Where are all the computer science majors?

On Thursday, I attended the career fair at University of Maryland, College Park on behalf of my employer. It was a pretty sweet deal. Instead of spending the day coding in the office, I got to return to campus on a weekday during all the hustle and bustle of usual college life. I ran into and caught up with some people I know who haven’t graduated yet. It was a fun time, and the slightest bit surreal because, just one year ago, I was at the same career fair, only in the opposite role of one of the students prospecting for jobs. I still remember very well what it felt like to be a student talking with the various employers, and I crafted my own pitch around what I think would be most effective on the me from one year ago.

Although I had a great time at the career fair, and those five hours seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye while I was chatting with everyone, I can’t help but feel that my company didn’t get the best return out of it. Registration for the career fair was $700 for the small booth that we had; as these things go, that’s pretty expensive. Compared to that expense, we didn’t really talk to enough people that we would be interested in hiring.

My company is looking for full-time “programmer analysts”, which is a fancy way of saying software developer consultants. All of our literature and our poster used that term, and we began thinking that maybe compatible people were simply passing us by because they didn’t realize we were actually looking for them. So we put up a prominent “Software developers needed” sign, and did get slightly more people throughout the rest of the day.

To be a good programmer analyst, you have to be a good programmer. That pretty much means a computer science major, or someone in a related major (such as Computer Engineering) who has significant programming experience. We aren’t looking for experience with any particular languages, the theory being that good programmers can quickly adapt and learn whatever is necessary to complete the job. Besides, the choice of programming language isn’t up to us; it’s whatever our clients want. And while most of them want Java or .NET, there’s a fair number of other languages some of them use that no one learns in school.

So although we were looking for computer science majors with strong programming backgrounds, we simply didn’t see a lot of them. The majority of the people we spoke with were trying to transition out of other fields (Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, etc.) that they didn’t like so much, or that they couldn’t get a job in with just an undergraduate degree. Yet the vast majority of them simply lacked deep programming experience. I would ask them if they can program well and they said yes (of course), but then when I asked what they had actually done, it ended up being trivial little things, or worse yet, primarily Matlab.

We also had a large number of Indians with undergraduate degrees from Indian universities who were about to graduate with a Masters in Telecommunications or Information Science from Maryland. I’m not really sure what those degrees even entail, but from talking with many of them, they just didn’t sound like what we were looking for. Not enough programming, too many other unrelated things.

So where the hell were all of the computer science majors? I was a computer science major at Maryland. I know we have a lot of them. Yet they simply didn’t turn up at the job fair, like the anxious geeks lacking interpersonal skills that they are (hey I can say it, I’m one of them). It’s frustrating. The one group of people we go to the job fair to locate is the one group of people we don’t see many of.

Ah well. We’ll have to try a different tack. When I went to Maryland, employers would frequently sponsor sessions after classes in the computer science building. They would provide free pizza and soda as a bribe to get students to show up, then would give an informational talk on some aspect of their business that “curiously” also included a pitch trying to get students to come work for them. I think that’s what we need to do. It’s less expensive than the job fair and much more targeted. We still need lots more good programmers, and I figure the more of those that come from my alma mater, the better.

3 Responses to “Where are all the computer science majors?”

  1. drinian Says:

    Yeah, there is a serious shortage of serious computer science majors everywhere. At Duke, CS was often taken as a second major along with another quantitative major like Economics, with an eye to getting one of those investment-banking jobs in New York City. They don’t care too much for programming.
    As your experience notes, dumbing-down degress won’t help much either; the people you talked to had related degrees but just Didn’t Get The Point. (Or they’re engineers, in which case I have to wonder why they’re not doing engineering). I don’t really know what the solution is. Maybe our company should start recruiting open source developers in the DC area, or recruit from LUGs and MUGs. The after-class talks are nice, too, especially with pizza. But I have yet to find anyone who is really passionate about programming who has had any trouble finding a job; the market is still that tight.

  2. arensb Says:

    Maybe the really good programmers already have jobs lined up elsewhere, and wouldn’t work for a company that has to rent a booth at some lame job fair :-)

    A friend of mine used to be the Google representative on campus: his job was to find people working late and buy them pizza (which Google would then reimburse) along with plates, napkins, frisbees, etc. with the Google logo. The idea was that if they were working late, the company was interested in them, and if you want prospective employees to think well of you, free pizza goes a lot farther than a sales pitch.

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    Hey, to be fair, Microsoft had a booth at the job fair too. And they even have the advantage of name recognition. We’re a small company; nobody’s really ever heard of us, so we have to get the word out there during recruiting by using job fairs or whatever.