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The US needs to upgrade its cybersecurity standards. These co-ops are on the front line.

Christopher Chapin was speaking to 20 Northeastern students in a conference room in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was almost lunchtime. A stack of steaming, aromatic pizza boxes was competing for the students’ attention, until Chapin seized it back.

“We are growing rapidly, by about $150 million a year,” said Chapin, senior vice president and chief information officer at Granite Telecommunications. “And with the government business, we expect that to go to more like $350 to $500” million.

There was a gasp in the room. Chapin, a Northeastern graduate, was referring to a commitment from the General Services Administration to invest $50 billion in federal telecom contracts over the next 15 years with 10 American companies.

It’s part of the government’s new program, Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions, which is meant to elevate U.S. standards in light of global cyberthreats. Granite, a young, privately-held firm, won one of those bids last year.

The program puts Granite on the front line of a federal plan to shore up cybersecurity. That commitment is the reason why the 20 Northeastern students had been invited to lunch.

“Just being selected for the list of approved vendors isn’t enough,” said Robert Conner, who develops applications for Granite. “Because now we have to implement all those standards that we agreed to follow. And anytime you change any data in the government system, you need to see who made the change and when the change was made.”

Granite manages a large array of applications. The co-ops, for the most part, are helping to revise Granite’s code to meet the new government standards.

Chapin’s idea was to bring in co-ops for this detailed overhaul, and it was not far-fetched. On his way to graduating from Northeastern in 1994 with a degree in finance, Chapin served as a co-op at Fidelity Investments. At that time he had no intention of moving to information technology.

“Fidelity needed someone to work on the help desk,” Chapin said. “I liked the networking aspects.”

Granite Telecommunications needed help after landing a bid to win a portion of a $50 billion government contract to shore up cybersecurity. Chris Chapin, its chief information officer, turned to Northeastern students for help. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Years later, the search for labor led Chapin back to the program that launched his career.

“I guess they call that unconscious bias, right?” said Chapin, and with a laugh he caught himself. “Actually, I think it was a conscious bias. The co-op program was transformative for me.”

Conner had planned initially to hire four or five co-ops. Then he began sorting through the applications of Northeastern students.

“The ones that we most wanted to interview had some work experience,” Conner said. “So that’s what we were targeting.”

Northeastern’s Information Systems program has grown from 30 students in 2007 to 1,200 under director Khaled Bugrara. The Granite co-ops are part of this program.

Most of the co-ops at Granite’s Quincy headquarters have been grouped together in large cubicles. They feel comfortable approaching full-time staffers with questions, said Poojith Shankar Shetty, who will earn his masters in 2019. In many cases, the students are able to solve problems by working them out together.

“We help each other if we have any doubts, rather than going to the manager,” said Karuna Meena, a graduate student from Mumbai.

Some of them may be staying beyond the co-op. The crowded lot at Granite, where every spot is occupied and double-parking is a necessity, serves as a daily reminder of a company constantly outgrowing its footprint.

“It gives us an early advantage from a recruiting perspective,” Chapin said of Granite’s reliance on co-ops. “When you hire someone off the street, no matter how senior they are, it’s a six-month window before you feel comfortable. Where these folks have already gone through that training process, and are already at a state where we know exactly what their strengths are.”

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