Coding impact - are we losing software engineers?

Computer scientists and software engineers, particularly those who specialize in web technologies, are some of the most desirable workers currently in the labor market. Undergraduates from the nation's top schools are starting in the six figures at major corporations, or joining start-ups with significant equity. In many ways, the world is their oyster.

Yet, a number of these graduating engineers are turning their back on the field. Their reasons tell a lot about the current engineering culture in the Valley and the choices companies must make in the coming years to continue to attract and retain top talent.

Within the last few months, more than a dozen of my close friends from Stanford have taken non-engineering jobs with their bachelor's degrees in computer science or other technical disciplines. These aren't washouts - several of them are among the top graduates of their class year. All of them have had internships (or full-time jobs) in the field, and they have effectively sampled the offerings from the most prominent Silicon Valley corporations and start-ups. They seem almost destined to join engineering teams.

Yet, they will be choosing other careers. While they have had diverse experiences, their complaints are largely the same. The most common fear among them is that their skills are getting clustered too closely - that their work rarely lacks any kind of broad thinking. As coders, they are often given small scope to make changes in a large corporation, and they are often left to handle "the technology" at many start-up companies.

While some coders may enjoy the high specialization, others prefer a more broad set of duties. Several of my friends have turned to product management, business development, or finance in order to get this more diverse experience, depending on the distance they want to put themselves from an engineering team. These positions, of course, need their own strong talent, but it is unfortunate that some of the top coders in the country are choosing to stop their craft so early.

Another common complaint is the lack of a social environment at work - specifically, the feel of teamwork in the product that they are developing. This complaint obviously registers less often among those with start-up experience, but seems to be particularly problematic at large companies. The push by some companies to completely eliminate meetings and distractions is great for engineering productivity, but that policy can come at the expense of a feeling of inclusiveness. I am not sure exactly how to handle this: no one wants more meetings, but simultaneously, there probably should be stronger bonds between team members.

The most important complaint, and the one that has caused many of them to abandon engineering, is the feeling that they are not contributing something to society. Engineering by its very nature is a detail-oriented field. It can be hard to see the forest from the trees, particularly when you are only associated with one tree on a project. These people tend to pursue very different careers including consulting, law and politics, where their engineering background gives them cachet and a systematic analytical framework for handling problems.

Let me caveat these claims though. I can't claim a growing trend here. Stanford, along with many schools across the country, has been producing tremendously higher numbers of CS majors in recent years. Perhaps many of the people who are majoring in CS today are simply those who would have chosen a different major seven years ago. I also have a small sample size, and my own background may attract a certain type of engineer.

Yet, we must be cautious given the greater trends of the computer science labor market. The need for engineers has far outpaced the growth of engineering graduates in several crucial sub-fields. Losing one or two handfuls of graduates starts to really add up in such a competitive economy.

My simple advice to companies is this: try to provide a range of positions from the completely technical to the hybrid technical. Make sure there are places for people with desires for broader duties, and that those who want to engage in marketing/sales/policy/legal/etc. have the ability to do so. Ultimately, better career fit will help to retain quality talent, and increase company productivity as well. That's a win for everyone, and represents the best of the multi-talented economy that makes Silicon Valley famous.