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Bidding War Erupts for Young Programmers

BUILDING THE NEW ECONOMY. Betting on Technology and Knowledge. Third in a series.


PALO ALTO — For many newly minted college graduates, job hunting is a lesson in humility. For 21-year-old Vik Gupta, it was just the reverse.

With a double major in economics and computer science, the Stanford University senior not only had four solid job offers long before graduation day, he was even the object of a bidding war among software companies that were desperate for his services.

Gupta opted for a $47,000-a-year post at database powerhouse Oracle Corp., where the perks include a swank fitness center with an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool and company-subsidized cafeterias featuring the trendiest in trattoria and Japanese noodle-bar fare.

"I probably low-balled myself a little bit, but I didn't want to go over $50,000 because then I would start the job with a lot of weird pressure," he said. "I had friends who got more than $50,000. You can pretty much make whatever you want to these days."

Through a combination of good planning and good fortune, Gupta and his Stanford computer science classmates this year were perfectly positioned to capitalize on the opportunities being created by the information economy.

Good jobs are being created in many high-tech fields, and nowhere is the demand for skilled workers so great and the supply so small as in software engineering.

"Software programmers are the rock stars of the '90s," says Pavam Nigam, vice president of engineering at a hot new Internet company called Healtheon.

Indeed, top-shelf computer science majors across the country are the clearest beneficiaries of a new economy that is increasingly based on brainpower, technical knowledge and innovation.

Among the most sought-after graduates in the Class of 1996, they wear their grade-point averages on their sleeves and are the targets of intense corporate recruiting battles. Often denigrated as nerds just 10 years ago, this emerging elite now commands as much money in their first jobs as do 25-year veterans on Detroit's assembly lines.

This doesn't apply to anyone who writes software, of course. The incredible pace of change in the computer industry means that the programming skills that were invaluable yesterday can be all but useless today. But those who are expert in the state-of-the-art database programming, computer networking and multimedia product development can often write their own tickets.

The bidding war is at its most intense in the Silicon Valley. Unemployment in Santa Clara County, the heart of the valley, was 3.7% in June, compared with 5.5% nationally and 7.2% statewide. Software-related jobs accounted for 90% of the 8,900 jobs added in Santa Clara County last year, an increase of about 25% from 1994.

"I've been working in the valley for more than 20 years and I've never seen it so hot," says Jerry Held, a product development chief at Oracle. The number of programmers on his staff has more than doubled in 2 1/2 years, and this year he hopes to add an additional 800 to 900 to a software development team that's already about 3,200 strong.

And Stanford, which boasts one of the top computer science schools in the country and has incubated some of the computer industry's leading companies, is perhaps the most popular of all high-tech hunting grounds.

Many industry executives who are Stanford alums take great pains to maintain strong ties with the university, using donations of money and equipment to curry favor with the faculty members who can steer the best students in their direction.

Companies without special ties to the university can still pay $5,000 to $15,000 to be a part of the online job listing service run by Stanford's Computer Forum. Qualified students find a smorgasbord of possibilities there, with scores of job offerings from big, established firms like Oracle, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, as well as a host of small companies and start-ups.

A recent posting from Sun, a vendor of powerful computer "servers," reads like a real estate brochure: "Sun's new campus . . . includes a fitness center, a cafeteria, a Starbucks coffeehouse, and a deli/bistro."

And a posting from Starfish Software trumpeted: "Reap the rewards as Starfish grows and prospers (we're still private!)."

Carolyn Tajnai, assistant chairwoman of Stanford's computer science department, says she can forecast the computer industry's economic growth by the number and quality of job listings on the forum. Although it's difficult to pinpoint, Tajnai figures that several hundred job openings have been posted during the last academic year.

"Salaries are going up again," Tajnai says. "The jobs for students with bachelor's degrees usually list in the high 40s; for master's it's in the high 50s and for PhDs it's anywhere from $60,000 to $90,000."

For risk-takers, start-ups typically offer salaries several thousand dollars below those of more established companies, but they offer the possibility of making a quick fortune via stock options.

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