My history with hiring university students and recent graduates for technical positions has not been a good one.
In my first company (~15 years ago) we tried hiring recent university and technical college graduates for junior developer positions. I was struck by the near carbon copy similarities between most of the resumes. Very few of the tech students / graduates had any meaningful experience, and even fewer had done any hacking on the side to develop their skills. Their resumes consisted primarily of the projects they had done in school and non-related jobs. I remember getting a bunch of resumes from one university where they all described the exact same project – an elevator simulation done in Java. It was impossible to differentiate between the people.
Fast forward to a couple years ago when I was recruiting founders for Year One Labs. We were looking for people – even if they didn’t have a specific idea – to pair with other founders, get started on an idea, etc. and I met a young and super smart guy who was still in university. He had been hacking since he was a kid, but had stopped because of school. He was trying to get back into it (because I asked him about what he’d been doing lately hacking-wise), and this was his response (paraphrasing):
“I’d love to, but the schoolwork is so heavy, I don’t have any time. In my program [Computer Science] you have to pick two out of three: schoolwork, dating or hacking. I have to do the schoolwork, and dating … well … I am human …”
Far be it from me to deny anyone the pleasures of dating. But being overloaded with schoolwork is asinine.
The university had taken a promising hacker and turned him into another clone. (Side note: In this particular case, I’m confident the guy I’m speaking about will figure it out and pursue his dreams, university-contraints or otherwise. I’m not trying to insult him personally.)
I asked a few other students if they felt the same way, and they did. I didn’t do a statistically relevant survey of a large student population, but it was enough evidence for me to remain frustrated with the university system.
Today, we’re hiring co-op students at GoInstant. And lo and behold I’m seeing some of the exact same issues. Every resume is almost identical. The cover letters are the worst: either they’re all working together to write the same thing, using the same template, or being coached by the university on how to write a proper cover letter. Maybe all three. But it’s impossible to get through even a handful without giving up. A minuscule percentage of the applicants have done any side projects using newer technologies. I don’t think a single applicant had a github account. But they’re all learning Java! Yay! 15 years from when I started recruiting students, and they’re still doing a lot of the same things. And good portion of applicants are including completely non-relevant work experience (I really don’t care if you worked at a fast food restaurant), presumably to fill up the “pre-requisite” 1-2 page resume. If I hadn’t seen this sort of thing before it might be easy to assume that the fault lies only with this one university, but that’s not the case. I’ve seen these issues before.
Universities (and technical colleges) need to come up with a way to lower the “old school” coursework and allow students to hack. Students need to be hacking on side projects that use newer technologies. It’s not just about new technologies, it’s about genuinely learning by doing. If they need to get credit for it as part of the university program, figure it out. But if students aren’t coming out of university with more “real-world” and practical experience building stuff we’re doomed. Even Walmart uses Node.js. If you think new technology and experimentation are the exclusive domains of startups and “Silicon Valley” tech companies, you’re sorely mistaken. I would propose that universities cut a class per semester and replace that with a semester-long side project. Put some constraints of some kind, some guidelines, but then let the students at it. If the professors aren’t capable of grading the work because they’re not familiar with new technology, bring in industry folks that can help.
Bottom line: Universities have to find a way to provide students with the time and space to do more hacking. I know some of this is going on already, but we need more of it.
And students: While I feel for your situation and the fact that your coursework is ridiculous (and probably, for the most part, extremely dull), and I appreciate that it’d be nice to meet someone from the opposite sex occasionally and “mingle” … you need to find a way to stand out from everyone else and do something for yourself and your career. You might think of university as an investment in yourself – and it is – but you can be doing a lot more to invest in yourself by hacking away on side projects. Try Codecadamy for example. Life’s hard, you can’t wait around for the school system to change, so figure it out.
Take out non-relevant work experience from your resumes. I don’t care if you were a salesperson at The Gap. I don’t care if you flipped burgers at Burger King. And I don’t care about your grades. They’re not a real reflection of your ability to hack like crazy in a startup. And if you’re going to write an insanely generic cover letter that makes you look like everyone else, you might reconsider writing one at all. Your goal is to be memorable – in everything you do. Creative writing may not be your strength as geeks, so tackle the problem in another way. I remember once getting a cover letter in code. The guy’s cover letter told me to go to a website and input a command. It spat out the cover letter in a cool format from there. Smart. Creative. Different.
Some say “two out of three ain’t bad,” but in this case it’s not enough. I don’t want kids flunking out of school (although I have tried on occasion to convince students to quit … I mean … defer their studies for awhile), and I certainly don’t want to stop people from dating, but if more university students don’t start working on side projects, hacking, learning new technologies and differentiating themselves, we’re losing out on the opportunity to develop great new talent that could do so much more.