Engineering in the extreme

Posted on 19. Feb, 2015 by in Issues, Magazine, Students

By Jasmine Sola


A few UW-Madison co-op students at the 2014 X-ES company picnic.

At first glance, Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) located in Middleton, Wisconsin, looks like any high-tech company. The lobby is sparse with leather chairs, minimal decoration and glass-walled conference rooms. However, behind a door in the lobby that can be only be opened with a key fob, nearly 200 employees are designing and testing embedded computing solutions. Cubicles line the walls in certain areas, while in others, laboratories with thick, snakelike cords dominate the room.

These laboratories contain simulators for extreme environments, from 100,000 feet of altitude to the hottest desert to the coldest conditions in Siberia—environments that compact computing systems will face when used in the military. Yet, perhaps the most amazing part of X-ES is not its work with homeland security or even the pizza the company provides on the last Wednesday of every month. Rather, it’s that more than a quarter of the company’s workforce is students.

According to X-ES Human Resources Generalist Brian Borkovec, X-ES has 191 employees, which includes 52 students working in summer 2014 on co-op. Of those students, 30 are students in the College of Engineering. “It is a huge part of what we do,” Borkovec says, about hiring students.

The company has hired students since its inception. Since 2004, 200 College of Engineering students have worked at X-ES as co-ops. Of those, the company has hired at least 18 for full-time positions.

Engineering Career Services coordinates internships, cooperative education experiences, and full-time employment for College of Engineering students. In fall 2014, a record-breaking 170-plus students participated in work-based learning assignments throughout the world.

X-ES Engineering Manager Aaron Lindner is deeply invested in the company’s co-op program with the College of Engineering. The program began when Lindner was a student and ultimately led him to a full-time position with the company. He now oversees the program. “We look at students as not just future potential hires­—we look to get work done,” Lindner says about the company’s decision to hire students.

This means that students are extremely involved in the company’s work. Lindner, who conducts exit interviews with every student, says students really like working at X-ES. He credits some of that enthusiasm to the laid-back atmosphere and the fun climate X-ES strives to create through such activities as a company picnic, holiday party and traditions of donuts and cupcakes.

However, Lindner believes that most students’ positive experience has to do with the work they do at X-ES. X-ES immerses co-op students in a meaningful hands-on experience with the company—and Lindner consistently hears the same message in exit interviews. “They feel really involved in the projects they’re doing,” Linder says. “They feel like what they’re doing matters.”

John Vennard, a senior studying computer engineering, enjoyed his time at X-ES so much that he returned to work there in summer 2014, after completing his co-op there in 2013. “I felt like a real team member,” Vennard says about his co-op.

His time at X-ES confirmed his desire to pursue computer engineering as a career when he graduates. Vennard likes that he is able to work with different people in the company. And what makes it even better, he says, is that many of his colleagues also are UW-Madison students or alumni. He is able to bond with them over discussions about classes, professors and past senior-design projects. “I absolutely like the environment; everyone is approachable,” he says. “I want to be able to go and ask a senior engineer a question and not feel like I’m wasting their time. You can go up to anyone and have a nice conversation with them.”

He also says that his time at X-ES has motivated him to pay closer attention in class and devote more energy to his homework because he can apply it to the work he does. Vennard credits the College of Engineering for his ability to pick up concepts quickly while at X-ES. “College teaches you how to learn,” he says.

Vennard is among many students who exemplify the company’s successful cooperative education relationship with the College of Engineering. “We want to continue to offer opportunities to students,” Borkovec says. “It’s good for us, it’s good for the students, it’s good for the school.”

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