Wooing interns to Silicon Valley

Students working at companies like Google enjoy lots of perks and hands-on training. But a stint at Microsoft gets you a date with Bill Gates.
Written by Stefanie Olsen, Contributor
Ben Maurer is one of hundreds of Google interns this summer whose days include free clothes, free meals and free reign to delve into Google's code.

"It's like a scuba diver and an interesting coral reef. For a software developer, diving into the code at Google is a comparable experience," said Maurer, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University who's interning at the search giant for a second summer in a row, following two summer stints at software maker Novell.

As if to underscore his appreciation of the tangible perks of his summer gig at Google, Maurer added: "I really can't believe the food. It's amazing. The hardest thing for me is on the weekends and the food isn't there."

As a college kid, Maurer is in an enviable spot, and not just because he's fed well. He's got a paid internship at the company widely regarded as the coolest place to work in Silicon Valley, where even press representatives have Harvard University degrees.

"There's a lot of demand for top CS undergrads and grads, both from start-ups and big companies, because there's growing recognition of the limited supply of the really talented students."
--Stephen Hsu, professor, University of Oregon, and SafeWeb founder

But as a computer science undergrad with ambition and several internships under his belt, Maurer is in another kind of sweet spot. As companies like Google and Microsoft fish in a shrinking pool of skilled job candidates to fuel innovation and growth, they're similarly looking to recruit university-level talent for next year's hires. That makes college-intern recruiting a competitive business.

"There's a lot of demand for top CS undergrads and grads, both from start-ups and big companies, because there's growing recognition of the limited supply of the really talented students," said Stephen Hsu, a professor at the University of Oregon and founder of SafeWeb, a network-security specialist that was purchased in 2003 by security company Symantec. "Companies take it pretty seriously because summer interning is a recruitment tool."

Recent statistics indicate the number of computer science majors in colleges may be shrinking. According to the Computer Research Association, total enrollment in computer science bachelor's programs in the United States was down 14 percent from 2005 to 2006, and more than 40 percent since 2002. On the upside, there were some hopeful numbers: a 10 percent rise in pre-major enrollment in computer sciences.

Similarly, the number of students earning a master's degree in computer science was down 13 percent, from 9,286 in the year ending June 2005 to 8,074 in the year ending June 2006, according to CRA.

However, the number of students graduating with a doctorate was up more than 25 percent, to 1,499 in June 2006. CRA also reported that, as was true during the dot-com heyday, a high percentage--nearly 50 percent--of doctoral students in computer science went to work in industry, rather than academia, from 2005 to 2006.

Offers that are hard to refuse
When wading into that talent pool, securing a talented workforce makes companies like Google and Microsoft work hard to pave the way for interns, beyond offering an attractive salary.

Microsoft, for example, offers students superlative benefits, according to students and recruiters. Whereas Google typically will conduct phone interviews with prospective student interns, Microsoft will fly undergraduates and graduate students to its campus for interviews. It also offers to pay new intern hires for relocating, and gives them the choice of a housing stipend or subsidized corporate housing with free transportation to and from work. New this year, Microsoft started giving interns a one-time allowance for housing.

On top of that, Microsoft sells its interns with various perks, including San Francisco Giants baseball games at AT&T Park, a sunset cruise in San Francisco Bay, and a dodgeball tournament. Out-of-state interns are also flown to Redmond, Wash., for a barbeque at Bill Gates' house during the summer.

Similarly, Google interns are treated to ice cream socials, bowling nights, a cruise on the bay, and a scavenger hunt in San Francisco. Unlike subsidized meals they might find at Microsoft, Google interns enjoy the free, all-day gourmet meals that regular employees do. And if they're envious that Microsoft interns get a date with Bill Gates, they can hang around with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin during the company's regular Friday evening fireside chats.

Google interns, much like Microsoft interns, get on-the-job training to work with the company's code, as well as other technical courses. Google also encourages interns to attend its lecture series with the likes of Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, or Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This summer, Google interns also get to see some of the presidential candidates, such as New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, speak on campus.

Redmond vs. Mountain View
Microsoft has hired about 1,000 interns in the United States this summer, with the lion's share located at its Washington headquarters and about 50 at its Mountain View, Calif., campus, across the road from Google. (Google representatives would not say how many interns it has hired this summer, except to say it's in the hundreds.)

To find students, Microsoft, like most major tech companies, recruits at universities and career fairs all over the world, scouting for undergrads and graduate students in the departments of computer science, engineering, electrical engineering, physics and math. Microsoft also relies on referrals from professors in those fields. (Maurer got his job in Google's calendar group because of a referral from a professor at CMU.)

Although Microsoft's isn't seen as the hottest internship among technical types as it has in years past, the company carries heft on a student resume.

"I still think the Microsoft internship brand is a strong one on campus," said Caroline Bulmer, Microsoft's intern program manager. "They're getting real work experience on their resume, and that makes them very attractive not only to Microsoft but to other companies."

Most promising computer science students will get multiple offers to intern from rivals like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo before they choose where to go. And when they graduate, having a tech giant on the resume certainly helps them land a job. "It's more a difference than having an internship at (one of these companies) and flipping burgers," Maurer said.

"For a CS undergrad, it depends on the environment, the caliber of people who are around, stuff you get to work on. (Without that), you don't have quite as many stories to tell," Maurer said.

Still, with the growing roster of Silicon Valley start-ups, some aspiring software engineers have turned to smaller companies like Moka5, a 20-person software company founded by Stanford University computer science professor Monica Lam. Her company took on two interns this year, one from Stanford and the other from MIT.

"The students get to see what's it's like to work at a start-up--the dynamics are different, everybody knows everyone," Lam said. "And they're working on features that are immediately used by customers."

As for perks like baseball games and bay cruises, Lam said, the start-up life comes with a more personal touch. "We're planning a one-day trip out to Angel Island with the whole company. Maybe that's the difference."

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