For Maxwell Hawkins, a computer science and art major at Carnegie Mellon University, the moment came in March. A technology recruiting firm sent him a letter by FedEx urging him to drop out of his junior year and take his talents to work for a start-up.
"I work for the founder and seed investor in PayPal, Palantir and Facebook," wrote Peterson Conway, a recruiter with Carmel, Calif., firm Goodwyn/Powell. "I have been asked to help identify the founding team of a new venture."
The technology boom has created an acute shortage of engineers and software developers. The industry has responded by taking a page from the playbook of professional sports: identify up and comers early, then roll out the red carpet to lock them up.
With the social media frenzy in full swing, promising students are now wrestling with decisions about whether to stay in school or turn pro. Meanwhile, those who stay on campus are enjoying a bonanza of free food and other goodies as companies rush to win their hearts and minds.
"It is pretty good for my ego, frankly," said Mr. Hawkins, who decided to stay in school and take an internship offer from YouTube this summer.
Starting salaries at leading companies for average computer science grads from top schools range from $75,000 to $100,000, plus signing and relocation bonuses worth $5,000 to $15,000, according to venture capitalists and recruiters. New hires may also get small equity grants, with stars getting additional cash bonuses or larger grants worth as much as 1% of the company.
Facebook's FB +0.25% disappointing public offering demonstrated that the start-up tech market may not be quite as lucrative as everyone believed. But many students say they think the risks are still worth taking, given the huge potential upside.
Stephen Poletto, a senior computer science major at Brown University, said that in the middle of his junior year, he started fielding calls from headhunters, company recruiters and Brown alumni who work in the industry.Companies, he said, routinely wine and dine students at posh restaurants to discuss internships and jobs, plying them with free limo rides to bars, $500 cash giveaways and raffles for iPads. So many companies give away free food when they hold technology talks at Brown that sponsors had to move the food inside the computer science auditorium to keep non-engineering students from grazing.
"That did not deter people," said Mr. Poletto, who accepted a job offer with online storage start-up Dropbox.
Google Inc. GOOG -1.27% is particularly active on campus. Brian Yee, a master's student at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, is one of the search giant's 400 "student ambassadors" at top universities around the world who get paid to assist with recruiting and spreading the word about Google products. In February, Mr. Yee rounded up 100 students to eat free pizza and hear a Google developer give a "Tech Talk" about YouTube.
"For the Tech Talk they sent 100 pairs of Android pajamas," he said. "Those went really quickly." Starting this fall, Google will more than double the ambassador program to over 1,000 students world-wide.
Mark Stehlik, assistant dean of Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science said it could make sense for a student to take a leave of absence to join a start-up, in some cases. But most students are better served getting their degrees, he said. "Many companies are trying to seduce students because they really need them," he said. "Students get a little starry eyed. For many of them they are better off finishing."
Big companies aren't the only ones wooing students. Peter Thiel, a billionaire Facebook investor, recently started a fellowship program offering 20 students $100,000 over two years to skip college and work on world-changing projects.
Tiny start-ups are ramping up their recruiting efforts, too, though it is far from a fair fight. In February, Highland Capital Partners, the venture investor behind Lycos and MapQuest.com Inc. sent executives from some of its portfolio companies on a four-day road trip to interview candidates at the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell. They made the trip by Chrysler minivan and stayed at inexpensive hotels, like Holiday Inn. After interviewing 100 candidates, five have accepted offers. Total cost for 13 people: $5,000.
The big companies don't always win. Amazon.com Inc. AMZN +1.63% offered Brown University computer science major Kelsey Tripp a lucrative summer internship paying $5,300 a month plus a one-time $3,000 housing stipend. But the college junior turned it down for an even better internship offer at a start-up called Nebula Inc. It paid more and she liked that the program was organized by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a major player in Silicon Valley. A personal call from Nebula's CEO sealed the deal. "I have never spoken to a CEO before," she said.
The National Basketball Association has a rule called "one and done" that requires players entering the draft to be 19 or have completed their freshman year of college. But some prospective programmers aren't even making it that far.
Sahil Lavingia was a freshman at the University of Southern California in 2010 when he got an email from Ben Silbermann, chief executive and co-founder of the fast-growing online scrapbook Pinterest. Mr. Silbermann was looking for help building a version of Pinterest for the iPhone and happened upon a data tracking app developed by the self-taught Mr. Lavingia.
Figuring the young student "seemed like a go-getter," Mr. Silbermann drove up to Berkeley from Silicon Valley to meet Mr. Lavingia, who was coming to the Bay Area for the USC-Berkeley football game. A few days later, Mr. Lavingia had an offer in hand and took a leave from school to take the job.
Some companies are grabbing talented programmers even before they reach college. Luke Weber taught himself how to design computer games in high school and became one of the most popular contributors to Roblox Corp., a company that lets its subscribers play games developed by its users.
After graduating, he attended a Roblox conference last June and met the head of the company's marketing department, who asked him if he wanted to shoot some videos to teach people how to make games. The videos turned into a design job, and now Mr. Weber, who has postponed plans to go to college, works three days a week for the company producing games and virtual goods for $25 an hour.
At 18, he is the youngest employee of the company. "Apparently," he said, "I am really pro at it."