Cisco hosted 1700 hundred interns this summer as part of its commitment to developing emerging talent that might one day work at Cisco. The intern program has been around for decades, which Chris Harrison knows very well. He started as an intern and is in his 26th year at Cisco. We celebrated National Intern Day by sharing his story.
Treat the Entire Internship as an Interview
As Program Manager, Role Strategy and Enablement, Chris Harrison manages tools and programs to help employees leverage the skills that they have. It’s a fitting role for someone who got his start thanks to natural curiosity, an ability to connect the dots between jobs and take risks to learn new things.
Born and raised in New York City, Chris studied electrical engineering technology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where students were required to complete co-ops (internships) as a part of their sophomore/junior and junior/senior years. His first internship was with Motorola.
“At Motorola, I was turned on to Cisco because I was in the customer support organization trouble-shooting their modems, and every call I got was, ‘I have a Motorola modem connected to a Cisco router’ so I wanted to learn more about how this Cisco router worked with the Motorola modem,” said Chris.
How Chris Chose Cisco and Vice Versa
Recruiters came to Chris’ college campus looking for interns. Chris interviewed with Cisco after his curiosity was sparked interning at Motorola. Soon after, Chris was flown to San Jose to meet the hiring manager and three test engineers who drew on the whiteboard and asked how he would solve different situations.
“When I landed [in New York], I already had a voice message saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been chosen for this internship,’” says Chris. The intern position was a test engineer on Cisco’s Repair Operations team. Chris had the opportunity to go back to Motorola, but he was impressed that Cisco flew him to San Jose for an interview and still remembers the fully stocked break rooms with free drinks, popcorn, and candy – different from anything he’d experienced on the East Coast. It seemed worth the risk to try something new rather than going back to Motorola.
“People were walking around in shorts and flip-flops,” said Chris. “In my mind, this was so California, a little laid back. Northern California and Silicon Valley in the 90s had a different vibe, and that was something I was interested in.” He moved to San Jose and lived in the dorms at San Jose State University for the summer.
Connecting the Dots Between Work and the Classroom
The Cisco internship was totally hands-on. The Repair Operations team had to manage devices in for repair from the moment they arrived until they were shipped back out. “Before, I sat in the cubicle,” said Chris. “With this job, I went to the factory floor.”
They were responsible for the flow, the test scripts to make sure things were working correctly, and for updates. Chris would rotate every two weeks to learn different parts of the process. They also developed a test line on the manufacturing floor and sometimes simulated a failure and asked where the problem was.
“Learning how to find where things were broken helped me learn how they worked, and my internship experience was very good,” says Chris.
Chris quickly made the connection between the repair work he was doing at Cisco and the technical support work from his Motorola experience and tied it all back to what he was learning for his Electrical Engineering Technology degree. It all came together, and he could also apply what he learned on the job to the theory he was studying in school.
Surprise on the Job
One Saturday, Chris surprised his boss. “It was Saturday, all my friends were, out and I had nothing to do, so I decided to go to Cisco, go to the lab and do some work,” he said. “I put together some test racks to take to the factory, blasted the music, and closed the doors behind me. Then all of a sudden, the music stops,” said Chris.
It was his manager, who looked at him and asked, “What are you doing here?” Chris explained and then asked his manager the same question. His manager said his family was away camping and invited Chris to the movies and then dinner. It was an unexpected moment that left an impression on both of them.
Chris returned to school around the Thanksgiving holiday. Weeks passed. Then, on January 5, Cisco’s recruiter phoned Chris. “How’d you like to come to Cisco full-time when you graduate?” asked the recruiter.
Chris was shocked at how early the offer arrived, as full-time offers are usually made in the spring. According to his manager, “Any 20-year-old willing to come in on a Saturday is someone I’d love to have on the team.”
Chris doubts that this one incident was responsible for his landing the job but insists that it was the serendipity of this event and the positive impression he made with team members as someone easy to work with that contributed to this outcome.
Twenty-six years and many roles later, Chris is still enjoying the opportunities at Cisco, and much of his work today involves leaving a legacy for future generations to develop and grow satisfying careers.
He attributes longevity at Cisco to the ability to have multiple opportunities and different careers and the support of leaders and mentors throughout the company.
“It was life-changing for me to go back to college after the internship,” says Chris. “It was a lot of work, but I didn’t think of it as a job. It’s always been about fun and learning. This is why I’ve stayed as long as I have.”
His advice for those seeking internships and job opportunities?
“When you’re here [in the job or internship] it’s always an interview, even when you don’t think others are paying attention. The opportunity to make a good impression isn’t when you get the internship. It happens the minute you walk through the door.”
Think of the entire experience as an interview, because you’re not just interacting with your team and other teams.
Chris says this experience gave him his first glimpse into what professionalism meant, how people interacted and engaged, and helped him mature in his career as he returned to college.
“Even if you’re there for three months, you don’t know what [others] will think,” says Chris. “Even though you may be classified as an intern, think of it as an interview to see how you work in that environment.”
Chris’ Advice for Interns
-Don’t be afraid of the opportunity; the employer doesn’t expect you to know everything.
-Employers want fresh perspectives from a college student – fresh ideas and new set of eyes.
-Don’t be afraid to engage and meet new people within new organizations and this may expand your network within that organization including with your peers. (Chris is still friends with members of his co-op group from college, many of whom are now directors and VPs at other companies.)
-Networking is key with organization and with your peers as well. Learn as much as you can during and after the internship.