Would You Hire the CS Class of ’04 Today?

A comment in a Reddit computer science career advice forum got me thinking. There was mention about the high volume of advice in the forum coming from inexperienced people relative to advice from industry veterans. The comment that got my attention (which I believe was made by an experienced person) was:

And most of the people giving advice in this sub¹ are 10+ year veterans who, if they had only the skills they had when they first got hired 10 years ago, could never get hired in today’s market.

So could the college class of ’04 couldn’t get hired in today’s tech talent market? That’s an interesting topic for debate, and your age likely influences which side you choose.² Of course, ‘skills‘ could be interpreted as overall engineering chops (concepts that are language/tool agnostic), or ‘skills’ could refer to ’04 grads having dated skills for today’s market. I sense the commenter intended the former, as the latter doesn’t seem worth mentioning. Either way, my opinion is the same.

For most cases, my answer on whether they could get hired today is ‘Probably not’.

This is not to say that the class of ’04 or even 1994 were lesser engineers upon graduation, and those critical of our increased reliance on tools will make arguments to the contrary. The résumé of the typical ’04 grad would have difficulty getting interviews when pitted against today’s graduates, based on ’14 trends for entry-level candidates. Entering the work force with some level of perceived accomplishment (via internships or personal projects) is becoming a rather reasonable expectation even among average tech employers, to the point where graduates that lack experience or tangible evidence of their ability openly lament their (mostly irrational) fear of being unemployable.³

If we look at the difference between these graduates of ten years apart, we discover how quickly both available resources and industry expectations have changed. How would ’04 grads fare against today’s candidates? It’s interesting to explore how different things were.

How did they learn to code? How much ‘experience’ do they have?

It sounds kind of odd to me, but someone as young as 35 might not have seen a decent web browser until college. The class of ’04 hit puberty when Windows 95 was released, were likely to reference books/manuals (BBS/Usenet perhaps), had limited access to like-minded individuals, and coded on machines dwarfed in power and memory thousands of times over by today’s mobile phone.

The class of ’14 had fully functional browsers and search capability by middle school, and relatively cheap computing power. It would have required unique circumstances for those in the ’04 class to enter college with coding experience, but many in the class of ’14 could have had exposure at a younger age. When I ask recent grads when they started coding, it’s common to hear “in high school”.

What did they do when stumped?

Volumes of reference material and educational content were available to the ’14 grads that were not in ’04. Stack Overflow has become the programmer’s best friend, and that best friend still celebrates birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese – it is barely five years old. ’14 grads could access answers much quicker than those from ‘o4, but many would argue whether that access over time makes for better engineers.

The class of ’04 grew up with search engines too, but how much relevant content was there to search? And how difficult would it be to actually find that content given the search engines of the time? The need for trial and error is dying, and it’s reasonable to assume that death hastened between these two graduating classes.

How did they differentiate their ability from others when competing for jobs?

You’ve got a pretty solid GitHub, eh? ’14 graduates could browse and contribute to thousands of open source repos and create their own all through college. GitHub obviously wasn’t the first destination for repos, but hiring managers didn’t usually ask to “see your SourceForge” in ’04. The ease and expectation of showing past code to hiring entities is a relatively new concept.

It’s become normal for many grads to have blogs, robust sites, or even a mobile app or basic product when entering the workforce. The current boot camp trend produces graduates that usually claim an app. Apple’s App Store had 500 third-party apps around launch in 2008, and now between Apple and Google there are nearly two million. How many of those were developed for the purpose of job hunting?

Websites and blogs were more difficult to publish and expensive to maintain before the recent trend of free hosting and tools. It was uncommon for entry-level candidates to list sites or blogs on a résumé ten years ago.

How do they look for jobs? Did they even have to look?

If we are going to compare the ability for two graduating classes to get jobs, we should consider that methods to hiring and job search have also changed dramatically. Job boards like Monster and Dice existed in ’04 to post a résumé, but were primarily used by the most active job seekers and not for passive/ongoing job searches.

LinkedIn can help to both find people and then store contacts, with the added bonus of making users discoverable to potential employers – but LinkedIn only became available in ’03. Networking just a decade ago was more time consuming, while internships have become the norm for engineering students in recent years. Today’s graduate often has made at least a few potentially valuable industry contacts to use during a first job search.

Even if you were to get an interview in ’04, you went in blind. The amount of information regarding the interview process at a variety of companies is abundant, from best-selling interview question books to sites like Glassdoor. Job search has undergone quite a facelift, with unlimited supports in place to help job seekers identify interesting employers, demonstrate skills, and succeed in interviews.

Conclusion

Without trying to get into any debates as to whether colleges are producing better or worse engineers than they were ten years ago, it would be very difficult for ’04 grads to compete with ’14 grads in today’s market based on evolving expectations and changes in what CS students do during college. What might the résumés of CS grads in the class of ’24 look like?

¹ The shorthand ‘sub‘ is short for ‘subreddit‘, which is the name Reddit uses for various channels or forums.
² For the sake of transparency, my age is closer to the college class of ’94.
³ Source: see perhaps 25% of the posts at that same Reddit forum)

2 comments

  1. Dave

    Those of us who grew up in the 1980′s and 1990′s used the tools available to us. Those who do the extra curricular activities did so back then too, and were/are smart enough to adapt when given the opportunity with the New Stuff(tm).

    I mean, really, have the concepts of loops, if-then-else statements, OOP, IDE’s, VCS really changed that much other than the last 20 years? Anyone that would struggle with these concepts I would not want to hire in the first place, and would have washed out in their first or second year of University. I would rather have someone that actually had the right thought processes, but maybe not the right mix of current tools.

    In conclusion, I would contend that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • fecak

      Agreed. I was thinking of an admittedly ‘apples to oranges’ comparison and how different the hiring landscape was. People did personal projects and extracurriculars back in the 90s, but I don’t remember them being a focus when talking about new jobs, and I don’t recall an employer ever asking me about what could be considered a candidate’s hobbies until roughly 2004/5.

      Most would still hire based on what we’d probably call fundamentals, but I don’t think your average ’04 resume would stand out enough to get noticed today.

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