At PlacePass, Online Travel Startup, Co-Op Students Write Code and Build Software

September 30, 2019

By Jane Kokernak

When a visitor walks into the PlacePass headquarters, clear zones of activity are visible. The main room has several rows of workstations in parallel, perpendicular to the windowed wall looking out over a busy Boston street. A few small, enclosed offices, which double as conference and quiet workrooms, are at one end of the space. At the far end, there is a glass wall separating work from the food, brew, and fun in the kitchen: a bowl of fruit for the taking, Peet’s coffee on tap, community tables in white to match the cabinets, and foosball.

The atmosphere seems friendly and welcoming, designed for productive collaboration and workplace comfort. PlacePass co-founders, Ethan Hawkes and Emily Bernard, designed their online travel startup to focus on unique, place-based experiences for its customers and partners. The pineapple, a symbol of hospitality, shows up in the office décor in unexpected places.

A long-standing co-op partner, PlacePass is also welcoming to Khoury College students on their second or ideally third co-op placement.  According to Dan Wernick, Director of People Operations, PlacePass “invests in and relies on co-ops, as they do for full-time employees,” giving them “real work right out of the gate and relying on them to deliver.”

Khoury College co-ops bring talent, energy, and enthusiasm

Ernie Hao (Khoury ’21, CS and business) was finishing up his PlacePass co-op, his second one in his undergrad career, this summer. When he arrived at PlacePass, he first focused on partnerships, “the proving ground,” he remarks. While PlacePass has a direct-to-consumer site, pulling in 200,000+ travel experiences, they also offer a “white label version” of the site that is branded. For example, they run the experiences portal for Marriott International. One of Hao’s early projects was to revise the whole platform for one of PlacePass’s Fortune 500 transportation-focused partners. It went live shortly before Hao’s co-op ended, so he could see the results and also work on any necessary fixes.

Wernick also reports that Khoury College is an important part of PlacePass’s talent management.  For one thing, the co-op students bring “great energy and enthusiasm” to the job, says Wernick. Furthermore, the company’s relationship with Khoury College “is fantastic for recruiting,” and he adds, “We hire co-ops with the intention of bringing them on full-time upon graduation, and have already hired a handful of our co-ops.”

Colby Camp (BSCS ’19) is one such member of the PlacePass team. He came to the company as a co-op, continued to work part-time for them after the co-op ended, and accepted their offer of full-time employment upon graduation.  At work, he focuses on the frontend of the company’s web applications. He also likes hanging out with Rumble, the office dog. When asked what he looks forward to when he comes to work each day, Camp replies, “Problem solving and collaborating with a lot of smart people, and continuous learning.” And what distinguishes PlacePass from other companies he worked for previously on co-op? He says, without hesitation, “The product is the software.”

PlacePass experience helps co-ops define next steps

Khoury College graduate students have also had co-ops at the company. Parth Tandel came to Northeastern from India, where he worked for startups, and began his MS degree in September 2017. After three semesters, he chose a co-op at PlacePass over an offer from a large financial institution, because he wanted the startup environment: PlacePass launched in 2016.

The experience is helping Tandel define his next steps. “We offer 200K+ products, which means 200K text descriptions,” he explains.  This is good for someone like him with an interest in data science, machine learning, and categorization: “It’s a huge exposure to data.” Already, Tandel has changed the entire data model from two collections to one collection, and designed an algorithm for classification of products into relevant categories.

The chance to see your efforts implemented in a way that’s critical to the platform is also important to Ernie Hao, the undergrad on his second co-op. At the top of his list of what he’ll take from his PlacePass experience is “writing a lot of code, and seeing it there on the site,” he says. He also learned things on the job that add to his readiness for his next co-op and ultimately his career, like Ruby on Rails, a framework used to develop the front end.  More importantly, he adds, “I learned that you don’t need the framework all the time – you can simplify.”

Dan Wernick, who oversees all recruiting and talent development at the company, emphasizes that the Khoury College co-op students bring a lot of positive attributes to the job. “There is initiative and engagement,” he says.  “Co-ops are engaged, curious, and active.”

He pauses a beat. “Only downside is when they leave.”