Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Campus recruiting was booming this year with a wide range of employers visiting campus and many new recruiting relationships emerging, including our new designation as a target school by Google,” wrote the 2014-15 Career Services annual report. Of those who entered employment after graduation, 15% went into the technology industry, the largest category after “research”, which employed 22% of the Class of 2015.
LinkedIn now lists Google as the largest current employer of Swarthmore students, with 49 Swarthmore alumni in the technology company.
In Fall 2012, only 5.6% of the graduating class were computer science (CS) majors. This year, 21% of the Class of 2018 have declared CS as a major or minor in their sophomore plan.
Erin Massey, an Associate Director in Career Services, noted that the label varied by firm and industry.
“What it comes down to is that Swarthmore is a school that they think about when they need to hire,” Massey said.
I also talked to our student ambassador from Google, Leon Chen ‘18, who offered a different view. In an email, he said that “Google will actively recruit here, but they do so at many schools, from George Mason to Howard [University]. No one uses the term ‘target school’ when talking about tech companies because your resume and projects will speak to the quality and amount of work you can produce. There were many alums who went to Google even before they started recruiting here.”
Google has hosted workshops not only on technical interviewing but also wider discussions on the technology industry as a whole. In October 2015, two Swarthmore alumni came back to campus to hold a “Google Engineering Deep Dive”.
Chen praised the meritocratic nature of the technology industry, where he notes that admission is largely based on skills and knowledge, rather than connections or the brand name of the school. His role as a student ambassador is to help Google in its outreach efforts.
“My job really has three things: brand awareness, education, and product evangelism. I probably focus on the first two more than product evangelism. I try to bring things onto campus that I think the student body would enjoy, such as career panels, workshops, or fun events,” Chen said.
Alongside his student ambassadorship, Chen is also a Career Peer Advisor working for the Career Services Office. On February 11, Chen helped organize a videoconference with alumni in the San Francisco Bay Area working in the technology industry. His posts on each class year’s Facebook groups often advertise tech-related workshops or free souvenirs by Google. He will be interning with Google this summer.
Teo Gelles ‘16 has seen it all. Throughout his three summers from Freshman to Senior year, he has worked in each of what he called the “big three” categories for technology-related careers: start-up, research, and large corporation.
“Professors here generally recommend that you try [each] of the big three things at least once,” Gelles said.
In his freshman summer, Gelles worked in an unpaid internship with Blip in New York. Blip is a company that hosts videos, similar to Youtube. However, while Youtube is a website where anyone can upload videos, Blip’s model is different.
“Blip does more quality control where they are trying to find artists who plan on releasing content every week,” Gelles said.
Gelles’ job was to make an app. Blip did not have an application interface for Roku, an internet streaming device that connects to your TV. Gelles had to learn the programming language specific to Roku, help design the interface, and set up their servers.
“You get to see everything about the app from start to finish but you’re also being kept to your professional standard of calling,” Gelles said.
While Gelles enjoyed the project, he did not enjoy creating applications outright. Instead, he discovered that he was a “systems person”, someone who works on the ‘back-end’. Front-end refers to a program’s interface with the user, while back-end deals more with servers and databases, which aren’t seen by end users. According to Gelles, startups are focused on making the product quickly to release it to the public, while using a larger company for back-end infrastructure.
“It’s not the sexiest career choice but from my personal experience is what I really enjoy doing. I think I have the talent for, given hardware and monetary constraints, building a system that’s best optimized for the task at hand,” he said.
While the label ‘target school’ may not exist officially, the outreach efforts to Swarthmore through technical interview workshops, industry panels, and souvenirs are very real. Why are technology firms looking to hire from a liberal arts college like Swarthmore? I contacted Brendan Collins, whose title is “Universities Program Specialist” and is responsible for Google’s outreach to Swarthmore. He noted the advantages of a liberal arts background in creating products.
In an email, he wrote, “Those with a liberal arts background possess the kind of well-rounded perspective so important to Google and the products we build. Google seeks to organize the world’s information and make it useful for its users, and Swatties have an incredibly keen understanding of the complexities of those users.”
Massey, having worked in Career Services since 2003, emphasized certain characteristics of Swarthmore students. According to Massey, “the intellectual capacity of students here and how bright they are is a great asset. They are typically hardworking, like to push the envelope in terms of really digging down and analyzing different things, and for a lack of a better term [are] taught to think outside the box.”
Miles Skorpen ‘09, who now works as a product manager at OpenTable, emphasized the soft skills that Swarthmore helped him with.
Skorpen, who graduated with a Political Science major and was Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Gazette, cited writing as one key skill. Swarthmore helped him critically assess arguments while writing cogently at the same time. Other skills included problem solving and collaboration. “A lot of the fundamental skills you learned at Swarthmore set me up for long-term success,” Skorpen said.
However, Skorpen cautioned that “it’s plausible you graduate from Swarthmore without picking up those things.” After graduation, Skorpen worked at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company before heading to the technology industry.
After trying out one of the ‘three categories’ for CS careers by working in a startup during freshman summer, Gelles decided to try a second category—research—with Professor Ameet Soni during the summer after sophomore year.
To explain the nature of his research, Gelles outlined further categorizations within Computer Science, this time three academic sub-disciplines instead of career paths. Those sub-disciplines are: theoretical computer science (“It’s just math but inspired by things in Computer Science,” Gelles said), machine learning and artificial intelligence, and systems. Swarthmore teaches classes in all three disciplines, according to Gelles.
For his summer research, Gelles focused on machine learning. The field is about “how do you extract information from large amounts of data. It’s similar to AI in that you are getting a computer to learn a thing but the concepts to learn are much more numerically focused.”
HIs research was specifically about extracting Alzheimer’s Disease information from large sets of publicly available MRI scans. He modified an algorithm commonly used to computer vision problems, called script pixelization, and applied it to MRI scans. Script pixelization involved segmenting images to a lot of smaller areas defined by similar colors and outlines.
Unfortunately, reapplying script pixelization algorithms to MRI scans did not work out. Gelles appreciated the experience as it allowed him to see the field of machine learning from multiple levels, from developing algorithms to getting specific kinds of data. However, it also made him realize that he did not particularly enjoy the machine learning field, despite its many interesting applications.
“When people are thinking of the development of CS, a lot of things they think about are machine learning – very sexy stuff to talk about at dinner when you’re with your family. But while you’re working on this stuff, you’re in the dark […] For me that was really uncomfortable. I was looking for a field in which I have an intrinsic idea of why certain things work.”
What draws Swarthmore students to tech?
Collins, the Google outreach manager to Swarthmore, provided one explanation:
“Swarthmore students know that a career in tech is a fantastic opportunity to work on truly innovative projects. […] It’s basically a question of supply and demand: Swatties know that they can do amazing things at a company like Google, and companies like Google know that schools like Swarthmore are full of amazingly talented people.”
As for Gelles, he had always been interested in Computer Science as a discipline, and technology as a career field. Coming into Swarthmore, he had three years of computer science background and knew that the industry was growing.
“When I came here I was certain I wanted to be a CS major and when I took my CS classes here it just confirmed it,” Gelles said.
Adrian Wan ‘15, who is now a software engineer at Nest, which is under Alphabet, Google’s umbrella company, started off as a physics major. He emphasized the difference between computer science as a discipline, and technology as a career.
For computer science, he wrote in an email that “I remember writing code for 6 hours one Saturday for a CS35 lab, and realizing that I was having fun, somehow. That’s the crux of it: when I get something to work after having wrestled with it for two days, or when I put the finishing touches on a project and look through the documentation that I’ve written, I feel immensely satisfied.”
However, the passion for coding and problem solving can be applied not only to the ‘tech industry’. Computer science is helping a diversity of far-flung fields, according to Wan. The new trend of ‘digital humanities’ helps students do more in-depth textual analysis through data mining and analytics. Both Economists and Physicists use “pandas”, an open source tool for data analysis, which Wan learned about at Swarthmore but used at Nest.
“That’s the truly transformative part of CS: not just building out tech, which is stuff that didn’t exist before, but taking what we’ve been doing and doing it better than ever before. That kind of cross-functional applicability is what I think draws so many people to CS,” Wan said.
In his third and final summer while still in college, Gelles interned in Amazon, a “Big Four” technology company, which also includes Google, Microsoft, and Facebook (“You might think Apple is on that list but Apple is more of a hardware company than a software company,” Gelles noted).
To Gelles, what characterized the Big Four were their large internship programs, and the many small, autonomous teams that could shape your experience working in firms with thousands of software engineers.
In the internship, Gelles was asked to help create a saved data set that involved optimizing routes between different postal codes, suppliers, and Amazon’s various fulfillment centers (the company’s version of a warehouse). Gelles would have to develop a program that queries different carriers, like UPS and DHL and finds out their estimate of delivery times. But first, he had to integrate each company’s specific API (Application Program Interface) into the program to query their servers and build a database.
While it was a “very simple project conceptually,” Gelles faced some challenges. Because larger companies require more attention to style, projects took longer. For his project, some APIs did not have their documentation up-to-date, delaying his progress. Even though Amazon is a large firm, only Gelles knew specifically how to deal with the suppliers’ APIs.
“So it’s a lot of being in the dark and being comfortable being in the dark and messing around with the code, which is something I find is intrinsically fun,” Gelles said.
Gelles’ database project was otherwise a success, and Amazon offered him a full-time job. He hopes to eventually be transferred to Amazon Web Services, which is the company’s cloud computing service and one key driver of the company’s profits.
He decided to start off his career in a large company, as he was able to pursue his favorite discipline—systems—in an environment that offered many such opportunities.
“Having an opportunity to work at the biggest cloud computing company in the world would be a super cool thing, especially since I like these sorts of systems work,” Gelles said.
Institutionally, Swarthmore has been trying to evolve to meet the rise in students seeking a tech career.
Career Services, in particular, has noticed the trend for students to head into computer science. Each summer, the office plans events for the next year, and spot trends from observing student majors, interests, or just talking to students in general. “Our programming changes every semester. So it depends on what are the hot trends right now, and what students want,” Massey said.
Along with hosting interviewing workshops and alumni panels, the Career Services office also provides one-on-one counseling with students for mock interviews, resume writing, and even salary negotiations.
The Center for Innovation and Leadership also plays a role. Over externship week in January 2016, about a dozen students visited San Francisco to tour a variety of technology companies and meet alumni. The cost to students? 0.
However, there have been challenges in facing the high demand from students. Computer Science majors for the Class of 2017 had their senior capstone class canceled. “Due to enrollment pressures, we are not able to staff CS97 for next year,” wrote department chair Professor Tia Newhall at the end of March. CS Majors would have to choose an elective instead. CS97 is the Senior Conference which also offered a writing (W) credit. Instead, students seeking for CS97 as a writing credit had to take other classes.
The opportunities provided by Swarthmore have been important to students. Both Gelles and Wan cited the research opportunities provided by the college, and the openness and support of the professors. “The professors are obviously biased towards research stuff, but when it comes to the basics of how to search for jobs or what working in different companies are, they are pretty knowledgeable,” Gelles said.
Gelles did not really use Career Services but did contact Swarthmore alumni in Amazon during the application process. “I think by calling them and asking them how the application process for an internship went was really useful. […] Forget about a general alumni network, just knowing someone in the year above you is really useful,” Gelles said.
For Wan, it was an alumni posting on Career Services’ Experience portal that helped land him an internship with Nest, and subsequently his full-time job.
Clearly, alumni play an essential part for Swarthmore in gaining a footing in the industry. “I think it steamrolls. It takes one quality hire to steamroll [for companies to say] ‘let’s get back there and hire more like this person’,” Massey said.
Correction 4/27: Professor Ameet Soni’s name was misspelled. Miles Skorpen graduated in 2009, instead of 2008.