“The life I’m living right now is just so much more fun.”
August 1, 2015 6:49 AM   Subscribe

As the demand for tech labor grows, ambitious teenagers are flooding into San Francisco. There’s no official tally of the number of teens who work in tech, but Fontenot estimates that there are as many as a hundred recent high school dropouts working on startups in the city. Some were too distracted by programming projects and weekend hackathons to go to class. Others couldn’t pay for college and questioned why they should go into debt when there is easy money to be made. Still others had already launched successful apps or businesses and didn’t see why they should wait at home for their lives to start. In Facebook groups for young technologists, they saw an alternative: teens lounging in sunny Dolores Park (dolo, as they call it), teens leasing expansive South of Market office space, teens throwing parties whenever they want. And so they moved to San Francisco, many of them landing in houses like Mission Control. -- The Real Teens of Silicon Valley: Inside the almost-adult lives of the industry’s newest recruits
posted by Room 641-A (40 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd say burn it down, but systems like this are unsustainable anyway.

It'll be interesting to read the article about this in ten years time.
posted by zabuni at 7:05 AM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Could be worse. Could be hippies.
posted by Artw at 7:13 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


If only kids good at math and computing had skills to see what percentage of startups actually turn any sort of profit.

It's too bad math and computing fans don't ever learn the ability to compute the terrible ROI for all that time spent on some hot new idea that never takes off.

Shame, really. How we focus so much on soft skills such that kids have no idea how to figure out quantitatively the real risks.

Makes you want to tell them to choose a field with better options, like anthropology.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:15 AM on August 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


"One thing I’m really bothered by is the insularity of tech — it’s narrowing,” he said. “It’s pretty much all white dudes. It’s a fake bubble with a bunch of money, and we just go with it.”

That's exactly what I was thinking the whole time I was reading the article. My 18-year-old son is off to college this month (!!!!) and he will be studying computer science. He got a merit scholarship that covers half his tuition and we can handle the rest, so he won't have crazy debt when he graduates. It's a soft entry into adulthood, and there will be women and not-white men in his program (and the school in general) and he will be double-majoring in music. It's important to us that he is around people who aren't like him.

I feel like the kids in the article are really missing out in important parts of life...meeting people who are different from you being one of them. That doesn't have to mean going to college, but they're basically only around people who look and act like them. It's too isolating.
posted by cooker girl at 7:21 AM on August 1, 2015 [18 favorites]


The "system" won't work out for most of these kids in the long term. However, the skills they learn, the portfolios of projects they build, and the professional networks and reputations they establish... all invaluable. I wish I had started like this.

Who am I kidding. It was never possible for me to start like this. I never had the risk tolerance; no one in my family did.
posted by fatehunter at 7:26 AM on August 1, 2015 [21 favorites]


I feel like the kids in the article are really missing out in important parts of life...meeting people who are different from you being one of them. That doesn't have to mean going to college, but they're basically only around people who look and act like them. It's too isolating.

The only thing I would change about my college experience (well, other than that I should have worked harder and gotten better grades, of course) is that I went to a not very diverse school. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to an equally challenging but more diverse college, but that wasn't something I even remotely considered when I was applying at 18.

The insularity described here sounds even more intense than my college, but I'd put the onus of that much more on the tech industry than on some teenagers trying to find an interesting path in life.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:39 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Not a coincidence that a lot of the kids in the article are subsidized by the libertarian, public-everything hating billionaire Peter Thiel.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:45 AM on August 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


Cheaper than college, so there's that at least.
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded strongly of the section in Steven Levy's Hackers in which Ken Williams, Sierra Online's founder, creates a dorm of sorts for his teenage/young adult coders to create PC versions of arcade games, and it's all fun and hijinks until he decides to outsource the coding to a firm that employs grownups and the kids are left without equity. That was thirty years ago, and it might be interesting to see how those kids are doing in middle age.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:49 AM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


On the one hand, college is about so much more than learning career skills, and it seems to me that these kids are missing out on a whole lot. I also don't think that most current 18-year-olds are in any way ready to live on their own. On the other hand, there is definitely a group of very smart kids who really don't thrive at college. If they go to expensive private schools, they're usually ok, because it is very hard to flunk out of those schools. But I work at a public university, and it is extremely easy to flunk out, even if you're smart. I see some kids flunk out not because they're unprepared or lazy, but because they're really focused on something meaningful that isn't school. I actually think some of our students would do better if they could find a structured place to go and do their thing, rather than taking out a lot of loans to enroll in classes that they're only going to blow off while they sit in their dorm rooms and do their thing, whatever that may be. So I guess I have mixed feelings.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:54 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Let me guess: white, male, affluent parents? What a surprise.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:01 AM on August 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Don't forget that there are millions of kids every generation who never go to college, or even finish high school, yet learn soft skills and social development in their own way. These kids seem to be largely middle class and have the support of their parents. Yeah, they are the disposable element of an unstable bubble, but when it's all over it's not like they'll be short of options or opportunity.
posted by Think_Long at 8:05 AM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I was originally thinking this was exploitative but now I think it's genius. They can go back and get the degree after they've made money and connections, plus the course material will be more meaningful after they've had real world experience of it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:14 AM on August 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's too bad these kids lives don't suck the way ours did when we were their age. I hope they all fail and end up in dull grinding jobs unprepared for them by a lack of massive college debt.
posted by dustsquid at 8:23 AM on August 1, 2015 [22 favorites]


There's something to be said for taking a little time before college to center yourself and figure shit out. I lived in Israel with a bunch of friends for a year after I graduated high school and before I started college, volunteering and taking a few classes. My parents have always since described letting me go as one of the best parenting decisions they ever made by accident. When I came back and started college I was already used to living on my own, and I knew myself and how I worked a lot better, and I think that both of those significantly contributed to me doing well in school. The commercial, startuppy aspect of this is a little eyebrow-raising, and anything Silicon Valley is always an easy target, but I honestly think that taking a few years like this can be a really positive thing for the kids themselves, even if the business themselves fail completely. Hell, maybe even more so if they fail.
posted by Itaxpica at 8:34 AM on August 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


Everybody sing!
I don't wanna wait....for my App Store approval
posted by thelonius at 9:19 AM on August 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


damn you thelonius
posted by Existential Dread at 9:25 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


One of my grandfathers left home at age 11, to live in a boardinghouse and work as a day laborer. (He was already 5'7"; his mother had died of TB after the Spanish influenza swept through and he despised the woman my great-grandfather had taken up with.) I can't decide:

a) fuck these privileged snotnoses;
b) at least technology is a field with a future, and this work shouldn't destroy them physically;
c) exploitation is exploitation, always;
d) this country is fundamentally broken

Also? Danielle Strachman, the Thiel Fellowship’s program director: “I recently had a whole meeting with one young man just for table manners,” Strachman told me. “We had a bowl of chips and salsa for the table, and he starts out by salting them so much — I mean, beyond anything normal.” She explained that it was polite to ask before salting communal chips. She has also talked to fellows about appropriate cologne use.

In closing, the more things change...
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:50 AM on August 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


The unfortunate truth is that being exploited is almost universally a part of the experience of being young. This Silicon Vally situation doesn't sound great, but it doesn't seem especially worse than the other options available to most young people I know. The kids with whom I went to school nearly two decades ago are now adults, and they're dealing with the fallout from the choices that they made fresh out of high school. Absolutely crushing college debt. Abusive relationships. PTSD and various other problems from military service.

When you're young, someone is almost certainly going to take advantage of your lack of experience and leverage. These kids are choosing the bad option that they think suits them best, and I can't fault them for that.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:08 AM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


As the demand for tech labor grows, ambitious teenagers are flooding into San Francisco

Is it really about labour markets? If both demand and supply at there, why is Thiel spending $2m a year on drawing kids out of college and into tech?

I would have liked to see more exploration of the fetishisation of youth remarked on in the piece. Is it about fulfilling a particular techno-libertarian fantasy embedded deeply in the culture? And what are businesses really getting out of this? Does employing teenagers just impress the speculators, or is there more to it than that? On the other hand, may "fetishisation" itself is a smokescreen. Is this a way of getting a lot of very talented people to work for much less than they are worth for a few years, before writing them off as "too old" when their needs and wage expectations start to grow?

It's an interesting piece, but any links to stuff on the underlying economics would be brilliant.
posted by howfar at 10:18 AM on August 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


She explained that it was polite to ask before salting communal chips. She has also talked to fellows about appropriate cologne use

I would love to read an in-depth article just about those "fellowship officers" and their jobs.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:19 AM on August 1, 2015


I'm kinda torn.

On the one hand, if this opportunity had existed when I was a teen, I would have totally gone for it. I was smart -- I had taught myself coding at a very early age -- but kinda socially disabled, to the point where I dropped out of highschool because I'd been bullied so hard. If someone in SF would have been willing to pay me to code, fuck yeah I would have moved there in a heartbeat. And it would've been a damn sight better than the fast food jobs I worked for 3 years before I got my GED and went back to school for my CS degree.

However, I find it funny that these kids are clamoring so eagerly for a lifestyle I hated. I lived in SF from November of 2009 until February of this year. I saw SF go from being a moderately expensive (but still quite livable) place with a funky culture and a burgeoning (but contained) tech scene to StartupTopia, where all you see is white/asian/indian dudes, all you hear is programming chatter, and all the interesting artistpeople have moved across the bay and despise you for working in tech. The whole scene is weird, really. For my first few months after moving back to NYC, it would take me off-guard that any random crowd of people was about 50% women. A normal gender ratio, imagine that!

So yeah, I dunno. I'm not going to prognosticate about whether we're in a bubble and when it will pop; that's a fool's game. However, I'm willing to bet that after a few years of this super work-centered life, surrounded by nothing but nerdy male energy, quite of few of these guys are going to want something different.
posted by panama joe at 10:20 AM on August 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


The unfortunate truth is that being exploited is almost universally a part of the experience of being young.

But there are ways that societies and governments can prevent this. Free education and training, student grants and affordable loans, minimum wage laws, worker protections through employment law and strong unions. Exploitation is common because we allow it to be, not because its inevitable.
posted by howfar at 10:20 AM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


the tech industry sure is open-minded and egalitarian.

Why, I'll bet you that similar wave of 35-and-overs with kids, experience of the working world and lives outside of work would be welcomed with open arms too.
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 10:37 AM on August 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


I would have liked to see more exploration of the fetishisation of youth remarked on in the piece.

I think it's basically the new coolhunters. The youth have a relationship to digital tools that us old folks can't touch — get the young kids involved early and you have the potential to be on the cutting edge of (and have a cut of) the next wave of the ongoing digital revolution.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:00 PM on August 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Twenty years ago I moved to LA before I graduated high school with some HTML and JavaScript knowledge and worked in startups. If the first dotcom boom hadn't coincided with my last two years of high school, I'd have just continued the minimum wage filing and retail jobs I'd already been working. Instead, I accidentally got good at something people wanted to pay for. I was one of these kids. I hope there are some teen girls flocking to SF to build apps and hack hardware too.
posted by annathea at 2:01 PM on August 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Is it really about labour markets? If both demand and supply at there, why is Thiel spending $2m a year on drawing kids out of college and into tech?

I think this is likely to be a really important question, and while I think the "fetishization of youth" is definitely a general undercurrent as per wemayfreeze's comment, I think there's more underlying it especially in the specific case of the Thiel fellows. I don't think Peter Thiel is funding these kids because he wants to harness their digital fluency -- he doesn't need people that young for that, there are plenty of 22- and even 25-year-olds who grew up with tech and are equally fluent. Plus the fluency you develop by knowing how to use phones etc. doesn't necessarily translate into the skills you need to develop software. I think there's got to be other reasons, ranging from a general cultural distrust of academia and the liberal arts in today's tech world, to the knowledge that young people can get away with comparatively more abuse of their bodies and minds in the service of some "cause" before they burn out, but I'm not really confident in my answers here.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:17 PM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also charitably I guess this was supposed to be cute, but man does it come off as sketchy: "When I asked Kumar how old he is, he joked that he identifies as a 15-year-old. He appears to be in his 30s."
posted by en forme de poire at 2:50 PM on August 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I love this movement, and I applaud Thiel for supporting it.

This country wastes tens of billions of dollars a year in direct costs and lost productivity on college for people who want careers that don't legitimately require it, or who aren't suited for it intellectually, emotionally and/or temperamentally (either at their current age, or ever).

We simply have to end the "any B.A. will do" job qualification. People with talents or inclination towards work that can be done without a degree and especially lends itself to youthful vigor should be positively encouraged to throw themselves into that work and go to college if and when they want or actually need it.
posted by MattD at 3:12 PM on August 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


And, yes, I'd 100% eat my cooking here. I'd love my going-into-eighth-grade son to be packing his bags for Cal or Stanford in five years, but if he had an opportunity to instead be packing for a job in SoMa, quite possibly even the better.
posted by MattD at 3:14 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Skipping college will never be a real "choice" until college is affordable for everyone. Until then, it's just rationalizing.
posted by Beholder at 3:56 PM on August 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


We simply have to end the "any B.A. will do" job qualification. People with talents or inclination towards work that can be done without a degree and especially lends itself to youthful vigor should be positively encouraged to throw themselves into that work and go to college if and when they want or actually need it.

While I wholeheartedly agree that approaches to tertiary education in much of the world are fundamentally flawed, this feels more like a response to that than any kind of solution. It just doesn't address the real issues that most people face. For a lot of the individual kids, I'm sure it's brilliant, and I wouldn't have any problem with a child wanting to do it, but the possibility of systemic exploitation is also pretty troubling.

So yes, absolutely, get young people working and doing difficult and productive things, but make sure it's an ongoing choice, and that they're not just digging their own graves by driving down labour costs at the expense of workers with family commitments. I think it's OK to support and look after young people (actually I think it's OK to look after everyone) so what I want is a properly funded and regulated post-14 training and education sector, which involves collaboration between employers, educational institutions and government, which gives people the support to both get into work as early as they want and to continue formal learning and professional development for as long as they need.
posted by howfar at 5:13 PM on August 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


On the one hand I fucking loathe SV culture, but on the other hand I dropped out of college at 21 and slowly built a life for myself after learning how to code while working at a bowling alley. I probably would be at about the same place if I had never gone to college at all, except for the 50 grand in debt.

So I guess what I'm saying is fuck the valley, but also fuck your college. Shit is too expensive.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 6:35 PM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


As a middle aged Bay Area resident hoping for some housing price stability, I can only say:

LALALALALAI'mnotreadingthisarticleLALALALAcan'thearyou
posted by salvia at 7:48 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Military likes soldiers young too. Companies might have the same reasons.
posted by dglynn at 9:11 PM on August 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Having made this history, my advice is go to college, kids. When you tire of hustling for work, you won't be able to even get an interview for a "real" job without a degree. Even with 20 years experience.

Not that I'm bitter.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:17 PM on August 1, 2015


School isn't just about memorizing facts and test preparation. It's about training your brain to solve problems and think critically, at a time when it is best able to develop. My son wants to test out of high school as a junior, and I really don't know what would be best for him.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:49 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


My son wants to test out of high school as a junior, and I really don't know what would be best for him.

Well, for perspective, I dropped out of high school when I was 17, and I regretted it for many years.

Then again, one of my high school friends dropped out at 17, and was regularly commuting to SF for tech work by the time he was 19.

The success or failure of a decision like that depends on what motivates it, and what circumstances surround it. I wanted to leave high school because I hated it and I felt like it was beneath me, but the reality was that I just hated it and invented the idea of it being beneath me so I could feel superior without having to do any work. The guy who went to SF dropped out because he was already starting tech companies, and his school work was cutting into programming time. It may be arguable that, unlike me, high school was actually beneath him. He certainly did much better as a dropout than I did.

I don't know what happened to my friend, except that all of us lost touch with him pretty quickly; he became an intense, Thiel-ish libertarian, to say nothing of how he became a massive narcissist and jerk to everyone around him. That was him - he had that in him long before he dropped out. But these environments aren't exactly where progressivism thrives, and they're every bit as insular and cutthroat as the rest of Silicon Valley. Still, I think he made a lot of money.

I may be totally biased by my own experience as a dropout, but I don't think this whole youth startup culture is anything radical or new, it's just a logical extension of this country's obsession with youth. Thiel is creating a demand for young entrepreneurs the same way there's always been a demand for violin prodigies; everyone is always so excited to see someone that young do something so well, and that attitude can be really toxic. Some of the teens in the article were very aware of this, and I agree with them when they say it's weird to have middle-aged VCs fawning over them simply because of how young they are.

So as much as I'm informed by my own negative experiences, I just can't be too excited for these kids. It sounds like some of them are doing great, but that doesn't mean everyone at that age knows, or should be expected to know, what trajectory their life should take. I thought I did, and boy was I wrong.
posted by teponaztli at 2:31 AM on August 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


I dropped out of an expensive university in San Francisco in the 1990s to work at a string of Linux companies that were springing up. Everyone rolled their eyes at me and said I'd get a Real Job with Windows some day, but I've never had an office job at anything but a Linux company.

I paid off the college debt before the crash hit hardest, and then dropped out of work to go back to university. I satisfied enough requirements and basic credits at CCSF and Berkeley summer school, and then got a history degree from SFSU. It was a good couple of years to do that in, really!

But people always asked me "What are you going to do with a history degree?"

"Oh that's easy," I'd answer. "I'm going to list it on my CV, and this will make sure that my job application goes in the to review pile instead of the shredder."
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 5:28 AM on August 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Very interesting article! I'm torn in a few directions about it, so I'll probably still be chewing on it (at my desk at my tech job in Silicon Valley) tomorrow.

For one, there's the thought, "so that's who's renting out those closets and pissing on the ashes of my flamed-out dream of ever affording SF." I guess it's not a surprise that it's teenagers who are willing to pay a fortune for a mattress on the floor, but while my early twenties were fine for shitty apartments, I've gotten a little too spoiled for that at the ripe old age of 27, so it's the suburbs for me until I leave the area.

Next, there's a lot of envy that those kids know what they want to do at that age and are actually doing it. I didn't realize I was going to do tech until about 10 years ago when I had already submitted all the college applications, and had spent all my free time reading and writing when apparently I should have been learning Javascript. I needed every bit of that crazy tech school education that I got, and while working has taught me so much more than I could learn in a classroom, I'm still shaking off the impostor syndrome I acquired somewhere between high school and college graduation, from being surrounded by brilliant young hackers starting their own companies.

I am also glad to see some of them pick up on the weirdness of the youth fetish. These kids really are smart, and who am I to judge them for striking while the iron is hot? They're just doing what they think is best in a very strange place and time. I also can't blame them for forgoing the mountains of college debt that other teens get stuck with before they know what hit them. Basically, what Parasite Unseen said so well above.

Finally, there's disappointment that this is the engine fueling the startup scene, where big money and big names are made. How many teenagers with time and access for picking up coding are women, non-white, non-middle-class? What about whose parents can afford to send them to these hackathons, or even give permission to go, let alone drop out of high school to live and work in a big faraway city? I was pretty impressed with Orbuch's quote, “it’s pretty much all white dudes. It’s a fake bubble with a bunch of money, and we just go with it.” You got it, kiddo.
posted by j.r at 11:30 PM on August 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


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