James Gallagher

work experience for tech teens

Published on June 7, 2020 in careers

In my high school, work experience had a very specific definition. During your final two years, you could take "work experience" as a subject. This meant that rather than taking another class, you could go and work for a local business. Most of the time, people went to work for a company which already had a relationship with the school. This severely limited the pool of companies for which you could work.

I would have craved some real-world experience in technology when I was in high school, but at the time I didn't know what opportunities were out there. Work experience was presented to me as working for a local company like a law firm or a school. Often, my guidance teachers would talk about it as a way to improve your personal statement for university.

What I would say is that for the vast majority of people who took work experience, they likely derived value from the experience. There is a bias at play which I believe is important to note, however: most of the people in my high school, at least to my knowledge, were considering a more traditional career, such as becoming a teacher, or a lawyer, or a carpenter. Those career paths were perfect for local work experience initiatives, because you could get on-the-job training that was relevant to your field.

What about me? When I look back to high school, I tried my best to work on side projects to help me build my programming skills. This took the form of various different projects which I explored to various degrees of seriousness. Two even became "companies." By companies I mean a project so big and time-consuming that it may as well have been a company. Really, they were just big side projects.

I got a lot of value out of this experience. I would argue that it acted as my pseudo-work experience. I built real-world projects using the technologies that experts did. GraphQL, Ruby on Rails, Python. I explored them all. I was building tangible skills. I must say that although this experience was valuable, it was missing something that work experience gave everyone else: a sense of what it meant to work on a team.

Working on projects alone is a liberating experience. You get to control what you build. You control the tech stack. For someone in high school whose fundamental freedoms were constrained by having to go to a classroom every weekday for a certain number of hours, I felt like I was in a new world. A world where I was in control, and where hard work was more closely correlated with success. If you've ever worked on a project alone, you'll know that it's not like working on a project with other people. I didn't realize that I should be chasing opportunities to work with people.

Therein lies the first problem I would like to inform you about: opportunities in technology for teenagers are difficult to find. I was in the "Silicon Valley" ecosystem, and I still struggled to find opportunities that would be right for me. One of the most annoying challenges I encountered was when I started to look for internships and I realized that they were almost all for university students. I wasn't in university. I was in high school. Should not being in university really disqualify you from these internships?

I believe in the work ethic of a teenager. If I were running a startup today, I certainly wouldn't turn down a candidate on account of their being a teenager. I would simply find a simpler role for them, so that they can still participate without having so many responsibilities as to risk impacting the business' abilities to meet deadlines. With that said, I would offer opportunities to step up: if you could prove yourself, you would be able to do more.

More companies should start actively looking for teenagers to fill roles within their organizations. Do these companies really have the work? Of course they do. I can think of many tasks that tech companies could assign to teenagers. They could assign teenagers to make small changes to a codebase under the mentorship of other developers. They could ask their interns to help maintain documentation. I would bet that many teenagers would be happy to write a few blog posts for the company, provided that an editor review their work before it goes live. Do you really need someone who is in university to write you a blog post? Or to make small changes to a codebase? It's unlikely.

What do the companies get out of this? This is an important question to answer because hiring anyone costs a business time and money. If the recruit screws up, it could delay timelines for the business. That's why you don't want to give them too much responsibility at the start: begin small, and give them more to do when they have proven themselves. I've just addressed one challenge, but there are many more. Hiring the wrong person could really do damage to your business, or at the very least -- and this could be worse for society -- give you a bad impression of the talent of a teen, thereby causing you to underestimate younger workers in the future.

I can see a number of benefits to a business to hiring more teenagers, which I will describe from my own experiences. When I was in high school, I would have been grateful to get any work experience in technology. I would have taken work that wasn't exactly glamorous, knowing that there was more to work experience than just the exact content of my job. It would be an opportunity to prove myself. I'd be able to build my networks. So, if you're hesitating hiring teenagers because you don't think you have the right work for them, ask yourself: is this really true? Can we not find something meaningful -- and meaning is important, otherwise you'll never be able to attract good talent -- that we can assign to a young person? Incorporate as many review or mentorship opportunities as you think are necessary for quality control. The teenager will appreciate them (or at least I would).

Hiring teenagers also gives you access to what I have called in my writing the "youth advantage." Nobody sees the world quite like a teenager. Whether or not all of the assumptions a teenager has about the world are accurate is up for debate, and something that I can see myself addressing in more essays in the future. The main point is that teenagers will give you a new perspective. They'll ask "why?" even when the answer seems obvious. Does this sound annoying to you? It shouldn't be. Asking "why?" often can uncover major problems in your logic. They'll also question the status quo, on account of their lack of experience. I was recently in a meeting with my boss where I shared a view that turned out to be inaccurate. What did he say at the end? "Thank you for your honest feedback." My thoughts did help advance the discussion, even if they weren't right.

I would also argue that teenagers are willing to hustle more than anyone else. This, and I need to be clear, does not mean you can hire them to do all your dirty work just because you know they are craving experience. The hustle of a teen is still to your advantage, however. I remember how seriously many people who participated in work experience at my high school took their jobs. I took my first job equally as seriously, too. This was because we all knew something important: someone out there was taking a chance on us, and there was a lot riding on our success. Some people were told to find work experience by their parents, but most people sought it out. Would they have been happy to go home knowing they had done a bad job? I wouldn't have been, and I still don't like feeling as though I have not given it my all every day.

From what I understand, the landscape of opportunities is improving today, but only to a certain extent. In recent weeks, I've encountered a number of great opportunities for people in high school who are looking to build their technical skills. Some take the form of hackathons. Others take the form of internships. There is another bias at play worth noting: many of these programs are not new, it's just that I am more aware of them now. So, if I was to be my fifteen-year-old self again -- Oh! how great it would be, and at the same time how awkward it would be. That's childhood for you! -- I may not have found those opportunities. I just wasn't connected to the right networks.

One of the reasons these opportunities are so difficult to find is that there is no central directory for them. Internships, hackathons, online pop-ups and everything in between are all advertised in their own ways. It's not as if there is a Product Hunt for these opportunities.

Perhaps there is a side project idea hiding in here: a platform to share internship opportunities for teenagers. I would bet that if this directory existed, companies would be able to find a greater number of teenagers willing to work for them. They'd all be in one place, ready to find work. Such a directory could also conduct matching for companies. Teenagers would sign up and share their skills. Maybe they would participate in some kind of technical aptitude test, like a Triplebyte quiz or a take-home writing assignment depending on the job they want. The company would then evaluate their skills and make introductions to relevant companies. Imagine this: a talent agency that helps teens find jobs.

If you're looking for the notorious "why now?", I think the events of this year make it clearer than ever that this type of platform needs to exist. Teenagers are going to have a really rough time entering the job market today. All the jobs on which teenagers used to depend such as working in a restaurant, working for a local law firm, working at a mechanics -- they're all gone. Some of them will come back more quickly than others once we phase out of lockdown, but the economic ramifications will last a long time. The garage or restaurant or cafe you worked for may have shut down. This leaves teenagers idle who would otherwise be able to take on work.

Local companies are a good source of work experience for teenagers, but only to a certain extent. I say this because I was never interested in work experience at a local business. They simply had different needs to the ones that I was looking and most qualified to fill. I maybe could have helped a local business develop a site using WordPress or something like that, but I wanted to do more. Perhaps I could have done more if I'd looked harder for opportunities, but I spent months doing so and I still found it really hard. Pioneer was one of the greatest discoveries in my life that vastly accelerated my career. Guess when I applied? A few days before the deadline. Had I not seen a Tweet from Patrick Collison, I may never have seen Pioneer. I'm not sure how my career would have turned out without seeing that Tweet. (It really is crazy how one opportunity can change you like that.)

There's also the problem that many local businesses will not be in a position to hire. That's not to say that tech companies are not in a bind. I will not lie: the current state of affairs is rather grim. I would say that many tech companies are in a good position to hire interns -- and many are still doing so -- and all they would need to do would be to look a bit further downstream. Don't just look at university students. Look at teenagers in high school.

It's our duty to do more to help teenagers who are looking to enter into the job market, especially now. They are just as capable and passionate as any other worker you'll find, and they are in need of employment. For a teenager, it's not so much about the money -- although it could be if parents are affected -- but more about the experience. Not getting work experience when you're young makes it harder to figure out your position in the world. You can't know if you like doing something until you try it. If you're never given the opportunity to try that thing out, then it will obviously set you back.

My mother recently said to me how lucky I was to have dropped out of high school last year. This somewhat startled me because of how hard I worked to convince my parents that I should drop out in the first place. Her reason? It would be significantly harder to find a job now than it was for me last year. I take that to be true. I cannot begin to imagine how high school students and recent graduates are going to go about finding jobs. That's why such a company needs to exist in this space.

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