EDIT: Our university hiring platform is now on Product Hunt!
If you’re a software engineer, you probably believe that, despite some glitches here and there, folks who have the technical chops can get hired as software engineers. We regularly hear stories about college dropouts, who, through hard work and sheer determination, bootstrapped themselves into millionaires. These stories appeal to our sense of wonder and our desire for fairness in the world, but the reality is very different. For many students looking for their first job, the odds of breaking into a top company are slim because they will likely never even have the chance to show their skills in an interview. For these students (typically ones without a top school on their resume), their first job is often a watershed moment where success or failure can determine which opportunities will be open to them from that point forward and ultimately define the course of their entire career. In other words, having the right skills as a student is nowhere near enough to get you a job at a top-tier tech company.
To make this point concrete, consider three (fictitious, yet indicative) student personas, similar in smarts and skills but attending vastly different colleges. All are seeking jobs as software engineers at top companies upon graduation.
Mason goes to Harvard. He has a mediocre GPA but knows that doesn’t matter to tech companies, where some of his friends already work. Come September, recent graduates and alums fly back to campus on their company’s dime in order to recruit him. While enjoying a nice free meal in Harvard Square, he has the opportunity to ask these successful engineers questions about their current work. If he likes the company, all he has to do is accept the company’s standing invitation to interview on campus the next morning.
Emily is a computer science student at a mid-sized school ranked in the top 30 for computer science. She has solid coursework in algorithms under her belt, a good GPA, and experience as an engineering intern at a local bank. On the day of her campus’s career fair, she works up the courage to approach companies – this will be her only chance to interact with companies where she dreams of working. Despite the tech industry being casual, the attire of this career fair is business formal with a tinge of sweaty. So after awkwardly putting together an outfit she would never wear again1, she locates an ancient printer on the far side of campus and prints 50 copies of her resume. After pushing through the lines in order to line up at the booths of tech companies, she gives her resume to every single tech company at the fair over the course of several hours. She won’t find out for two more weeks if she got any interviews.
Anthony goes to a state school near the town where he grew up. He is top in his class, as well as a self-taught programmer, having gone above and beyond his coursework to hack together some apps. His school’s career fair has a bunch of local, non-tech employers. He has no means of connecting with tech companies face-to-face and doesn’t know anyone who works in tech. So, he applies to nearly a hundred tech companies indiscriminately through their website online, uploading his resume and carefully crafted cover letter. He will probably never hear from them.
Career fair mania
The status quo in university recruiting revolves around career fairs and in-person campus recruiting, which have serious limitations. For one, they are extremely expensive, especially at elite schools. Prime real estate at the MIT career fair will run you a steep $18,000, for entry alone. That’s not counting the price of swag (which gets more exorbitant each year), travel, and, most importantly, the opportunity cost of attending engineers’ time. While college students command the lowest salaries, it’s not uncommon for tech companies to spend 50% more on recruiting a student than a senior engineer.
At elite schools, the lengths to which companies go to differentiate themselves is becoming more exorbitant with each passing year. In fact, students at elite colleges suffer from company overload because every major tech company, big and small, is trying to recruit them. All of this, while students at non-elite colleges are scrambling to get their foot in the door without any recruiters, let alone VPs of high-profile companies, visiting their campus.
Of course, due to this cost, companies are limited in their ability to visit colleges in person, and even large companies can visit around 15 or 20 colleges at most. This strategy overlooks top students at solid CS programs that are out of physical reach.
In an effort to overcome this, companies are attending conferences and hackathons out of desperation to reach students at other colleges. The sponsorship tier for the Grace Hopper Conference, the premier gathering for women in tech, tops out at $100,000, with the sponsorship tier to get a single interview booth starting at $30,000. Additionally, larger companies send representatives (usually engineers) to large hackathons in an effort to recruit students in the midst of a 48-hour all-nighter. However, the nature of in-person career fairs and events are that not all students will be present. Grace Hopper is famously expensive to attend as a student, especially when factoring in airfare and hotel.
This cost is inefficient at best, and prohibitive at worst, especially for small startups with low budget and brand. Career fairs serve a tiny portion of companies and a tiny portion of students, and the rest are caught in the pecuniary crossfire. Demand for talented engineers out of college who bring a different lived experience to tech has never been higher, yet companies are passing on precisely these students via traditional methods. Confounding the issue even further is the fundamental question of whether having attended a top school has much bearing on candidate quality in the first place (more on that in the section on technical screening below).
Homogeneity of hires
The focus of companies on elite schools has notable, negative implications for the diversity of their applicants. In particular, many schools that companies traditionally visit are notably lacking in diversity, especially when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. According to a survey of computer science students at Stanford, there were just fifteen Hispanic female and fifteen black female computer science majors in the 2015 graduating class total. In this analysis, the Stanford 2015 CS major was 9% Hispanic and 6% black. According to a 2015 analysis, the Harvard CS major was just 3% black and 5 percent Hispanic. Companies that are diversity-forward and constrained to recruiting at the same few schools end up competing over this small pool of diverse students. Meanwhile, there is an entire ocean of qualified, racially diverse students from less traditional backgrounds whom companies are overlooking.
The focus on elite schools also has meaningful implications on socioeconomic diversity. According to a detailed New York Times infographic, “four in 10 students from the top 0.1 percent attend an Ivy League or elite university, roughly equivalent to the share of students from poor families who attend any two- or four-year college.” The infographic highlights the rigid segmentation of students by class background in college matriculation.
The article finds that the few lower-income students who end up at elite colleges do about as well as their more affluent classmates but that attending an elite versus non-elite college makes a huge difference in future income.
The focus of tech companies on elite schools lends credence to this statistic, codifying the rigidity with which students at elite college are catapulted into the 1 percent, while others are left behind. Career-wise, it’s that first job or internship you get while you’re still in school that can determine what opportunities you have access to in the future. And yet, students at non-elite colleges have trouble accessing these very internships and jobs, or even getting a meager first round interview, contributing to the lack of social mobility in our society not for lack of skills but for lack of connections. This sucks. A lot.
The technical screen
Let’s return to our three students. Let’s say that Emily, the student who attended her college’s career fair, gets called back by one or two companies for a first round interview if her resume meets the criteria that companies are looking for. Not having an internship at a top tech company already — quite the catch-22 — puts her at a disadvantage. Anthony has little to no chance of hearing back from employers via his applications online, but let’s say that by some miracle lands a phone screen with one of the tech giants (his best shot, as there are more recruiters to look through the resume dump on the other end).
What are their experiences when it comes to prepping for upcoming technical interviews?
Mason, the Harvard student, attends an event on campus with Facebook engineers teaching him how to pass the technical interview. He also accepts a few interviews at companies he’s less excited with for practice, and just in case. While he of course needs be sharp and prepare in order to get good at these sorts of algorithmic problems, he has all of the resources he could ask for and more at his disposal. Unsurprisingly, his Facebook interview goes well.
Emily’s school has an informal, undergraduate computer science club in which they are collectively reading technical interviewing guides and trying to figure out what tech companies want from them. She has a couple interviews lined up, but all of which are for jobs she’s desperate to get. They trade tips after interviews but ultimately have a shaky understanding of they did right and wrong in the absence of post-interview feedback from companies. Only a couple of alumni from their school have made it to top tech companies in the past, and so they lack the kinds of information that Mason has on what companies are looking for. (E.g. Don’t be afraid to take hints, make sure to explain your thought process, what the heck is this CoderPad thing anyway…)
Anthony doesn’t know anyone who has a tech job like the one he’s interviewing for, and only one of his friends is also interviewing. He doesn’t know where to start when it comes to getting ready for his upcoming interview at GoogFaceSoft. He only has one shot at it with no practice interviews lined up. He prepares by googling “tech interview questions” and stumbles upon a bunch of unrealistic interview questions, many of them behavioral or outdated. He might be offered the interview and be fit for the job, but he sure doesn’t know how to pass the interview.
For students who may be unfamiliar with the art of the technical interview, algorithmic interviews can be mystifying, leading to an imbalance of information on how to succeed. Given that technical interviewing is a game, it is important that everyone knows the rules, spoken and unspoken. There are many practice resources available, but no amount of reading and re-reading Cracking the Coding Interview can prepare you for that moment when you are suddenly in a live, technical phone screen with another human.
We built a better way to hire
Ultimately, as long as university hiring relies on a campus-by-campus approach, the status quo will continue to be fundamentally inefficient and unmeritocratic. No company, not even the tech giants, can cover every school or every resume submitted online. And, in the absence of any meaningful information on a student’s resume, companies default to their university as the only proxy. This approach is inefficient at best and, at worst, it’s the first in a series of watershed moments that derail the promise of social mobility for the non-elite, taking with them any hope of promoting diversity among computer science students.
Because this level of inequity, placed for maximum damage right at the start of people’s careers, really pissed us off, we decided to do something about it. interviewing.io’s answer to the unfortunate status quo is a university-specific hiring platform. If you’re already familiar with how core interviewing.io works, you’ll see that the premise is exactly the same. We give out free practice to students, and use their performance in practice to identify top performers, completely independently of their pedigree. Those top performers then get to interview with companies like Lyft and Quora on our platform. In other words, we’re excited to provide students with pathways into tech that don’t involve going to an elite school or knowing someone on the inside. So far, we’ve been very pleased with the results. You can see our student demographics and where they’re coming from below. Students from all walks of life, whether they’re from MIT or a school you’d never visit, are flocking to the platform, and we couldn’t be prouder.
interviewing.io evaluates students based on their coding skills, not their resume. We are open to students regardless of their university affiliation, college major, and pretty much anything else (we ask for your class year to make sure you’re available when companies want you and that’s about it). Unlike traditional campus recruiting, we attract students organically (getting free practice with engineers from top companies is a pretty big draw) from schools big and small from across the country.
We’re also proud that almost 40 percent of our university candidates come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in tech.
Because of our completely blind, skills-first approach, we’ve seen an interesting phenomenon happen time and time again: when a student unmasks at the end of a successful interview, the company in question realizes that the student who just aced their technical phone screen was one whose resume was sitting at the bottom of the pile all along.
In addition to identifying top students who bring a different lived experience to tech, we’re excited about the economics of our model. With interviewing.io, a mid-sized startup can staff their entire intern class for the same cost as attending 1-2 career fairs at top schools… with a good chunk of those interns coming from underrepresented backgrounds. Want to hire interns and new grads in the most efficient, fair way possible? Sign up to be an employer on our university platform!
Meena runs interviewing.io’s university hiring platform. We help companies hire college students from all over the US, with a focus on diversity. Prior to joining interviewing.io, Meena was a software engineer at Clever, and before that, Meena was in college on the other side of the engineer interviewing equation.