Revenge of the Nerds: Tech Firms Scour College Campuses for Talent

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On college campuses these days, the top nerds are getting a taste of what it’s like to be star jocks.

For Maxwell Hawkins, a computer science and art major at Carnegie Mellon University, the moment came in March. A technology recruiting firm sent him a letter by FedEx urging him to drop out of his junior year and take his talents to work for a start-up.

The technology boom has created an acute shortage of engineers and software developers. The industry has responded by taking a page from the playbook of professional sports: identify up and comers early, then roll out the red carpet to lock them up.

With the social media frenzy in full swing, promising students are now wrestling with decisions about whether to stay in school or turn pro. Meanwhile, those who stay on campus are enjoying a bonanza of free food and other goodies as companies rush to win their hearts and minds.

“It is pretty good for my ego, frankly,” said Mr. Hawkins, who decided to stay in school and take an internship offer from YouTube this summer.

Starting salaries at leading companies for average computer science grads from top schools range from $75,000 to $100,000, plus signing and relocation bonuses worth $5,000 to $15,000, according to venture capitalists and recruiters. New hires may also get small equity grants, with stars getting additional cash bonuses or larger grants worth as much as 1% of the company.

Facebook’s disappointing public offering demonstrated that the start-up tech market may not be quite as lucrative as everyone believed. But many students say they think the risks are still worth taking, given the huge potential upside.

Big companies aren’t the only ones wooing students. Peter Thiel, a billionaire Facebook investor, recently started a fellowship program offering 20 students $100,000 over two years to skip college and work on world-changing projects.

Tiny start-ups are ramping up their recruiting efforts, too, though it is far from a fair fight.

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