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Carving Your Path In Computer Science

Kyle Powers has done a little bit of everything with his computer science degree.

It started with internships at Google and IBM, because Powers was “never much of a fan” of “not getting paid for the work I’m doing.” From there, he moved to California straight out of college, bounced around at a few positions and recently started his own company.

For his troubles, Powers was recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for healthcare, and sold half of his company at a $9 million valuation.

And while there is always a level of luck and chance in any startup, especially in the tech world, Powers sees a more simplistic solution to his success. Some may lean on pedigree, tech ‘incubators’ and other more superficial tactics. Powers attributed his ability to carve out his own path to the basics: Investing in his education and saying yes to opportunities.

Computer science is a growing field, and there are many similar success stories. But it takes a “significant amount of personal investment.” A lot of times, that includes starting with an education–any education. Having the skills and background, and being able to apply them to practical processes and projects, is what companies are looking for.

Powers not only knows what it takes to get hired, but he’s now in a position to bring new talent onto his team. In his experience, a surprising number of companies are simply looking for hard-working, skilled additions… regardless of the name stamped across the degree.

“A lot of companies out here don’t care about the education,” he said. “I hardly ever even look at the school. It’s more I look at what they’ve done and how well they could add value to the engineering team.”

Like many academic investments, an education in computer science also comes with a potential payoff when you reach the end of the rainbow. If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, it’s likely you’ve seen the same canned ads with a stock photo of a young professional: “Computer science grads are making [insert hefty figure] STRAIGHT OUT OF COLLEGE!”

They creep across Twitter timelines, Snapchat stories and find their way into Google ads. Powers has seen them too, and said the number is usually arbitrary (the ads he remembered said $87,000 a year), but that there are plenty of first-year workers making solid salaries.

It is “highly dependant” on location, Powers said, but he put the range from around $60,000 a year in a market like Lincoln, Nebraska, up to offers of around $100,000-$120,000 in tech hot spots such as San Francisco.

For “top tier” applicants coming from the “top” computer science programs, Powers said he had even heard of some firms offering first-year salaries up to $150,000.

No matter where you start, though, Powers said the important part is getting to work, and to use that real-world experience to keep moving forward. In the world of computer science, it’s all about being ready to embrace opportunity.

“Once you have one or two years of experience under your belt, it becomes a lot easier to move around and find comparable or even better paying positions,” Powers said. “There is definitely a large amount of companies hiring in San Francisco. I had to turn off my LinkedIn because I would get 10 messages a day from recruiters trying to poach me from my current position.

“It’s one of those things were you see those messages come in, and you feel like you’re a superstar.”

That path toward ‘superstardom’ started in his first semester of college.

Powers spent his first summer break working with IBM, and would go back for another summer stint two years later. Sandwiched between was a “Summer of Code Developer” with Google.

Back in Lincoln, he also worked a couple of part-time jobs for university initiatives. This sort of real-world experience was important, he said, because it gave him a real taste of what life would be like working in the tech world.

“It turns out that about 95 percent of jobs you’re going to do in this industry is taking someone else’s work that’s already been done,” Powers said, “and either modifying it and adding new features. Starting from scratch and starting from zero doesn’t really happen.”

To get to the top of his own company, Powers built his reputation with a resume featuring diverse jobs and projects. And it’s that same sort of experience that he now looks for when reading through resumes. Especially when comparing an experienced-based resume to a “boilerplate” resumes from what Powers called “bootcamp positions.”

If it were his company, Powers would much prefer someone whose shown a willingness to work than a “bootcamp” background.

“They are 99 percent the same, they work on two or three projects, but they have no relevant career experience. It’s kind of easy to get lost in the mix with a standard template resume like that, where I think having one kind of internship and actual experience working on a team may help.”

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