What is the draw of working at a “big tech” company like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, or Google — often clumped into the acronyms FANG or FAAMG — anyways? What is the appeal, and why is Amazon the single largest employer of Illinois Tech students in the last five years? And why do some new employees find that life working in tech on the west coast isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be?
A great deal of the draw to these jobs, plainly put, comes down to money and perceived prestige. This aspect is not unique to Illinois Tech students. Purely discussing salary, on average, Illinois Tech students who find gainful employment after graduation have an average yearly salary between $60,000 and $64,000. Incoming Google software engineers can make as much as $150,000 at their headquarters in Mountain View, California — over twice the Illinois Tech average. Even if a student can find gainful employment in the Chicago tech sector, somebody on the west coast could be making twice as much as them for the same job. It’s difficult to not let those numbers get to job searchers’ heads.
However, the quality of life of Chicago and Silicon Valley tech employees is not very different after all. Despite the more than doubled salary, rent in San Francisco compensates by also costing twice as much, along with utilities, internet costs, groceries, and other expenses. After all the expenses add up, $150,000 in San Francisco, CA converts to a much more modest but still incredibly handsome salary of $90,000.
In my research for this piece, I got sucked into something of a YouTube rabbit hole of debates between tech workers (and former tech workers) about whether or not the salary and prestige of working for Google or Amazon makes relocating or chasing after them specifically worth it. In particular, some former employees cited the hangups of the incredibly corporate work environment. The hours are long and both the management and the work itself often feels disconnected from what beginner employees signed up to do — paperwork, meetings, and debugging a senior employee’s code as compared to making the world’s most used search engines, operating systems, and shopping websites run faster or more efficiently. Still, that potential prestige of later being promoted to one of those senior employees writing the code that millions of people use every day is enough to have college grads — Illinois Tech included — flocking to Silicon Valley.
In an interview with Career Services Director of Operations BJ Engelhardt, he shared a list of companies with the most full-time post-graduation hires of Illinois Tech students. Among all majors combined, Amazon (formally Amazon.com Inc.) is the top employer of Illinois Tech graduates in the last five years, coming before Google in seventh place. Every semester when helping to organize the Illinois Tech career fair, Engelhardt sends out a brief questionnaire on which companies students want to see in attendance. Consistently, Engelhardt recalled that Amazon and Google “show up very high on that list.”
Though not a factor unique to Illinois Tech, Engelhardt discussed the immense draw these companies have towards younger folks raised on the internet. If you see Amazon advertisements on your Facebook web page on a computer running on a Microsoft operating system all day every day, it almost works as its own form of marketing for potential employees when these firms are almost ubiquitous with the modern student lifestyle. Or, in Engelhardt’s words, there is a “natural gravitational pull to those big name companies that everybody is already using in their personal lives.”
Despite being “personally … dedicated to the midwest and Chicago,” Engelhardt also noted the unique pull employment of California has, as San Francisco has not had multiple feet of snow in the last week.
When discussing the pros and cons of Silicon Valley employment for Illinois Tech students, Engelhardt repeated many of the talking points from both sides of the YouTube tech employee discussion mentioned earlier, though he made a unique point discussing the unique “leverage” these incredibly desirable companies have over their employees. From the perspective of a recently hired employee, if there are mile-long queues of qualified graduates who want your job, there are certain pressures to not complain about long hours or getting stuck with a particularly bad project if you know you are absolutely expendable. “If you don’t live up to the expectation, they can definitely find somebody else,” Engelhardt commented.
In reaction to some of these conditions, in early 2021 news broke of workers’ union movements at Google. This story is still developing.
Engelhardt took some time towards the end of the interview to discuss alternatives to working at these west coast tech campuses. He noted that these companies have a wide network of sister businesses and tech partners they work with to build their different platforms, and how many of these companies have satellite campuses in Chicago and other cities. There exists a development supply chain much wider than just five companies out west, and many of the connected smaller firms are a great way to get your “foot in the door,” according to Engelhardt. These firms may be smaller, but they give potential employees much more room to work and more engaging professional projects and research. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t ace an Amazon software engineering interview.
Engelhardt concluded the interview by taking a chance to explicitly mention how the school’s focus on its IPRO programs and entrepreneurship make its students especially attractive to tech employers in general.
There is also a unique approach some new employees take to working at large tech firms as something to do just for career advancements — while building up some savings — before moving on to a project that might be more in line with what they truly want to do. This could be moving on to a more senior programming position at a different company — where they might have more leadership responsibilities or more rewarding projects — or even starting their own company with their savings. There are also more substantial reasons why an employee might quit their jobs at Facebook, Google, or other firms outside of career development. This includes more substantial ethical issues about diversity and inclusion in tech, disinformation on the internet, or how “the algorithm” is shaping millions of lives without them even realizing it. With luck, more on this is coming in the second part of a short on employment and ethics in tech.