Cracking the Code

Am I Google material? Can I make the leap from Swarthmore to Silicon Valley? Have the liberal arts prepared me to hack it, so to speak, in tech?

These questions can roil even the savviest of Swatties. Some may have a sense of what it takes to thrive in tech and strike a work-life balance in the Bay Area, whether from pop culture depictions or conversations with recruiters. But there’s really only one way to know.

Enter Swarthmore’s Center for Innovation and Leadership (CIL) which, with generous gifts from two members of the alumni community, brought 11 students to Silicon Valley over winter break for a week of experiential learning. Guided by alumni hosts, the students went behind the walls of tech giants to crack the code of a life in tech.

“It’s one thing to hear about how dynamic those companies are, how exciting their cultures can be, but once you actually see it, you believe,” says Jimmy Shah ’18, a physics major from West Berlin, N.J., who returned from the trip intending to add a computer science major.

“I found it absolutely inspiring to speak to alumni who have used their skills and technology to not only be amazing parts of both their own businesses and the businesses they work for, but also to their dedication to social responsibility,” adds Lindsey Norward ’18, of Wyncote, Pa., who will pursue a humanities major. “From Saleforce's commitment to charity, to Facebook's awareness of gender ratios, it was very clear that they were committed to not simply their technological background but also to a better world.”

Students with President Smith, Dean Braun, and Katie Clark
CIL Coordinator Katie Clark and Dean of Students Liz Braun at Google headquarters. 

The students visited six companies throughout the Valley. They heard from “a constellation of voices,” from the CEO of Box to recent hires of the companies, says Evan Wittenberg ’91, senior vice president and chief people officer at Box. They bonded with dozens of Swarthmore alumni, among them many liberal arts majors, and picked their brains.

“Many were extremely honest and open in their answers, especially with difficult questions such as work-life balance and diversity in the workplace, which was much appreciated,” says Peiwen Zhang ’18, an economics and math major from Wuhan City, China.

The alumni hosts included Walter Luh '99, who leads key infrastructure initiatives at Facebook, and Miles Skorpen '09, a senior product manager at OpenTable, who also hosted Swarthmore students through the Extern Program administered by Career Services. They and their colleagues also offered insights on what to look for in a first job. While it’s understandable for students to hold out for that perfect internship, the ultimate opportunity with The Next Big Thing, it helps to keep an open mind.

“I firmly believe that Swatties can get whatever type of job they want, though they may need to take a circuitous path to get there,” says Gil Jones ’01, who majored in computer science at Swarthmore and is a senior software engineer at Google. “Careers these days have many twists and turns. The trick is finding a reasonable first step, not the perfect job you’ll have forever.”

“Coming from a liberal arts college, sometimes that first job may be a little harder to find,” adds David Pope ’89, who majored in engineering and psychology at Swarthmore and is an imaging architect at Apple. “But they can be found, and then the advantages of the liberal arts education should become apparent.”

Throughout the week, several alumni told students that the skills they developed at Swarthmore helped them overcome any technical prowess they may have lacked early in their careers.

Katie Clark and Liz Braun
The group poses for a photo with President Valerie Smith before the alumni reception.

“Their skills in communication and problem solving allowed them to teach themselves what they needed to know and to think about projects in a more holistic way,” says CIL Coordinator Katie Clark.

That balance of soft and hard skills is what sets Swarthmore graduates apart in the workforce, says Cathy Polinsky ’99, who studied computer science at Swarthmore and got her first glimpse of the tech industry through an internship with alumni.

“To be a successful software engineer or entrepreneur, you not only need to speak code but you must be able to understand the industry, language, and customers for the products that you are building,” says Polinsky, who is a vice president of engineering at Salesforce. “Swarthmore students who study computer science tend to also have many other passions and interests. They bring these interdisciplinary interests and learnings with them wherever they go and can apply the same approach to learning and solving complex problems in any space.”

Even within Silicon Valley, the spaces vary greatly — from company size to office environment to location (e.g., San Francisco or Mountain View). The students’ impressions will have a lasting impact.

“I always thought I wanted to work for a big company, but now I think I want something smaller, more close-knit, preferably within a city,” says Mercer Borris ’16, an engineering major from New York, N.Y.

Adds Yang Yi ’17, an Honors economics and computer science major from Short Hill, N.J: “After this trip, I am definitely factoring culture and fit significantly more into my decision calculus.”

A student explores Google's mapping technology
Leon Chen '18 in front of the advanced Google Maps system (on which the students found Swarthmore immediately).

The culture of the group itself was one of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Students with science backgrounds (neuro-, political, and computer) exchanged perspectives on car rides and over meals, including a brainstorming session on how they could all work together to launch a startup.

They forged connections with Bay Area alumni, too, at a reception with President Valerie Smith that capped the trip. The strength of the Swarthmore community resonated for Mayank Agrawal ’18, a math and computer science major from Sugar Land, Tex.

“I never realized how there were that many Swarthmore alums willing to help students and graduates in any way possible,” he says.

Looking back on the trip, the group of students and staff say it exceeded their high expectations. Their experiences also affirmed the value of the CIL.

“Through this trip, we were able to incorporate so many things that are at the core of the mission of the CIL,” says Dean of Students Liz Braun, “namely leadership development, cultivating student and alumni connections, and inspiring students to engage with their entrepreneurial and creative spirit.”

Several alumni told the Swatties that they wish there was a CIL when they were at Swarthmore.

“This is a place where students can spend some time practically applying what they’re learning  in literature or psychology and explore these practical real-world questions about themselves,” says Wittenberg, who majored in psychology and English literature at Swarthmore.

“What motivates me, who am I, what’s the journey I want to embark on? If you think about those things in advance, you have a better shot at getting to where you want to go and not ending up on someone else’s journey.”