Teaching the children

On my recent trip back to my ancestral home of Boston, I was invited to speak at a high school. The topic was what it takes to work for a company like Yahoo!. Given that this was a group of teenagers, and the propensity of such groups to fall asleep when the lights are turned down, I did the talk old-school style with no Powerpoint presentation. I wanted it to be more of a discussion than a lecture (they get lectures every day, right?).

I have to say it was pretty interesting. Keeping the attention of a bunch of computer geeks is one thing; keeping the attention of a bunch of teenagers is another. So I decided that I’d keep them engaged by asking them questions and encouraging them to ask me questions throughout. I started by asking them how many of them use the Internet (naturally, they all do). I then followed up by asking, given that they all use the Internet, how many people do they think use the Internet worldwide? The answer is, of course, 1 billion people. I then gave my favorite statistic: of those one billion people, half of them end up on the Yahoo! network every day. That means when I go to work, my work is helping 500 million people every day to check their email, find their news, or contact their friends. An awed silence followed.

I explained to the students how I ended up at Yahoo!, how I learned what I know, and what sort of things are important to getting a job at a company like Yahoo! I spent a large amount of time emphasizing how important education is, and how the things they’re learning now could make them thousands of dollars later on (this group was particularly money-oriented). Of course, a few mentions about college were also thrown in, since not all kids truly understand how important it is to continue their education after high school.

What I found most interesting was when I was asking them what browsers they use. The majority said that they use Firefox, which I found rather surprising. A couple mentioned using Internet Explorer, and one even mentioned using Opera. I had no idea that teenagers were so savvy about web browsers.

The kids asked me a bunch of good questions, like what they should focus on if they want to be a web developer. It was interesting to talk to people who want to get involved in web development and are just getting started. Things that we consider norms in the industry, like using Firebug, are completely foreign to them. One of the students asked me what he should use to debug JavaScript and smiled as I rattled off the various tools that I use…he hadn’t heard of any of them.

Overall, I thought it was a really good talk. I enjoyed interacting with the kids and teachers, and was even slightly amused as I remembered myself in high school. It was quite different from any other talk I’ve given and I enjoyed it immensely.

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