For Geoffrey Woo, the recession hardly seems to have happened.
While many of his Stanford University classmates can't find a job, the 22-year-old senior has turned down a summer internship at Facebook and is taking a leave of absence from his Stanford master's work to found his own startup.
"A lot of people are saying it's a bubble in Silicon Valley -- I don't care," Woo said. "I know there's a lot of action and if I can ride it the way up, I'll ride it. If there's value to be extracted, I'll extract it."
It's an exciting and lucrative time to be a computer scientist. Computer science graduates received more offers than their accounting counterparts for the first time since 2008, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Meanwhile, veteran engineers are also being recruited heavily by startups and established companies alike.
For talented engineers, the issue is what route to take. Gamble on a startup, hoping it turns into the next Facebook or Groupon? Or take a humdrum position at an established company that may never make you a multi-millionaire, but may finance a comfortable lifestyle including a home, a car, and the ability to start a family and pay for college. The answer depends less on age and experience than on one's appetite for risk and stage in life.
"There's high risk and high reward in a startup," said John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology, a recruiting firm. "If you have an equity stake in a company and it goes public or becomes acquired, the financial reward outweighs what you'd get with a corporate job."
Failure is just as likely, if not more so, than a big pay day.
"The fail rate of startups is very high. Their ability to implement their strategic ideas is very difficult," Reed said.
Tom Phelan, 46, gambled once already during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, only to see the value of his stock options evaporate when his startup, myCFO, tanked in 2002. Having worked 100-hour work weeks once in his life, Phelan isn't eager to join another startup, even though he has received several offers, he said.
Phelan declined to specify his salary as a senior engineer at VMware, the Silicon Valley, Calif., virtualization company, but said that engineers with his experience earn between $150,000 and $230,000. Compared to most Americans, Phelan is well-off. He said it doesn't bother him that he never struck it mega-rich, even though he had the chance to join both Cisco and Google pre-IPO.
"I don't want to be rich," Phelan said. "The Google millionaires, great for them. They rolled the dice and got lucky."
Woo's expectations are much higher.
The Facebook internship would have paid more than $20,000 for the summer, Woo said. If he had been pursuing a full-time job after graduation, rather than planning to go back to Stanford to finish his master's degree, he expected to earn between $80,000 and $120,000 a year, which is how much friends of his accepted to work at big companies like Google and Facebook.
Instead, he's accepted a $170,000 seed investment from the Y-Combinator incubator to build his own business along with two Stanford classmates, one of whom turned down an offer from Google to become an assistant product manager. The company, called Ansible Technologies, wants to advance the location-based mobile services popularized by companies like FourSquare by removing the check-in aspect. Rather than having to manually check in at each location, users will be tracked in real-time on a virtual map that their friends can view.
"One of our bets is that privacy concerns are dropping. We think the 'check-in' is an artifact of technology," Woo said.
With a greater risk, comes a bigger payoff, Woo reasoned.
"If you want to build something real, and make a contribution to the world and, you know, be a big player, you need to do your own thing," he said. He expects to work up to 60 hours a week in an attempt to achieve this dream.
Woo realizes that starting his own company isn't a sure thing, but he's weighed the risk and reward, and has made his decision to go for broke.
"It's a trade-off. A lot of my peers, they want to be conservative," Woo said. "I mean, a Google or a Facebook job is a very well regarded position; no one's going to be, like, 'You screwed up.'"
Phelan hasn't completely ruled out joining another startup, he said. He remains at VMware after eight years because he's still fascinated by the problems he gets to work on in storage I/O control, a tool to streamline the process of accessing data from multiple sources.
For Phelan to join a startup now, though, the company would have to be working on a very compelling problem -- like cloud computing storage -- and have more than 30 employees, a signal that the company has gone through its initial growing pains. He's not deterred by working long hours, he said.
Engineers have to evaluate their career opportunities based on how happy they'll be working on computing problems at a given company rather than how much money they can make, Phelan said. Unlike other, less-volatile sectors, technology workers never have a guarantee that the company they work for today will still be thriving next year.
"If I can continue producing and stay current and fresh and don't become a dinosaur in 20 years, that's all I can ask for," Phelan said.
Write to Joseph Walker