Red Hot: The Computer Science Job Market

5/17/11

It’s no secret that there’s extraordinary competition right now for computer scientists. Both nationally and regionally, new graduates from strong programs at all degree levels are receiving extraordinary offers.

This year’s UW Computer Science & Engineering seniors have reported starting salaries as high as $105,000 (that’s the highest I’ve heard – there may be higher) and signing bonuses as high as $30,000 (ditto). Top students are describing experiences such as these (quoting from emails):

“I’ve had 4 emails from startups in the area that got my information from LinkedIn. Also from LinkedIn I got an email from [top tech company]. I’ve also gotten emails from [two top tech companies] – presumably they got my information from the UW CSE resume database. I also got an email from [top tech company] saying they got my information from a professor here; I didn’t respond right away and the guy called my cell phone! All of these were emails asking me to come in to interview. All were unsolicited.”

“I was able to arrange 5 on-site interviews in a two week span. I also got 5 offers in that same span.”

Students still in the program have extraordinary internship opportunities, such as these (again quoting from emails):

“I received an internship offer from [top tech company] after being in the major less than a quarter.”

“In the next three quarters I will be doing consecutive internships with [three top tech companies].”

“I’m a senior who transferred to UW from Shoreline Community College. My employment history is zilch – a little retail, that’s it. Yet [top tech company] offered me a $30/hr internship just based on the fact that I’m in UW CSE.”

“I’ve been completely blown away by how well interns are treated within our industry. It’s incredible that CSE students still in school can earn summer salaries twice as high as students from other majors can expect to earn after graduation. My most unique experience has been my opportunity to travel. Last summer I worked for [top tech company] in Seattle. At some point I realized that they had offices in awesome cities all over the world: Sydney, Dublin, Zurich, Paris, London. I told the recruiters I wanted to work at one of these offices. They were able to secure me a position in London. I’ve always wanted to study abroad, but I was worried how well it would fit with computer science. As it turns out, I got a better deal than studying abroad: working abroad. Now all of my study abroad dreams are being fulfilled more wildly than I ever expected: I’m being paid to travel; I’m not losing time, I’m working for an industry leader; and, best yet, I don’t have homework. I don’t think many other students get opportunities like this.”

What’s going on?

Many factors are at work:

• UW Computer Science & Engineering is one of the top programs in the nation, and our students – more than 80 percent of whom are from Washington State and remain in Washington State after graduation – are superb. Every year we’re a leading supplier of students to top companies such as Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft (as are Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford). In a typical year, 35 percent of our graduates go to those three companies, 15 percent go to other large companies, 30 percent go to small companies and startups, and 15 percent go to graduate school in some field (law, business, medicine, and biology, as well as computer science).

• Seattle has one of the nation’s most vibrant tech sectors. The Washington Technology Industry Association boasts 1,000 member companies with 125,000 tech employees.

• Both nationally and regionally, the tech sector is exploding. Microsoft and Amazon.com are hiring aggressively. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Zynga have opened Seattle offices in recent years because of our talent pool. Startups are hot.

• Just about every field is becoming an information field, so computer science graduates are in demand across-the-board.

Employer demand

Obviously, employer demand has its peaks and valleys. What’s important is the long-term trend. Here’s what the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology said in a December 2010 report assessing the Federal Networking and Information Technology (NIT) Research and Development Program.

“NIT [computer science] is arguably unique among all fields of science and engineering in the breadth of its impact … Recent technological and societal trends place the further advancement and application of [computer science] squarely at the center of our Nation’s ability to achieve essentially all of our priorities and to address essentially all of our challenges … All indicators – all historical data, and all projections – argue that [computer science] is the dominant factor in America’s science and technology employment.”

Here’s a figure included in the PCAST report. The dominance of computer science has been consistent in Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for many years:

In other words, across all fields of science, engineering, and the social sciences, more than 60 percent of all newly-created jobs, and more than 50 percent of all available jobs (both newly-created and vacancies), are in computing!

Student demand

Student demand, too, is cyclical. There was a peak in 2000-01. There was a valley five years later. Today, most of the top programs report that they have surged beyond the peak of a decade ago:

—At the University of Washington, we teach our introductory course every quarter – four times a year. We track annual enrollment as a four-quarter rolling average. The previous high point was the four quarter period ending in Spring 2001: 1,600 students annually. The low point was the four quarter period ending in the autumn of 2004: 1,200 students annually. Our most recent four quarters: 1,700 students annually.

—At Carnegie Mellon University, high school students apply directly to the computer science major. CMU attempts to enroll between 130 and 150 new computer science freshmen every year. Their previous high water mark for applicants was in 2001: 3,237 applicants for 130-150 places in the freshman class. The low was in 2005: 1,732 applicants. This year: 3,479 applicants.

—At Stanford, computer science course enrollments have been recovering at about 20 percent per year since 2007-08, after turning the corner the year before that. Last year (2009-10), Stanford fell just short of its all-time record enrollment in the introductory course. That record – 762 students total over three regular-term quarters – was set in 1999-2000, at the height of the dot-com boom. This year, though, enrollment totals 1,087 – a year-to-year growth of 51 percent. More amazing, Spring Quarter enrollment is up by 120 percent over last Spring Quarter.

—At MIT, an introductory computer science course, 6.00, is the single most popular course in the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative – OCW includes more than 2,000 MIT courses in a broad range of fields.

The supply/demand gap

Both nationally and in Washington State, there is a significant supply/demand gap in computer science.

The Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board 2011 Regional Needs Analysis Report includes the table below from a study that “identified occupations where the supply of workers coming out of Washington’s higher education system was substantially less than employer demand:”

No other field comes close!

An assessment

Our state will always be a net importer of tech talent – otherwise the talented computer science students who grow up in Nebraska won’t have any place to work. The critical question is, do Washington kids who desire to prepare themselves for tech careers have the opportunity to do so? Here are some facts that indicate the answer is a resounding “No!”:

—Washington is among the bottom states in the nation in bachelor’s program participation per capita (18-23 year olds).

—Washington is among the bottom states in the nation in graduate degrees awarded in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

—Washington is among the top states in the nation in the importation of workers with a bachelor’s-level education or greater.

—At UW Computer Science & Engineering, enrollment today is the same as a decade ago – the only enrollment increase funded since 1999 (in 2007) was wiped out (and more!) in subsequent budget cuts. UW CSE can accommodate less than one in three current UW students who seek to major in Computer Science or Computer Engineering.

—Western Washington University recently informed its Computer Science Department that it was on the chopping block.

Our economy is creating great jobs, and they’re going to other people’s kids. Who suffers? The kids who grow up here, and the newer, smaller companies that must recruit locally.

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems. Follow @

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