microgrant for young hackers

Published on May 21, 2020

Over the last few days, I have been doing some preliminary research into alternative mechanisms of scientific funding. Along the way, I have discovered a few novel concepts, including crowdfunding for science, which I believe to be particularly promising.

One of the mechanisms I have been thinking about is microgrants, and how they can enable people with the mobility they need to thrive. The trouble is that, in order to be impactful, microgrants for researchers need to be large -- in the thousands or tens of thousands range.

Who could benefit from a smaller grant, I asked myself. “Young hackers” was the first thing that came to my mind.

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time coding. Some of my work was toward larger projects -- such as a code-review-as-a-service platform -- but most of my work was focused on building small side projects that would help me reinforce my coding skills.

The trouble is that while learning to code is free, when you want to start building larger and more creative projects, there are a number of limiting factors. I didn’t own a domain name for quite some time, for instance, and I couldn’t access the computer resources I needed for many projects that I wanted to build.

While I was often able to find a creative solution -- and I believe those experiences helped me become more resourceful -- such barriers could be prohibitive for many young people.

If you are not yet passionate enough about coding (like many young people who are still discovering the power of computers), then one of these barriers -- like being unable to finance the server costs for a big project -- may knock you out of the game.

I think one way to solve this problem would be to start a microgrant fund for young hackers.

The grant fund would provide a few benefits to young people.

The first would be access to liquid capital. I would argue that young people don’t need a lot of capital to get started, and so an amount in the low hundreds would suffice. This capital would help them pay for what they want: online courses, domain names, whatever.

There are resources out there such as the GitHub Student Developer Pack which provide access to free credits on platforms, but there is one problem: if a company doesn’t already have an active offer, then you can’t use their services.

These developer packs can only manage partnerships with so many organizations, and so there will always be at least one young person who cannot access the platform they want because there is no student offering.

The grant fund would also provide logistical support to young people. Most young people don’t have bank accounts, and if they do, they will likely not have a card that they can use to make payments online through their bank account. This fund would give young people the option to spend their money through the fund. So, if they need a domain name, they can claim one from the fund, up until they have used their grant up.

The fund would also provide introductions to talented people in Silicon Valley.

Getting started in a career in tech is difficult because the epicenter of tech, at least from the perspective I have developed over the last few years breaking into tech, is Silicon Valley.

If you are not in California, it can seem like tech careers are completely out of reach. Of course, tech is proliferating -- and being enabled more through remote work -- but many of the best jobs are still concentrated in the Valley.

One common piece of advice I hear is that young people should go to the Valley to see how the tech industry works. This advice, while interesting, is useless to most young people, who cannot afford to get out there.

The next best thing that we can do is connect them with others who are in the Valley, and who can provide the mentorship necessary to help them achieve their goals. Perhaps everyone who receives a grant will be connected with an industry mentor.

There are a number of issues with this idea.

For one, you would need to develop a way to find talent. Although young high schoolers are resourceful, in my experience, unless you build a sufficient brand then most people may not find you. One way to overcome this would be to develop close partnerships with student-centric organizations, and to have contributors to the fund list it on their websites.

Another issue would be impact. How can you quantify the impact of this fund, when the people you are aiming to support are so young and unproven? But this sounds like a lousy reason for not pursuing this idea. If you can get talent evaluation right, then no matter who you support, you should be able to have some measure of impact on their lives.

In short, this would be a “microgrant for young hackers.” We’d provide capital, logistical support, and resources to young people just getting started in tech.

If you are interested in working on this idea -- or think I should work in this idea -- shoot me an email at jamesg[at]jamesg.app.

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Made by @jamesg_oca. Code on GitHub.