was attracted to CompTrak by our size, our culture and the chance to gain experience working on back-end application development.

Why did working for a start-up appeal to you?

You get to learn more in a small company – to get involved in everything vs. a large company where you’re more likely to work on mundane activities.  Part of my orientation included a sit down with the Project Lead where we went over existing products and what we are aiming for, in the future.  

What did you work on throughout your co-op term with us?

The first week I focused on getting to know the product and the code.  Shortly after that, I was already contributing by helping to build user-facing screens for one of their biggest clients.

I also got to write a lot of code to enhance the back end of the system. By reviewing existing code in place and guidance from other developers, I learned ways to create code that runs more efficiently.

This past month, I migrated two of our clients to new technology frameworks (from .NET to .Net Core).   This led to better efficiency and cost savings for both CompTrak and their clients. I had absolute freedom to complete this which allowed me to be creative in my approach.  Other firms I’ve worked in had many restrictions in place – I wouldn’t have gotten this type of experience there

How does the culture at CompTrak compare with other companies you’ve worked at?

It’s a pretty informal setting. People are friendly. I also liked the flexibility with our start time, and we had the freedom to work from home every once in a while.  Good diversity for a small company and I really liked that the team was inclusive with everyone. Co-ops were included in the weekly team lunches and the holiday event at a nearby farm where I rode a horse carriage for the first time!

Mahdi’s work term with us gave him the experience he was looking for – back end application development within an informal and inclusive work environment where he can flex his creativity.  He worked with everyone in the firm, from the founders to the project leads, to the rest of the development team.

We equally benefitted as we had a highly engaged team member who brought a fresh perspective to the table, and with the latest training. Mahdi’s work continues to positively impact us and our clients and will continue to do so well beyond his time with us. I posed some final questions to Mahdi.  

What’s the one piece of advice you have for co-ops considering a work term in a startup? 

If you are working in a start-up you need to be confident in yourself. Being in a start-up would mean that you are equally responsible as any other full-time employee. You cannot break under pressure and the way I cope up with this is by being extremely honest with what I can and cannot do and ask a lot of questions whenever in doubt.

What are your plans for the near future?

Working at CompTrak I have seen that if you work hard you can turn an idea into a great business and have a lot of fun along the way. I was greatly inspired by what Lasse and Perry have done. In the future, I plan on building a company to develop an idea that I am extremely passionate about. I am still exploring the software industry as much as I can to find the right path to move forward, to find my strengths and weaknesses and see what I enjoy the most. 

Final Thoughts

Going back to the question: “How does the work term experience in a large corporate compare to that in a startup?”

For Mahdi, it met his expectations and allowed him to leave his mark on some of the work he did for us.  If you are a co-op student thinking about doing a work term at a start-up, consider this:

Working in a start-up gives you insight into all aspects of the business and will allow you to tangibly contribute to the bottom line.  Students who are self-driven and curious would benefit the most in these environments as startups are very much a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-things-done type of environment.   The liberation one feels when working in a start-up – with its flat organizational structure and flexible approach to processes – allows you to pivot effectively to respond to change.  This is very different from working in a large company with multiple organizational layers, defined processes and structure where the ability to respond to change may take a bit more time.

To be clear, I’m not against working for a large company. I’ve been extremely lucky to work at some of the best and largest companies in Canada. I’ve learned a lot and have built a very successful career with them. There is value to gaining experience in a large organization. Among the many benefits – you’ll learn how to navigate the organizational landscape, and it provides you with the discipline needed to develop good workplace habits.  These traits are incredibly valuable in a start-up. Co-ops would benefit greatly by experiencing both environments, especially if you plan to go out on your own.

Turning back to Mahdi, we’re grateful we had a chance to work with you over the last 4 months and wish you all the very best!