A Caltech whiz kid finds her way to Intel

Caltech graduating senior Michelle Jiang, a double major in mechanical engineering and business, set her sights on a tech giant and never looked back, fending off recruiters along the way.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read

Editor's note: This is the fourth story in an ongoing series profiling college graduates throughout the United States as they hunt for technology jobs. Click here for CNET's special report, "Wanted: A job in tech." In tomorrow's story, another in-demand grad student grapples with quality of life versus money.

When graduating senior Michelle Jiang visited a job fair in Florida last year, recruiters were chasing her down. Literally.

After dropping off a resume at the booth for Johnson Controls, a maker of heating, air-conditioning and power solutions, the next day the company's recruiter ran up to her. "'You're from Caltech, come with me. My boss just told me we want you to interview with us right now.'" As in, skip the line of other recruits hoping to land an offer in what's a rather nerve-wracking job environment for soon-to-be grads.

Though Jiang was admittedly caught off guard by the recruiter's exuberance, it's the kind of thing to which students at the California Institute of Technology, one of the most revered institutions for graduating engineers, physicists, and actual rocket scientists, eventually get accustomed.

Michelle Jiang Bob Paz

Jiang, 22, a warm, chatty native of Vancouver, Wash., by way of Canada and China, didn't end up with an offer from Johnson Controls though. In fact, she didn't even interview. She chose instead to pursue a not-so-traditional path for a double major in mechanical engineering and business at Caltech.

Mechanical engineers-in-training ("Mech-E's" in engineering parlance) at her school generally have little trouble landing a job at Northrop Grumman or Raytheon, both a quick jaunt down the Interstate 10 from the school's Southern California campus. But as a girl who grew up glued to her parents' Compaq Presario--with 3GB of hard drive space and a whole 256MB of memory--she imagined a future surrounded by motherboards, not missiles.

Now, as to why recruiters have reason to chase her down: Jiang interned at Hewlett-Packard right out of high school, where she was in the Math Club and Science Olympiad, studied abroad at Cambridge University, and is a member of the Society of Women Engineers.

And lest you think she's some academic robot: Jiang's a former cheerleader, and plays both volleyball and tennis at Caltech.

While college graduating seniors around the country are nervously waiting to hear back about jobs, Jiang can say, with plenty of relief, that she had that sewn up months ago.

Thanks to her decision to study abroad during the same semester her peers would be angling to beat her out for jobs, she began the hunt last fall. "I was kind of freaking out," she remembers.

Playing the overachiever to a T, her top three choices, naturally, were the heavyweights of the tech world: Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel.

Tough decisions
In the end, it came down to HP and Intel. At HP she was offered a position on the team she first joined as an 18-year-old intern, integrating software, hardware, and firmware for printers. Intel recruited her to a highly selective 18-month program for recent engineering graduates that rotates them every six months.

The program is usually reserved for 25 post-graduate students, but Jiang was recommended by the recruiter after she showed up at an informational session at Caltech and asked way more probing questions than anyone else in attendance, and of course because of her impressive resume. A dinner followed that evening with several Intel recruiters and a few fellow students. And like that, she had the necessary recommendation from the recruiter, then she was off to "REP Rush," a round-robin style interview session with all the candidates vying for space in the program.

"I was really nervous about the interview for about a week afterwards, but my Rotation Engineering Program buddy who is currently with the team that hired me kept reassuring me with smileys and lots of positive comments, so I kept my fingers crossed that the confident feeling I'd experienced at the end of the REP Rush day was a good omen."

Jiang got the call that Intel wanted her while roaming that same job fair in Florida. Yes, she says, she literally "jumped for joy."

But how to choose between the two offers? Both positions were in the Pacific Northwest where she wanted to return--HP in her hometown, Intel in Hillsborough, Ore. Both offered great benefits, the required "work-life balance" she craved, and would challenge her, she said.

After a lot of consideration and input from her chemist mother--love of science runs in the family--Jiang committed to Intel, where she'll jump first into the thermal engineering group working on heat sinks, which regulate heat on chips.

Returning to HP to the team she was warmly welcomed to right out of high school seemed like the easy thing to do.

It was exciting to see her former mentors at HP, Jiang said. But in the end, she said, as much as she loved the team and the company, "it was hard to think of your former mentors as your equals."