This is not what a Stanford education is supposed to look like, I remember thinking. It was only my third week at the university when my entire freshman dorm had marched off to the annual Fall Career Fair held in White Plaza. I wandered through its rows aimlessly, unsure of what I, without a single grade on my transcript, was meant to offer the nicely dressed recruiters, who were eagerly waiting for me behind their well-decorated booths. The thought of my summer internship or first job had barely crossed my mind; for me, school had just barely begun.
Not so for my cohort, many of whom had dutifully printed out their resumés, changed into formal attire, shined shoes and spent their day waiting in hour-long lines for a few moments’ chance to wax pre-professional with a potential employer.
Somehow, in the ensuing comparisons of perks and presents that my freshman friends had scavenged off of WikiHow or Surveymonkey, it felt as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over whatever idealistic vision I had of Stanford being a sunny paradise of mini-geniuses conspiring to change the world. It was no doubt the same day that many of those who’d bothered to shine their shoes began seriously considering the consequences of pouring a bucket of cold water over their prior ambitions in favor of the more practical and comfortable career pursuits offered by representatives of Insert-Tech-Company-Name-Here.
Much more so than New Student Orientation, which encourages community-building conversations about identity and background, the Fall Career Fair offers a head-first plunge into the corporate realities that often dominate the Stanford college experience. It quickly becomes apparent that Stanford is as much a bastion of academic thought as it is a pipeline, designed to channel a wide array of talented students into a few select and established career paths.
Just as East Coast schools feed students into the pipeline of management consulting, Stanford has cultivated a similarly attractive and stable path for its students in the field of software engineering. With the right summer internships and the right degree upon graduation, nearly one out of every five students at Stanford awaits a six-figure starting salary, with a small yet chic rental apartment next to their Disneyland-themed workplace where they will spend their 9-to-5 getting the shading just right on Instagram’s photo filters.
Though this rather quaint end to a sunny four years at Camp Stanford may seem like a fairytale ending to some, it is actually at the heart of an increasingly corrosive trend — the rise of complacency at Stanford.
Despite all the ambition, demonstrated talent and vision it requires to be admitted to a school like ours, once beyond its gates, most students will find themselves dreaming of a time when they will finally be employed at the Silicon Valley company of their choice, drinking beer and swinging in a hammock while working — hardly the best use of the talent demanded of them upon entry.
The lukewarm career ambitions of students at Stanford merely reflect the slowing ambitions of companies in the Bay Area, many of whom have reached a decisive plateau in their growth and level of innovation. Those entering Stanford now are not entering a campus surrounded by companies making breakthrough discoveries or revolutionizing our lives with the use of technology. By and large, the disruption is in the rearview mirror, as local titans like Google, Facebook and Apple concentrate their efforts merely on maintaining their hold over respective markets.
For all the surplus funds these Big Three hold, little in the way of profound innovation is being achieved. Of Google’s many off-shoot enterprises, those like Google Music have surrendered their place to more successful endeavors like Spotify. Though Facebook announced intentions of servicing the world’s Internet needs through its project Internet.org, the company has increasingly scaled down these ambitions, and suffered rumors that the entire operation has halted. Lastly, we might look to Apple, whose long reign as Silicon Valley’s most valuable company has seemingly prevented it from continuing to create groundbreaking products, instead, relegating itself to releasing remakes of past successes.
The squandering of abilities in this less-than-admirable fashion is, in many ways, an analogy for the predicament of the average Stanford student today. It is increasingly these qualities of stability and comfort that our proximity to Silicon Valley bestows on us, rather than a desire to innovate or change the world.
A quick look at Stanford’s Computer Forum betrays a similar trend. The organization was established in the 1960s to help industry specialists stay abreast of academic research through an annual meeting, and perhaps even incorporate findings into their own products, all for the modest cost of a yearly membership fee. Today, however, Computer Forum members are more interested in the department’s students than they are its academic findings. The research insights are a side benefit to the main opportunity the Forum now offers — a chance to present a booth at the Computer Science department’s Career Fair.
On one hand, Stanford’s tight connection to software firms in Silicon Valley is a great accomplishment.
As a result, most Stanford students graduate with an offer of employment, particularly those finishing with a degree in computer science. For students from low-income backgrounds, this is a blessing; it can provide socioeconomic mobility for the student’s entire family. It’s no joke that the healthcare coverage, 401(k) packages and parental leave policies at the Big Three go above and beyond the offerings at most other employers.
Indeed, for the individual grad who struggles with a staggering college debt and Bay Area living costs, accepting any job that pays well and has decent benefits is certainly a step up from the alternative. It is, on the other hand, when these individually beneficial choices aggregate, that something crucial is damaged in the intellectual foundation of this university.
Presently, there is at Stanford a noticeably growing flirtation with materialism. It takes no more than a quick stroll through the Engineering Quad to pick out the corporate tech workers, with their Google backpacks and Facebook-embroidered Patagonia sweaters, twin Apple AirPods tucked smartly into their ears. Without employers that espouse clear principles and offer a concrete direction in the impact they want to have, students fall to revering the mere status of the companies themselves — along with the corporate perks like free business travel to exotic locales, on-site laundry and free gourmet cafeterias — that they offer. With destructive consequences for intellectualism, young professionals prioritize wealth for its own sake.
Second, and perhaps as pertains uniquely to Silicon Valley, there is a decline in the perceived free speech students exercise. Students prioritize their summer internship placements more heavily than they do their campus involvement. Most will hesitate before putting their name on something that can be read as critical of well-known technology companies, for fear that this might decrease their chances at working there. However, it is not just critical takes that are silenced — the level of engagement with campus publications has suffered due to the risks that an intellectually adventurous piece might have on employability.
Lastly, the easy availability of safe jobs at large established technology companies, has the adverse effect of creating a brain drain on other occupations that could benefit from an influx of young talent. How many future neurosurgeons, constitutional lawyers and journalists will we lose to software engineering positions that focus on targeted advertising at Google or Facebook?
This is not to say that all jobs at large tech corporations are bad. There are plenty of opportunities at companies like Alphabet’s X, which is attempting to better the world with endeavors like Project Loon, aiming to bring remote communities online through an aerial wireless network of high-altitude balloons. Software engineers are pushing the bounds of the possible at companies like SpaceX and Tesla, companies attempting to redefine humanity’s sense of distance and energy usage, respectively.
It is entirely within the power of Stanford students to be more selective and critical when it comes to crafting their career ambitions. After all, it’s one thing to hold off on ambitions while you get your foot in the door, but quite another to stay there making Kim Kardashian face filters for your entire working career.
The excitement over immediate employment and material benefits masks the incipient conformism that tempts students to abandon the struggle to achieve something difficult and great, and instead opt for a path of least resistance, leading to a lucrative career that offers little in the way of innovation or impact.
It is an impossible ask to expect all students to change the world, and this is certainly not the complaint presented here. Rather, at the present time, the rewards of conformism are so great, that there is little incentive for bright students to ask for more.
It is a near certainty that software engineers and computer scientists will be the individuals taking humanity’s most important steps forward, but something tells me this type of work will not be done from the comfort of a hammock, beer in hand. Silicon Valley has built itself a bed of complacency, and Stanford students are chief among those lying in it. It’s time to harken back to the culture of innovation that characterized the early days in the Valley, when today’s major tech giants were mere clusters of basement and dorm-room engineers with a singular choice to make for their companies: innovate, or die.
Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.