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From street to valley

Zach Schiller YH Staff

Enter Florian Koenigsberger, SM ’14, in full, 1080p HD glory. The upbeat music swells with the post industrial façade of Google’s Mountainview, Calif., campus in the background. “There isn’t a place where Google is not,” he said to the camera. He looks up at the sunshine, flashes pearly whites and dons a talisman of geekdom: a rainbow Google propeller hat. Maybe seeming too cool to be the face of a company full of nerds, he pulls it off as one of the official faces of Google’s internship program in a promotional video.

Ironically, Koenigsberger had no knowledge of programming before his internship last summer in Google’s marketing department. But as an American Studies major with “no real idea” of his long-term career plan, the born-and-bred New Yorker was more than amenable to giving the West Coast lifestyle a trial-run and adding a brand like Google to his resume as a “door-opener.” “Similar to what our [Yale] degree comes down to on paper, Google looks like an immediate qualification,” Koenigsberger explained.

Koenigsberger’s circumstance is not unique—in fact, he is part of a trend of elite university students flocking to Silicon Valley technology companies as a career path. Traditionally, Yalies facing impending graduation without a direction might have resorted to the finance and consulting industries, presented with lucrative jobs on a silver platter by recruiters eager to snag top Ivy League talent. Now, said Koenigsberger, the career tracks of tech, consulting, and finance are all “regarded in the Yale bubble as dependable ways to make a certain income.” But Zack Reneau-Wedeen, TC ’14, co-director of Yale’s coding workshop HackYale who also interned at Google last summer, said the appeal of working for a large tech company is not just the salary incentive. “You want to work on hard problems, you want to work with really smart people and you want your solutions to those problems to have a positive impact on a lot of people in the real world,” he told me.

Recruiters at top financial and consulting firms may therefore face a tougher sell as post-grads are wooed to the West Coast by prestige, the promise of a comfortable lifestyle, mentorship, and the idea that their work has an impact on the everyday lives of practically everyone they know. Brian Frenette, who advises STEM majors at Yale Undergraduate Career Services, says big tech companies also now have the institutional resources to build talent from within, promising recent grads an extension of their education through sophisticated training programs. They have capital to invest towards “fostering a dynamic learning environment and providing employees with the flexibility to work on their own projects while still achieving the company goal,” he says.

Both Koenigsberger and Reneau-Wedeen have decided to return to Google full-time in the fall for two-year vocational programs in the company’s product management and development sectors—essentially, paid post-secondary education. They will be assigned a mentor and have real responsibility, working on products with a global user base. “They really focus on development and growing you at the company,” Koenigsberger said. “They take care of their employees. It was an easy choice for me.”

Moreover, the near-religious employee culture at tech companies like Google is attractive, glorified in pop culture through films like The Internship and HBO’s upcoming Silicon Valley sitcom. While Koenigsberger and Reneau-Wedeen emphasized that employee culture is overhyped in the media, the accommodations at the “Googleplex,” as the campus was christened in 2006, are a perk of the job description. “It hums with a life that doesn’t feel like work in the traditional sense,” recalled Koenigsberger. Sprawling more than two-million-square feet, the new-age office space located just outside San Jose, Calif. is tricked out with everything from swimming pools, volleyball courts and treadmill desks to complimentary breakfast, lunch, and dinner at 18 different cafeterias. At the Google campus, you work where you play, and play where you work. Every day is “Casual Friday.” It’s 20-something utopia, at least on the surface.

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With Silicon Valley attracting swaths of young, raw talent, consulting firms like McKinsey have to up the ante on their sales pitch at recruiting events on Yale’s campus. No longer is it enough to simply offer job security and free food to a packed room of Yale seniors in New Haven’s swankiest hotels. Brian Rolfes, who leads McKinsey’s global recruiting, said in an interview that the company offers opportunities to “help you grow both personally and professionally” through five-week training programs for new hires. Buzzwords are “mentorship” and “collaborative culture.” Rolfes also stressed that McKinsey’s work has global reach through “important challenges” with human interests at heart, like clean technology and fighting AIDS in Africa. In other words, McKinsey presents the argument that it is not just a lucrative career path but also provides kids who are merely out of college with a way to tackle Millennium Development Goals.

This marketing strategy works on the do-gooding Yalie psyche—last year, about 12 percent of Yale’s graduating class found jobs in consulting, as compared to seven percent in the computer science and technology and 15 percent in financial services, according to Undergraduate Career Services.

Meanwhile, tech companies are also stepping up their recruitment on Yale’s campus. Google and Facebook each hosted half a dozen events last semester with more planned for 2014—Reneau-Wedeen, who interned at Google, remembers an event he co-hosted that was attended by upwards of 120 people. Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design also hosted a computer software engineering night in October attended by over 200 students where 20 companies were collecting resumes, said Frenette, the UCS counselor, adding, “The demand is mutual.”

The interview process itself is impersonal, often simply consisting of live coding exercises—a practice that Kenta Koga, SM ’14, resents because it neglects any evaluation of an applicant’s individuality. Koga, a Computer Science major who will work for Palantir next fall as a product designer, warns talented post-grads against being seduced by a paycheck and brand prestige at the expense of their own ability to innovate. “$100,000 and a suite apartment in San Francisco is really hard to say no to, of course,” he said, “but there’s something wrong about blindly taking that.” He worries that companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook are so massive and established that they are no longer looking for self-starters, only good programmers, “robots.” Lest we forget, he added, “the student is the protagonist in this story,” not the companies that benefit from their talent.

The tech fever among students seems to have caught Yale unprepared. Many non-STEM-majors see the ability to program as a new, hot marketable skill to slap on their resume—they aren’t necessarily interested in becoming software developers, but they understand basic programming is valuable for non-technical positions at large tech companies. Last week, Yale Provost Ben Polak told the Herald that the University did not anticipate such interest a decade ago, adding, “We don’t know if it’s going to be persistent, or if it’s a temporary thing.”

In the last three years alone, enrollment in Introduction to Programming, the first class required for the Computer Science major, skyrocketed from about 100 in the spring of 2011, to an unprecedented 252 this semester, according to Stanley Eisenstat, chair of the Computer Science department. Professor Richard Yang, who is teaching the course, had to tell the class that the administration had not budgeted enough resources to support enrollment over 140. Similarly, directors of the non-credit HackYale programming class were shocked to receive 500 applications following their launch in 2011, when they only had space for 50, recalls Reneau-Wedeen.

Yale’s reaction to the spike in student interest pales in comparison to other universities of similar caliber. If Yale is becoming a fan of Mark Zuckerberg, we might say Stanford is already Facebook friends with him. Over 90 percent of all Stanford undergraduates take the university’s introductory Computer Science course, Jennifer Widom, Stanford’s Computer Science department chair, said in an interview. Annie Cook, MC ’17, a Computer Science major from Palo Alto, Calif., took classes in Stanford’s department last semester and noted the difference in campus culture: “Everyone is talking about starting a company. Everyone has to take an interest in tech.”

As tech increasingly consumes the daily consciousness of our generation, are Yalies merely following the herd mentality, chasing after the latest get-rich-quick fix? It seems like the answer is yes; affiliation with a worldwide brand and financial security in the form of a six-figure salary are no small sources of motivation. But Koga, the Computer Science major, hopes that students on the job hunt at large tech companies see more than the peripheral perks—namely, meaningful opportunities for growth. Ashton Wacym, SY ’16, a Computer Science and Electrical Engineering double major, agrees it would be “myopic” to set his sights on a particular tech company without evaluating if it is an organization “I believe in and will make me happy.” But there is an undeniable draw, he concedes, to contributing to the constant evolution of the machines that run our lives. “By observing how much of a force tech companies have been in our generation,” he told me, “it’s apparent that students believe they can make an impact at a company that has already changed how we interact today.”

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