Senior John Franklin Named Co-op Student of the Year

Franklin worked for Google, Twitter

Globe-hopping senior John Franklin took full advantage of his Northwestern Engineering co-op experience, working for Google and Twitter in New York, Silicon Valley, and London. A computer science and computer engineering major, he worked on a variety of projects at the two tech giants, including apps for smart watches, mobile payments, and search engines.

Chosen as Northwestern Engineering’s 2018 Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Education Student of the Year, Franklin sat down recently with Engineering Career Development to talk about debugging, working internationally, and finding the right work-life balance.

How has your co-op experience shaped you as an engineer?

John FranklinMy first summer at Google, my boss gave me a bug to debug on my first day. I did it and asked if I could check it with a solution, and he said, “What solution? This is an actual bug in production.” That caught me off guard and made me understand that I’m solving problems that may not be solved on the first try.

Working in the field gave me a rigorous view of what the production processes are for software at scale. As a person, I learned how to express my ideas articulately with people who don't have rubrics for the classes I am in. And doing co-op also helped me better calibrate my classes to align with what I wanted to do. I would go into the field, work, come back, and have an idea of what kind of classes I wanted to register for to be more qualified in something that I wanted to do the next summer.

What did you accomplish? How did your work impact the larger community and technology on the broader scale?

I did three projects within Google. My first project was in New York, working on the local search team. I was doing features for near home and near work aliases, so when someone would query for something near home, it would use either their explicit or implicit location and find results. After my first push of code, the number of users spiked within seconds, and it was exciting to have that impact as a freshman.

The next summer I went to the Google headquarters in Mountain View to work on Android payments, which is wireless paying with your phone. I did nonmally detection for the pipeline of money between the client and the bank. It reminded me of DTC -- having a client with a problem and coming up with a solution.

Last summer I worked on smart watches. I primarily made apps available offline so you wouldn’t have to tether it to your phone and have your phone connected to the Internet. I worked on local databases, the Internet of Things, and a lot of programming in Android and Java. A benefit of co-op and staying within the company is there is a lot more trust that evolves over time, and you have more control and say as to what direction you want to go in.

I had one term at Twitter, where I worked on a relaunch for their desktop website. I worked closely with designers. It was very exciting to do that launch because the whole company rallied around it and had a countdown for when we pushed that update. It’s great when you have projects that are external and client-facing, because then you can show people, which is pretty satisfying.

How did it feel to work alongside senior and seasoned engineers who have worked in industry for several years?

Every summer, I started out intimidated, which is understandable. It’s easy to forget that they were in your place at one point, and now you are working toward their knowledge base. But it’s important to be humble enough to ask for help, because most of the time they will be able to solve problems a lot quicker than you could alone. At each company, I would talk to employees outside of my own team to see what their positions were like, how they got there, and what their backgrounds were. That helped me not only think about what I wanted to do in the future but think about classes I wanted to take at Northwestern.

You worked at both Google and Twitter. How were those experiences different?

It was a great perspective to see how different company cultures operate. When I had my first two summers at Google, I was a bit isolated in the mindset of what an organization should look like, what perks should be available, what the size should be, and what the employees’ responsibilities should be. Going to Twitter I really felt that shift, even though it is also within the tech space. It felt a lot smaller in that sense that everyone rallied around a single platform. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had gone to a start-up or even a medium-sized company.

You had the opportunity to work in London. What was that like?

I always wanted to do study abroad in college, so I was very aggressive with Google to get a chance to work abroad. A smart watches team in London asked if they could interview me. I was ecstatic and was as passionate and convincing as I possibly could be to get on that team. And it was so much fun! When I arrived, there were a lot of other interns and employees from other parts of the world who didn’t necessarily have family or communities within the city, so it was a welcoming community of people.

How was the work environment different than working in America?

I had to do a lot of Google video chats with teams in the US, so a lot of hours would be weighted toward the evenings so that we could have meetings with people in Mountain View who were just waking up. But employees in London had a healthy work-life balance. They seemed a lot more active in the evenings. They were more recreational then just the “work to home” formula.

Did you ever take classes while working?

During my spring term at Twitter, I interned during the day and took three classes at night. I would work at Twitter from 9 to 5:30 p.m., then ride my bike up to Montgomery Street and take classes at the Northwestern campus there. It was hard at the time, but I am so grateful I did it. I can graduate in four years because of it, which is not typical for co-ops. I would bring other students to Twitter, and Twitter would come up in conversations in the classroom. I did most of my homework and projects about my work experience because my classes were in entrepreneurship and journalism. It was a great marriage between the internship and school.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about yourself throughout your time as a co-op?

I learned that I might have a chance at a good work-life balance after graduation. Throughout my academic career I have been so focused on school, and I thought I would treat work with the same amount of time commitment. But over my co-op terms, I got a lot better and stricter with preserving time for work and preserving time outside of work. I’d say that was the most surprising thing, because I thought I would be in the office from 9 to 9 every day and on weekends, but that wasn’t the case.