October 17, 2015

And now for something completely different (college job-seeker edition)

Today, I'm going to talk about something totally unrelated to writing. It is, however, related to my day job as a software engineer.

This post came about because I recently participated at a couple of college recruiting events on behalf of the company where I work. At these events, I helped interview college students for internship and full-time positions. Based on what I saw of the candidates who were rated most favorably by me and my colleagues, I came up with a list of observations that I hope will be helpful for readers of this blog if you are currently in college or thinking of going to college soon, or if you're the parent of a child who is college age.

  1. You don't have to go to a top university. We talked with students from all over the country. There were students from prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, or Carnegie Mellon, but a majority went to other schools. Most of these were still good schools but not among the top tier. When I looked at the colleges attended by the students we rated most highly, they came from a wide cross section of schools. We didn't favor graduates of Ivy Leagues over other schools, for example. While there are some companies that still place an emphasis on where you go, the company that I work for and a growing number of others don't care.
  2. It does matter what you learn while you're in college. Instead of basing our decisions on the college a student attended, we tried to base our ratings on what you know. In a college computer science curriculum, students should have learned about data structures, for instance, but whether you went to Stanford or to Indiana State, you should know the difference between a queue and a stack. We care about whether you learned the basics of computer science well, not where you learned it. If you went to an Ivy League but can't write code to traverse a linked list, your school's prestige isn't going to help you get a job.
  3. Start looking for internships your sophomore year. Most of the highly rated students already had two summer internships under their belts by the time they were seniors. That means you should look for a summer internship after your sophomore year. Internships are a great way to get real world experience and gives you something to talk to prospective employers about. We want to know what you learned in those internships, what you found interesting or not interesting, and what challenges you faced and overcame.
  4. Work on personal projects to show your independence and initiative. The best candidates have also built two or three apps or websites by the time they're seniors. They usually took on these projects to learn a new technology, like Android app development. It doesn't matter how successful the project was or even if it's still an incomplete work in progress. The goal is to show us that you have a desire to learn and that you have the initiative and independence to work on something on your own.
  5. Culture fit matters. There were a few resumes with notes along the lines of "Smart but not a culture fit." These students didn't make the cut for my company. It's not only important to do well in school and to be smart and have a lot of experience. You can't be a jerk. I met students who talked ill of the instructors and/or classmates in an attempt to show how smart they were. Um, no. While it's hard to know how much to brag about your accomplishments without coming off as too cocky, keep in mind that companies are looking for people who will work well in teams because that's how real world projects get done. If employers don't think you'll be a good team player, then it doesn't matter how technically skilled you are.

Although my advice pertains mainly to the software industry, I hope that students in other majors can benefit too. And if you're deciding on a major, computer science isn't so bad, considering that the world is continually becoming more electronic and computer science is now the most popular major for women at Stanford.

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