Brain Drain

Morphing student techies into a modern-day breakfast club 

The day Max Adelman got a pepperoni pizza delivered to his doorstep, he knew he was being courted—heavily. Max was a computer engineering junior at the University of Michigan and the pie came from an interested party over 200 miles away in Chicago.

It comes as little surprise that the computer industry, behemoths and upstarts alike, is on a constant campaign of campus mind-snatching. While bemused reports of hiring raids whisking yet another crop of surly EECS (electrical engineering/computer science) majors to the green of Silicon Valley are nothing new, corporations studying up on their subjects' language is a recent innovation.

Pizza delivery across state lines is just one example of the increasingly offbeat strategies of the new corporate courtship. In a culture where a malevolent CEO is as valid a bogeyman as, say, an evil mayor or a bad lieutenant, it is becoming crucial that the recruiting company's authority mesh with an outer projection of casual cool.

A snapshot of this strategy can be found in Microsoft recruiting materials specifically engineered for college students. Go to www.microsoft.com/jobs and encounter a stark interface with a somber cover story on racial diversity. Access the same site from the index page's "college jobs" link and you will be greeted by a rock'n'roll layout housing a fictional diary of a genderless new hire, who sounds like one of Mr. Gates's cooler minions. The play-by-play starts at 10:00 a.m. with the word Yawn, touches upon lots of sports, a video arcade with no need for quarters, and free sodas, but really hits its apogee earlier at the 11:20 a.m. mark: an entry announcing, "That's my manager. But she's not, like, my boss," accompanied by a close-up photo of a female foot in a Birkenstock sandal.

The difference between enticing a professional and a student has always been clear: sell the former a job, the latter a shrink-wrapped identity. A new approach is the employers' desire to permeate every aspect of the target's life, but it is a soft-pedaled intrusion. Microsoft brochures display women cavorting in various outdoorsy scenarios, implying a dubiously even male-female ratio, even though interviews with Microsoft employees suggest otherwise. Tripod (www.tripod.com), an exponentially growing Web community and a booming company in its own right, released Tripod's Tools for Life, a tome geared toward the "Net-savvy do-it-yourselfer who wants to successfully navigate the worlds of work and life, and do so not without a little style." The advice topics range from home brewing to kitchen basics to marijuana to, finally and somewhat ominously, "How to Find a Therapist." Trilogy Software, another industry player, in the words of Procter & Gamble intern and corporate courtship survivor Shahaf Abileah, "works hard and plays hard," goes heavy on gifts, and even occasionally raffles off trips to Hawaii.

These attempts at wooing potential employees may fall on deaf ears. The vast majority of students interviewed for this article treat the demographic pandering with not much more than a flattered smirk, citing interesting work and good pay as decisive factors. As for Adelman, Chicago's deep-dish specialty didn't sway him. After a couple seasons of extensive industry courting, he opted for grad school. Hossein Afkhami, a New York–area electrical engineering grad who cracks up at the very notion of "the dating scene at Microsoft," hastens to add he would "take a free trip to a restaurant, alcohol on the host." The host—a visiting recruiter, the company's human avatar—is getting a bit of a makeover as well. Black-tie conversations over fancy meals used to prevail. Now, as Abileah relates, "They bring a bunch of students [to a bar] and take up an open tab with the bartender. Needless to say, students get appropriately sloshed."

 
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