Computer science grads are playing it safe instead of trying to help build the next big thing

Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham knew that working for a Silicon Valley giant was every programmer’s dream back in the day but he was surprised—and somewhat disappointed—to find that little has changed.

As the technology sector grows, the demand for computer science skills is increasing at a faster pace than the number of graduates being churned out by top tier institutes. For instance, Massachusetts’ technology and computer science fields have 17 job openings for each recent in-state graduate with a computing and mathematics degree, according to the 2016 State of the Technology Economy report.

“It worked for [computer science grads] to go to a brand-name university, so they think they should go to a brand-name employer. What they don’t realize is that companies change much faster than universities,” Graham told Quartz. He says that picking an employer based on its brand is a weak strategy for finding a great job.

Comparing the Class of 2015’s graduate surveys across four schools that offered detailed job placement results, Quartz found that Graham’s tweet has some truth to it–a handful of companies dominate when it comes to hiring computer science graduates.

Google, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and Facebook remain favorites across the board, with Apple trailing closely. Graduate surveys from University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign featured many of the same companies in their top employers lists, too, though they didn’t provide specific numbers. Since Michigan had a large graduating class, and the state is home to ‘motor city’ Detroit, it’s no surprise that General Motors was vying for the tech-savvy grads from Big Blue.

Loaded with resources, these companies likely have more openings than smaller startups, and can offer attractive compensation and lots of room for advancement. Google and Microsoft have over 50,000 employees; Amazon has over 200,000 and continues to hire like crazy; and IBM had nearly 380,000 workers by the end of 2015, and it still had about 20,000 openings in March 2016.

But Graham is critical of this obsession with big tech: “Instead of going to Google, they should be going to whatever company is the present-day equivalent of Google in 2001.” He says people need to research and observe what products will be the next big thing and head in that direction. “That’s how I knew in 1998 that Google was a big deal; I and all my friends were using it.”

Start small, end big

Harj Taggar, CEO of tech recruiting startup Triplebyte, says that taking risks is the only way for aspiring programmers to make it big. He asks all graduates one question: Do you want a 90% chance of earning $1.1 million at big tech firms or a 10% chance of earning $10 million at a smaller startup?

“As a software engineer, you’ll always have the opportunity to make $1.1 million because there’ll always be a big company willing to hire you and pay a big salary,” Taggar told Quartz. What you might not always have is the 10% opportunity, because it becomes harder to join an early stage startup—now we’re talking more like 1999 Google—as you become older.” Some to-be mammoths on Taggar’s list are Airbnb, Dropbox, Uber, and Stripe.

One of the top employers in these surveys, Google, has focused on widening where it recruits. For example, Google in Residence places company engineers at historically black colleges and universities to teach classes and mentor students. The company also scours coding competitions for talent.

Now that recruiters are seeking applicants in places other than the big name schools, are graduates willing to look beyond the biggest players?

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