Monday, May 28, 2007

Advice to a new graduate

One of the students who has worked part time at Robot Genius is graduating from Stanford in computer science. My advice to him and to others like him is to investigate opportunities at local startups before just joining one of the giants like Google, Microsoft or Cisco.

At a good startup you will likely learn more, have more responsibility and get a deeper look at the interplay between risk, innovation, success and failue. It is sad but true that even the best big companies have a large component of mediocrity -- in my experience the average quality level is often anticorrelated with the amount of time since the company has been a startup. Many bright young graduates will be stuck with little real responsibility, working under a clueless politician who barely understands his or her industry. It's the nature of a large organization that such people can survive and prosper without making any contribution to the competitiveness of their employer.

After working at a startup you won't necessarily have a blue chip name on your resume, but you'll likely have specific accomplishments you can point to, that you had real ownership over. If your grades and other qualifications were good enough to get you hired at Google, they'll still be impressive a few years down the line (for employers who want to check your overall brainpower). But in addition you'll have demonstrated willingness to take risk and have had significant responsibilities. And finally, there's also that lottery ticket which might pay off :-)

This Times article covers Google's fierce compeition to hire the best talent.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — On a spring Saturday, about 90 students from Stanford and as many from the University of California, Berkeley, converged on Google’s corporate campus for a day of spirited team competition over mind-bending puzzles, Lego building problems and video games.

It was called the Google Games, a convivial way for the mostly computer science and engineering students to renew the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. But behind the fun was a serious corporate recruiting event that underscores a rivalry no less intense: the tug of war for talent between Google and its competitors.

As much of the high-tech industry is enjoying a renewed boom, the competition for top recruits in engineering and other fields is as intense as ever. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo frequently find themselves going after the same candidates or recruiting in one another’s backyards. At the same time, they are running up against a myriad of start-up companies across Silicon Valley that have been pumped up with venture capital in recent years.

To lure talent, these companies have expanded their recruiting arsenal far beyond the traditional job fair to include a growing number of events like technology lectures, cocktail parties, pizza parties, treasure hunts and programming contests, dubbed “code jams” or “hack days.” Much like the Google Games, these are no-pressure recruiting occasions meant to create excitement around their companies and impress potential recruits as young as college freshmen.

“It comes down to just getting them introduced to our culture, showing them that, hey, being part of Google could be a lot of fun,” said Ken Krieger, a Google engineer who had volunteered to supervise the Lego-building contest.

Google, more than any other company, looms large in this latest chapter of Silicon Valley’s talent wars.

The company has been vacuuming talent wherever it can find it to keep fueling its torrid growth. Its work force has roughly doubled every year for the last several years, to more than 12,200 at the end of March. Google is now adding about 500 workers each month. Its Web site lists nearly 800 open positions in the San Francisco Bay Area alone.

If Google is hungry for top talent, the class of 2007 seems to think that a Google job offer is a prized commodity. Stories about Google’s notoriously tough and sometimes off-putting recruiting process continue to surface. Even so, the company was considered the most desirable employer for all undergraduates this year, and for the first time, it edged out the blue-chip consulting firm McKinsey & Company as the most desirable employer among M.B.A.’s, a position McKinsey had held for the last 12 years, according to surveys conducted by Universum, a research firm.

“Being in an environment where you are going to learn a lot is the most important thing to me,” said Alice Yu-shan Chang, one of hundreds of recruits who are graduating this year and heading for Google.

Ms. Chang, who is finishing master’s degrees in computer science and management science at Stanford, was sought by both Microsoft and Google, as well as eBay and Oracle. She said Microsoft had done what it could to find the right group for her, first at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., and then, upon learning that she did not want to leave the Bay Area, at its Mountain View campus, not far from Google’s. She received phone calls from company vice presidents and met face-to-face with one of them.

“With Google, you don’t have that much face time with high-up people,” she said. But there was some wining and dining on the part of Google, which Ms. Chang would not discuss in detail because she had signed a nondisclosure agreement. Eventually, Google won, in part because it had agreed to permit Ms. Chang to rotate positions every six months in the first year and half, and because, for her, it was a better cultural fit.

“There are a lot of young people there who are very creative,” Ms. Chang, 25, said. Many of her peers at Microsoft would have been in their 30s and 40s “and more family oriented,” she said.

In the last two years, Google has expanded its university recruiting programs to nearly 200 campuses from about 70. But the ubiquity of its events has ruffled some feathers. Max Levchin, the chief executive of Slide, a technology start-up in San Francisco, said he used to have good luck recruiting from his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, by going there in midyear and persuading computer-science students to defer graduation and join him in Silicon Valley. “Now all I hear about is Google holding a puzzle hunt this, or Google campus pizza that,” Mr. Levchin said in an e-mail interview. Chief executives at other start-ups had similar frustrations.

Stanford does not keep an official tally of where its students go, and even informal numbers are not in for the class of 2007. But an unscientific, voluntary check of students run by the university’s career center showed that Stanford had funneled more of its graduates to Google than to any other employer in the last three years.

While playing down the rivalry with Microsoft, which is hiring at an even faster rate than Google, albeit into a company nearly six times as large, Google has not shied away from bringing the competition for talent to Microsoft’s door. Google has more openings in the Seattle area than anywhere else in the country other than California and New York.

“I think it’s unlikely that you’ll see us back up a truck to their parking lot,” Google’s director for staffing programs, Judy Gilbert, said. “We have done a lot of things to engage with the local talent in an appropriate way.”

As an example, Ms. Gilbert, a former recruiter for McKinsey, pointed to a lecture this year at Google by Kaifu Lee, the president of Google Greater China, which was intended to appeal to the “large community of Chinese ex-pats” in the Seattle area. Mr. Lee used to head Microsoft’s research organization in China. After Google hired him in 2005, Microsoft sued Google and Mr. Lee, accusing him of violating a noncompete agreement and misusing inside information. The lawsuit was later settled.

Google’s efforts notwithstanding, Microsoft and Yahoo say they are able to hire the candidates they need.

“Our competition is really the market for top talent, not a specific company,” said Scott Pitarsky, Microsoft’s general manager for talent acquisition.

Similarly, Yahoo, which held a hack day at its campus that was attended by about 500 programmers, as well as smaller ones elsewhere, said its recruiting strategies were working. The company also opened a research center at Berkeley in part to attract student interns.

“Dozens of people have come from the labs into Yahoo,” said Bradley Horowitz, vice president for product strategy at Yahoo.

All three companies say their toughest recruiting challenges come from start-ups, who snap up people like Nitay Joffe.

Mr. Joffe, who had summer internships at Google for the last two years, expected to go to work there. But before Mr. Joffe, a recent computer engineering graduate of the University of California, San Diego, accepted a job, a friend suggested he check out a San Francisco start-up, Powerset, which is trying to build a rival search engine.

“Powerset had everything that Google had in terms of what I was looking for — smart people, interesting projects, great amenities,” Mr. Joffe said. Powerset also had one thing Google could not offer: the potential to strike it rich with the Internet equivalent of a lottery ticket.

“When you get a stock option at 5 cents and it goes to $50 ...,” Mr. Joffe said, before his voice trailed off. With Google’s shares hovering around $480, it no longer offers the same potential. “Google isn’t going to $4,000,” said Mr. Joffe, who began working at Powerset recently.

For every recruit who gets away, Google hopes many more enter its pipeline of potential employees at events like the Google Games.

“We never say, ‘Come work for us,’ ” said Ronner Lee, who is in charge of Google’s university programs at Berkeley. “If they like what they see here and they want to approach us with questions, that’s great.”

If the goal was to impress this crowd, it did not hurt that the games were held inside one of Google’s cafeterias, where the food is free, healthful and plentiful. Or that students were picked up at their campuses by Google’s free shuttles, which are outfitted with wireless Internet access. Or that many of the puzzles were created by the No. 2 Sudoku player in the world, who, by the way, happens to work at Google.

David Nguyen, a doctoral student at Berkeley who went to Google for the games, said the company clearly understands its target audience. “This is exactly the kind of person they want,” Mr. Nguyen said, “someone who is going to work and solve problems on a Saturday and enjoy it.”


Unknown said...

IQ not mentioned once in the entire article, a fuzzy fuzzy world we live in.

Steve Hsu said...

I guess I should have mentioned that if you're a mediocre new graduate you are better off hiding in one of the big orgs. At a startup your capabilities will be clear to those around you rather quickly...

nodoodahs said...

Is a degree even needed for a software job? Are there alternative paths for entry-level programmers?

Steve Hsu said...

A degree is a signalling device which shows you have mastered a certain amount of material, are smart, disciplined, etc. You can demonstrate those things in other ways, of course. For example, you might have contributed code to an open source project, or created your own project.

But I wouldn't confuse knowing a programming language with having a strong CS background -- there's more to software development than just writing code. Don't forget about algorithms, architecture, ability to abstract and solve problems, etc.

nodoodahs said...

Thanks for the reply, Steve. It occurs to me that (1) we probably differ on the utility of a college degree for delivering actual skill sets as opposed to "providing signaling" and (2) my question needed clarification and/or rephrasing. I'll focus on (2) first.

For a young man with the ability to program, are there paths to meeting the "requirements" of a hiring manager, that are more cost- and time-effective than a typical degree? For example, are there certification programs equally recognized, community college or trade schools, or some other pathway to getting that job? You mentioned the demonstration of skill sets through projects; is this a widely accepted alternative path to a programming job, either contract or permanent?

Back to (1), although slightly off topic, it may explain what I'm looking for. One of my pet projects is assembling a list of things a young man might do to earn a fruitful living without incurring the time and expense of a traditional college degree. Things such as machinist, paramedic, diesel mechanic, real estate broker, insurance agent, investor, etc. It hadn't occurred to me that "programmer" might be on the list until I meandered onto your blog! So I thought I'd ask.

Steve Hsu said...


You can certainly get a programming job without a college degree. To get past the hiring people you need some way of demonstrating your competence, though. Open Source projects are one very good way. If you're interested in Web programming (Web 2.0 is a big fad right now) you can build your own site and use it as a kind of "portfolio" to show off your skills.

Most recruiters are looking for intelligence, diligence and specific skills. A college degree provides evidence of these things but is *not* required for a software development job.

Nevertheless, I would guess that a college education is a good investment for almost anyone. You have all of your life to earn money -- why not take a few years to enjoy your youth and learn some deep and useful things from professors and other students :-)

nodoodahs said...

Funny thing is, I'll be 40 in July, and I did college as an adult over a decade ago. I was fed the same line that most young people were (are) fed about college, and while it's worked out well for me, I do wish I'd have known what else was available – I may have taken a different path. Now, opportunity costs have manifested themselves. LOL!

If you're interested, I'll meet you halfway at "College a good investment for a lot of people, but certainly not for everyone, and maybe not even for most folks. College is just one of many life choices that need to be compared and contrasted, and is not necessary for a fulfilling career that can support a person or family."

Min Liu said...

For more insight on Max Levchin, check out this awesome interview done by two Stanford business school students:

Max gave some interesting insight on Paypal alums and their impact in the Valley.

Min, on behalf of iinnovate

Anonymous said...

Ivan said...

"IQ not mentioned once in the entire article, a fuzzy fuzzy world we live in."

It looks like the minimal requirements to get on the lists of places like Google would make an IQ test rather unnecessary.

- Barry

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