software engineer

For Silicon Valley engineers, the bar is higher than ever

March 18, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Sure, they may make sky-high salaries. But many employers expect these sought-after workers to do more than just silently code in the corner.

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FORTUNE -- Demand for talented software engineers is as high as ever, with companies throwing huge salaries and perks at new employees gravitating toward consumer-focused businesses ranging from leviathans such as Google (GOOG) to buzzier, smaller outfits like Snapchat. But rising expectations from some employers also mean expectations are reaching stratospheric levels.

Look no further than CS194, Stanford University's computer science course, to see how far engineering has evolved in the last decade. At the end of each quarter, students in the class present their final project. "Ten years ago, a mini-demo of a mini web server was quite the accomplishment," explains Ramji Srinivasan, who graduated from Stanford with a Computer Science degree in 2003 and now runs Counsyl, a genetic disease testing startup with 40 engineers. "Now, the expectation is to have a fully functioning website or mobile app."

Of course, much of that has to do with broader, much more advanced set of tools available now. (Today's desktop microprocessor is vastly superior to one circa Y2K.) So, too, advanced software tools like Django, an open-source web framework, are used to rapidly create complex data-heavy services like Pinterest and Instagram. 

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"We've solved a crazy set of problems that allows people to do what once very few people had the energy and patience to do," explains Pedram Keyani, Director of Engineering for Facebook's (FB) site integrity team. Keyani, who joined Facebook in 2007 from Google, is widely credited with building core parts of Facebook's infrastructure responsible for protecting accounts and fighting spam. Now, his duties include helping vet engineering candidates and running Facebook's hackathons.

Facebook won't disclose how many applications it receives, but Keyani says they're more discerning now about new hires vs. say, seven years ago. "If we have three positions to fill, we used to have 10 people interview for those," offers Keyani. "Now we'll have an order of magnitude more people that interview for those same positions." While Keyani says he prioritizes smarts and passion over experience, competition for a senior engineering role at Facebook reportedly calls for more outside experience. To wit, dozens of Facebook engineering managers climbed the ranks at Oracle (ORCL) before working at the social network, according to a recent New York Times Magazine report. And screening candidates is now a comprehensive experience, with interviews for raw problem-solving ability, designing systems, and cultural fit: whether they communicate well, work well in teams, or can put their ego aside for the sake of a project.

PureStorage co-founder and CTO John Colgrave says the enterprise storage startup prizes fast-thinking, raw speed, and nimbleness in an engineer over reams of resume experience. That's an about-face from the 1990s and even early-to-mid-2000s, when Colgrave worked at Veritas Software, a backup software company that merged with Symantec in 2005. "Things are moving faster now," argues Colgrave, referring to industry innovation. "The guy who came out of school, went to IBM (IBM) for 15 years, and worked intensely on something for a few years is doing himself a disservice."

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At Hearsay Social, a social media marketing management platform, software engineers are expected to also directly interact with customers and problem-solve on the business side, says Steve Garrity, CTO and founder of Hearsay. "We're asking more and more of the people who build the software that runs our lives everyday," he admits.

Like Garrity, Marco Zappacosta, CEO and co-founder of the local services platform Thumbtack, wants the company's 13 engineers to be versatile. When hiring, the team seeks out individuals who aren't just content with being assigned work but able to directly contribute to improving Thumbtack's overall user experience, a vetting process that means the startup only hires one engineer for every 150 applicants. He points to an instance in April 2011, when one of his engineers proposed improving the Thumbtack log-in experience with an authentication system that eliminated the need for users to manually type out their log-in information and automatically gave them entry based on their email address and previously visited sites. Explains Zappacosta: "He was able to bring great change about because he was very user-centric but also aware of how the system was built."

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