Those looking for work in the hot field of software engineering need more than a degree and aptitude to find the best jobs.
"There's incredible demand, but employers are still very picky," said John Arany, an assistant director of career services at Cal State Northridge who specializes in computer science jobs.
"They want very specific languages and systems and software. The hot languages now include C, C++, Java and HTML," Arany explained. "The Unix operating system is very popular. And they look for work experience. That's why we push internships, part-time work and co-ops."
Because there are literally hundreds of computer languages, Arany suggests that aspiring software engineers develop a broad base of knowledge, then target the industry they want to work in.
What's in demand doesn't vary as much from region to region as it does from industry to industry. Entertainment industry recruiters want to see expertise and experience in graphics and animation software. DreamWorks SKG, for instance, is recruiting computer engineers for software development in animation projects.
Meanwhile, financial-services firms want software engineers who know Java but also have a firm grounding in business.
At Merrill Lynch & Co., recruiters say they are less concerned with specific languages--which change rapidly as technology moves forward--and more focused on applicants with analytical, problem-solving and leadership ability.
Andy Goodman, the New York-based director of human resources for the firm's technology group, said that in addition to everything else, he looks for candidates who understand business and economics.
"The more interdisciplinary the background, the better," Goodman said. "One of the keys for us right now is the ability to understand both business and technical issues and how technology enables that business to occur."
Those likely to land good jobs must also demonstrate that they are team players. At Litton Guidance and Control Systems in Northridge, applicants are asked questions aimed at gauging their behavioral skills.
"This industry works in a team environment, so we ask them how they function in a team, what role they play, how they dealt with other students who were problems on the team," said Denise Miller, college relations representative at Litton. "We look for good communicators."
And while it may be difficult to find time in strenuous schedules for outside activities, recruiters and graduates say it pays off. Miller, for instance, wants to know if candidates were leaders in academic or outside clubs, belonged to organizations in which they had to give presentations or even if they were Eagle Scouts.
Consider Anna Berlin, 24, a newly minted software engineer who makes "in the mid-40s" at the Rocketdyne division of Boeing Corp. in Canoga Park. At Cal State Northridge, where she received her bachelor's degree last year, Berlin joined a club for computer science majors called the Assn. for Computing Machinery, where she worked her way up from treasurer to president.
Berlin said the club, which hosted regular speakers, helped keep students abreast of industry trends and was invaluable for networking. She also began cultivating professional contacts more than a year before she graduated.
"I met my current manager at a business-card exchange, and that helped me be at the right place at the right time when a job opened up," Berlin recalled.
Experts say software engineers should also look for jobs online. High-tech firms were among the first to discover the potential of online recruiting. Apple Computer has trolled the Internet for years and even found vice presidents online. Seal Beach-based Rockwell International Corp. uses the Net to recruit engineers and technical support staff.
Online recruiting is also attractive to small or start-up firms that need software engineers but don't want to pay the high fees charged by traditional headhunters. At E-Span, a well-known job bank, "engineer" and "computer" are respectively the fifth and sixth most frequently searched words, the company said.
There are hundreds of job banks. Some of the better known include CareerMosaic, CareerWeb, MonsterBoard, Jobtrak, Online Career Center and Virtual Job Fair. Many help write resumes and calculate salaries and provide information about relocation, upcoming trade shows and job fairs. Some even give detailed information about companies, allowing users to research potential employers and target their resumes.
The market is so hot right now that many new graduates receive multiple offers, college officials say. Likewise, it's not unusual for top applicants to get signing bonuses of up to $5,000, although experts caution that you should wait for the employer to bring up the topic. Merrill Lynch and Litton both offer signing bonuses.