Tech startups to Yale grads: Go to a real school

Hot tech companies are scrambling for smart grads from top schools, but one Ivy League university has fallen far behind the hiring curve

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I recently received an email from a fresh-faced Ivy League grad asking me to mentor him in the wild, wooly world of tech startups. I decided to take him up on it because he offered to meet me at MacDougal’s and buy the scotch. Also, I wanted the mentoring tax credit (which I later learned was entirely a figment of my bartender’s imagination).

When I arrived at the appointed time, I had to step over a tattered homeless man huddled on the front stoop. He made a grab for my pant leg, but I easily kicked myself free, as the prospect of free booze always strengthens my extremities. But aside from the usual assortment of 2 p.m. barflies -- a couple of successful tech VCs, Lenovo’s PR chief, and Evan Spiegel’s wet nurse -- the place was empty. I went back outside and tripped over the homeless guy again. I was about to threaten him with Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) gray wolves, but he managed to weakly blurt out, “It’s me, Mr. Cringely. I’m the one you’re here to meet.”

He looked like an anorexic meerkat and smelled like a corpse wagon, but I’m a journalist and free scotch is free scotch. I heaved him inside and snagged us a booth downwind of a ceiling fan. He had a fresh head wound and was near dead from exposure, but his credit card cleared. I fortified him with beer and chips and got him talking.

I couldn’t understand it. How could a recent Ivy League graduate with a comp sci major fall to such dire depths in less than a year? He had to say only one word: Yale.

Abandon all hope ye who go to Yale

The poor spud muffin got suckered into studying computer science in New Haven, then tried to dance with the big names in Silicon Valley. I was amazed they hadn’t eaten him outright. All his stories ended the same way: Invitations to employment fairs, career roundtables, and informational interviews going swimmingly until hiring managers with degrees from MIT, Princeton, or Stanford sucker-punch him over latte, steal his cash, and leave him bleeding in an alley.

He’d gone to Yale because it was his sister’s alma mater and she’d done well with her humanities degree, rocketing to assistant senior barista at the Rosedale Galleria Starbucks in less than four years. When he saw that, “I knew Yale could do the same for me,” he declared. He was wrong -- Yale sold him a bad bill of goods.

See, few outside the tech industry know that Yale’s learned faculty are world-class when it comes to teaching yesterday’s knowledge, like English literature, philosophy, law, or medicine. But a comp sci department head once argued against teaching Ruby on Rails because he didn’t feel public transportation was a good learning environment.

The numbers game

Yale hasn’t invested in practical computer science and the school is crumbling because of it. It consistently ranks 20th among the nation’s top computer science doctorate programs in U.S. News & World Report, it hasn’t cracked the 40th spot in comp sci funding in more than 10 years, and its graduates are widely said to be incapable of building anything more technical than hot oatmeal.

Since the kid’s credit card still worked, I knew I had to help. I charged us bar car rail tickets into Manhattan, and we proceeded to make the rounds. I coached, I cheered, in the end I stuck a microphone in his ear and even told him what to say, but none of it did any good.

Microsoft’s HR rep scanned his resume and asked if he’d considered a career in Tupperware. Google’s hiring managers giggled, whispered among themselves, and told him to wait outside and they’d be sure to call him in real soon. If I hadn’t broke the news to him, he’d have been there all night. I thought we caught a break when Marissa Meyer agreed to see us on her way through New York (she owes me a favor after I discreetly disposed of a dead sheep carcass for her in Vegas back in 2004), but it turned out she only wanted to play-test the new party game she invented, called Who Knows Most About Marissa Meyer. She won.

Incensed, I decided to see if the kid’s credit card would get us to New Haven. It did. Someone at Yale owed him an apology -- or at least something useful, like a really good recommendation to Stanford. It took us a while to find the Arthur K. Watson computer science building -- the place looks a lot like a prison halfway house with a cracked neon abacus blinking over the door. Once inside, however, we had little trouble seeing the current head of the department, Joan Feigenbaum. I opened my mouth to ask about Yale’s future plans for its computer science program, but she recognized the kid and immediately slammed the door in our faces, screaming “No refunds!”

The last word

The boy’s credit card was maxed out by then, so I knew our time was over. I felt bad for the tyke, so I gave him the best advice I could.

“Forget tech,” I told him gently. “Go into journalism.”

He wept openly, out of relief no doubt. He finally had a direction in life and a shining example of all the success he might achieve standing right in front of him, swaying only slightly in drink-stained 10-year-old denim. I knew then that I’d earned my scotches, so I left him sitting there on the stoop of the Arthur K. Watson building, his Yale diploma in one hand and his “Plez halpa mee!” sign in the other.

To the administrators at Yale: I’m not asking you to drop the graduate seminar on 18th-century Southern Bangladeshi comparative lit, but with a $23.9 billion endowment, why don’t you give the kids a break and teach a scripting class already?