The Strange Rituals of Silicon Valley Intern Recruiting

A Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

A Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Jeff Chiu/AP File Photo

At the University of California, Berkeley, the on-campus presentation means free t-shirts, free food and lots of stories about meditation and disco balls.

The Wozniak Lounge, located on the northern side of campus at the University of California, Berkeley, looks like it was decorated by engineers, to the extent that one could say it’s decorated at all. The room’s sole testament to its namesake—a small collage with images of the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, old Apple computers, and a retired Apple logo—hangs on a wall at the back, but otherwise the room is plain. The lounge sits at the farthest end of Soda Hall, the home of Berkeley’s Computer Science department, and one of the few buildings on campus that contains both classrooms and shower facilities.

Throughout the academic year, the Wozniak hosts the tech companies who come to Berkeley hoping to recruit computer-science and engineering students for internships and post-graduate programs. The attendee count at these events typically numbers well into the hundreds—computer science is now the most popular major at Berkeley, which has an undergraduate population of around 27,000 students. An introductory computer-science course, CS61A, had 1,277 students enrolled last semester, all of them encouraged by the department to watch the lectures online rather than physically attending (no lecture hall on campus has the capacity).

Attend enough recruitment events in the Wozniak Lounge and certain patterns began to emerge. The food—typically heavily advertised, a sure draw for college students looking for a free meal—is almost always served at the event’s end, to make sure that people stay for the full presentation (Google was one notable exception to this rule).

There’s also an unofficial dress code of sorts. Many students arrive sporting t-shirts bearing the logos of other tech companies; at one of the first recruitment sessions this year, the lounge was filled with people sporting Dropbox, Intel, LinkedIn, and PaymentWall shirts, filing in with backpacks and energy drinks in hand.

Students typically get the shirts in one of two ways: Some receive them as interns, while others nab theirs from the promotional giveaway piles that lie near the food after most of the talks. After a few minutes in any café on campus, it’s possible to figure out from the ubiquity of the shirts which companies have a more relaxed freebie policy (A9, Stripe) and which tend to be more selective (Twitter, Quora).

AirBnB’s visit to the Wozniak comes on a hot Thursday in late August, just a few days after the start of the fall semester. Twenty minutes before the event was due to begin, a large group is already lined up behind an open MacBook Air on a table at the front of the room, waiting to fill in their names and email addresses on a spreadsheet. No one explains the purpose of this line, but I instinctively step in anyway, waiting around 15 minutes to reach the front. Once I type my information onto the MacBook screen, I ask if an empty seat on the front row is taken, and am told confidently by a panelist that it’s “all me.” A few minutes later, I’m asked to move.

Six rows of eight chairs have been set up for the talk, although at least five times as many people are in attendance, many of them speculating about what the food might be as they wait for the presentation to start. Next to me, one student turns to his friend: “I’m only here for the resume drops.”

He’s referring to the moment at the end of the event when students will surge forward, resumes extended, to pitch themselves to recruiters in as many seconds as they can secure. The phenomenon is so well known among EECS kids (students from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, Berkeley’s largest) that when a recruiter at the start of one session encouraged students to “stick around after for a chance to chat with us one-on-one,” laughter rippled through the room.

Next, they typically launch into a “growth history” explaining the company’s expansion. At the AirBnB talk, we learn that the service is currently operating in 34,000 cities and was one of the first American companies to expand to Cuba after relations between the two countries were restored in July.

The presentations also have a tendency to emphasize a company’s newness, in spirit if not in actual years. Seemingly keen to avoid coming off as a legacy organization, AirBnB tells us that each of its departments functions as a “startup within a startup.” Later in the month, a Google recruiter will assure the students crammed into Wozniak that each of them could be the “mini-CEO of your product … responsible for the experience of billions of users.”

A few weeks later, an engineer from Amazon’s CloudFront team will tell the room that “we definitely get to disrupt an industry.” The Amazon presentation will conclude with two quotes from founder Jeff Bezos: “In the end, we are our choices,” and “It’s still day one for us.” (Amazon launched more than 20 years ago.)

Such sweeping rhetoric is common at these sessions, as is an emphasis on the quirkiness of a company’s culture—sometimes both at once. We learn from the AirBnB team that weekly meditation classes in the office can help us “master the feeling of being able to bring your full self to work every day.”

One panelist, who begins by noting that he’s worked at “all the major San Francisco tech companies,” tells us that “AirBnB engineers don’t act like engineers at other companies”—and how could they, when one staff member is a “dude who won the U.S. National Scrabble Championship” and another is “currently speed skating in Salt Lake City?” We also hear about the company’s “search bar,” the area where the Search team stores its alcohol, and the “nerd cave,” a social space decorated by AirBnB’s engineers, complete with a disco ball.

On Monday of the following week, Facebook makes the trip up from the South Bay. This time, students head to the Sibley Auditorium, a larger venue not far from the Wozniak. Sibley was built to hold 227 people, but even the space upgrade isn’t enough to accommodate the hundreds of people who show up. Crowds spill out of the theatre and into its surrounding corridors while excited members of Facebook’s WhatsApp and Oculus teams photograph the mania from the front of the room.

Facebook’s pitch begins with a video promoting its internship program, the footage full of young people falling into blue-and-white ball pits. Once the video ends, we’re told that earlier that day, Facebook celebrated its first time being accessed by a billion people in a single day.

This, the recruiter says, is “why we need you.” More platitudes are sprinkled throughout the presentation: We learn that the company’s core belief is that “the riskiest thing to do is to not take any risks at all,” and that Facebook thinks of itself as being “just as much a people company as a tech company.”

These sessions are the easy part. Once a presentation is over, students who want to apply for one of these lucrative positions (internships at some tech companies pay upwards of $7,000 per month, plus a rent stipend) will typically need to make it past a phone interview, an onsite meeting with a hiring committee, and, in some cases, a final essay. They’ll need to field questions like “How much money is spent on the Internet?” (Facebook) and “How would you design an alarm clock for the blind?” (Google).

For the most part, the presentations, with their cheery slideshows and stories of meditation and disco balls, betray little of the grueling road ahead. When each one is over—and the food has been eaten and the t-shirts have been scooped up and the resumes dropped—students will head back to their dorms, already thinking about the next one.