About a month ago, I flew out to San Jose, California for an interview with Google. The trip wasn’t exactly planned; I applied to Google for an internship in 2010, and they used the contact info that they had in their system to call me up out of the blue. What recently-graduated computer science student wouldn’t try to take up an offer from arguably the most well-known software company in the world?
To make a long story short, I didn’t get the job, but the whole experience made me question my decision to live in Chicago. I first moved out here from my hometown in Minnesota four years ago to attend DePaul University as an undergrad, for several reasons. First, I love big cities, and the idea of living in Chicago, the largest city in the Midwest by a substantial margin, fascinated me. Second, of the schools I visited, DePaul’s computer school impressed me the most. Granted, I had no clue what to look for in colleges and didn’t visit very many, but even today I feel like I made a good decision. Third, Chicago was far enough from home that I could experience the famed independent college student lifestyle, but close enough that I could still visit regularly. Fourth, the urban setting in Chicago would mean less money spent on transportation (U-Passes are amazing things) and more job opportunities upon graduating.
Needless to say, the pros were adding up quickly and the only cons were DePaul’s religious affiliation (they’re a private Catholic school, but it turns out that you don’t actually have to be Catholic to go there) and the price tag. My scholarships helped a lot with tuition, and the rest was paid for with loans, so it wasn’t too long before I packed up and moved to the Windy City.
Before I go any further, I need to talk a little about my personal life around this time, as it had (and continues to have) a huge impact on how I feel towards Chicago (warning: rant ahead). Right after high school ended, I started dating my first girlfriend. Unfortunately for me at the time, we had both already decided where we were going to college; me to DePaul, her to the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Texas and moved to Minnesota while we were both in junior high, but somehow she managed to get the residents’ tuition rate and used the opportunity to get away from midwestern winters. Needless to say, I was already conflicted by the time I got to Chicago. On the one hand, all of the pros I listed above still stood; on the other, now it meant that I could only see my girlfriend every few months.
Things were already starting off on the wrong foot, but to make matters worse, my girlfriend was also majoring in computer science. Her plan was to go to law school, but she needed to get a Bachelor’s degree in something in order to apply, so she chose CS more or less at random. Immediately she was granted access to the university’s honor’s program (even she admitted that it was most likely because she was a girl, since she had no experience programming up to that point), the result being that, right off the bat, her classes were quite a bit more interesting than mine.
To say that I was jealous would be a massive understatement. DePaul has a respectable computer science program, but UT Austin is listed as one of the best computer science schools in the country for a reason. The ease with which she seemed to make new friends didn’t help either, but that’s what you get as a girl majoring in computer science (I know it’s not all fun and games, but hey, you’ll never be lonely).
The next summer, she got an internship at a company in Austin (and got paid way more than I could have dreamed of at the time), and I decided to fly down there to live with her for six weeks. Those six weeks only exacerbated my jealousy, as I got to visit UT Austin’s linux labs and spent the days twiddling my thumbs while my girlfriend was making more than double that of any job I’d ever had working in a field that she had known nothing about less than one year ago (can you tell that I was jealous?).
Fast forward one year. We ended up breaking up about six months after I left Austin (long-distance relationships can be a bitch to maintain), and I had finally gotten my first programming job in the form of a summer internship at CME. I didn’t get paid as much as my girlfriend had, but I still got paid a lot more than my previous job as a DePaul student worker. This should have been the time that I started to see Chicago for the opportunity it really offered, but I was not taking the break-up very well, and I was still left with a strong sense of jealousy towards my ex-girlfriend.
That Christmas, I ended up going to a party hosted by some of my ex’s family friends. There I learned that she had accepted a summer internship at Microsoft, where her new boyfriend (did I mention that I was jealous?) had worked the summer before. Since we were still on friendly terms, she encouraged me to apply, and not willing to be so consistently out-done, I soon after sent an e-mail to Microsoft’s recruiter for the Chicago area. Surprisingly, I got the job.
By the time I moved out to Redmond, I was starting to wonder what the hell Chicago was doing wrong. Both Austin and Seattle are quite a bit smaller than Chicago, but my experiences at DePaul and CME didn’t seem to hold a candle to what UT Austin and Microsoft had to offer. Had I really made the wrong choice? Did I screw up that badly by deciding to stay in the midwest?
At this point, I was determined to stay in Chicago, if only to prove that it wasn’t a technological wasteland. Besides, I still needed to finish college, and I could only live for so many months on my Microsoft savings. Fortunately, before my bank account went bone dry, I managed to get my current position at Channel IQ. A few months later, most of my friends from school also graduated, which resulted in a lot of us searching for tech jobs around the same time. Listening to their experiences made me realize that, while Chicago’s tech jobs may not be as prestigious as a job at Microsoft or Google, there’s certainly no lack of opportunity, provided you look in the right place.
It was right around then that I got the call from Google. When it comes to searching for tech jobs, Silicon Valley is the elephant in the room, and suddenly I was forced to make a decision. One phone interview later, I was on a plane to San Jose, ready to interview for a job at Google. Not an internship, a job. I had gotten my first taste of the Bay Area just a few weeks earlier when Channel IQ flew me out to Dreamforce, but this time, it was entirely possible that I would be looking at my new home.
While I was there, I finally got around to researching which other companies were headquartered out there. Google was obvious, since that’s why I was there. Intel? Yep. AMD? Check. NVidia? You bet. Apple? Already knew that one too. Oracle? Them too. Adobe? …well, you get the idea. Microsoft and Amazon are the only real exceptions when it comes to triple-A software companies, and those are both based in the Seattle area. More and more it looked like the only way to really move up in this industry is to pack up your gear and move out west.
Which brings me up to the present day. In my search for graduate schools I discovered that both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago are considered top-notch computer science schools, and some recent articles suggest that Chicago’s tech scene is growing, even citing it as an aspiring rival to Silicon Valley. While I feel that that may be stretching things a little bit, it’s still nice to see that this city has a chance to develop a truly competitive tech scene.
So, where to from here? Well, the first thing I know is that I would like to get a Master’s degree, and based on what I’ve learned, my options around here are the University of Illinois (they offer the full program online too), the University of Chicago, possibly Northwestern, and DePaul. All things considered, that’s not a shabby list, and any one of them would sound impressive on a resume. After that? To be honest, I’m not sure yet. There’s no counting out Silicon Valley, but I’ll likely be sticking around Chicago for a little while yet. With mayor Rahm Emanuel pushing for gigabit internet and what looks to be a surge of opportunites in the tech scene, there’s a chance that Chicago could be home to the next big thing.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed.