I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop for a few hours writing an answer to this question. The short answer is that it’s not that different from being a 20-something-year-old working in Silicon Valley. Only a few years separate an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old, and in most respects, they’ll have a pretty similar experience working in tech. But, for this answer to be interesting and meaningful, I’ll mostly be focusing on the differences. Of course, I’ll mostly be speaking from my own experience, which could be very different from other teens working in Silicon Valley.
As with most things, it’s not easily describable with the adjectives taught in school. It’s exciting, interesting, challenging, rewarding, confusing, and 20 other words I could rattle off for you which all seem meaningful and meaningless at the same time. But, bear with me, and I promise it’ll all make sense.
First off, working in tech immediately out of high school was liberating and forced me to change my perspective on a number of things. All of a sudden, I gained a large amount of optionality by getting a full-time job in tech. I could afford to travel at my discretion and make my own financial decisions, and in general I had much more freedom than I would at college. I was asking myself questions like “what would I gain out of college?” and “do I need to attend college?”, when before it was obvious that I needed to go to college, at the very least for the sake of my career. It forced me to examine my motives more carefully and make much harder decisions than before, rather than just following the default path. (See my answer to Should I take a gap year from MIT? for an example)
Additionally, working in tech, and at Quora specifically, has given me the chance to have a pretty significant impact and scope, probably at least as much as any other opportunity I could’ve had at my age. And by impact, I mean both impact within the company and impact on the world in general (this might seem like a bold and somewhat nebulous claim, but Quora is becoming more and more ubiquitous in a way that I’m confident saying this). Coming out of high school, where I was doing things for the sake of doing things, it was pretty incredible to be working on something that actually has the potential to change the world. It’s both invigorating and frightening at times; on the one hand, I’m basically helping to build the Internet, on the other I’m inexperienced and young, and I have the ability to screw everything up.
One thing I’ve personally struggled with while working in Silicon Valley has been impostor syndrome. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s this feeling that you don’t deserve what you’ve accomplished, and your achievements have only come as the result of luck. Before working in tech, I had essentially no experience in computer science other than competitive programming (at which I was good, but nowhere close to being the best). It was hard for me to believe that I deserved the offers and opportunities I was getting, especially compared to thousands of other applicants who certainly had more experience and knowledge than me. On the other hand, it was easy for me to believe that I simply got lucky on the interviews and was able to slip by, naiveté and inexperience undetected. Oftentimes people expect a young person who’s succeeded in tech to be haughty and pretentious, but we’re just teenagers, and we face the same internal struggles as our peers (MIT students, for example).
Unlike a college setting, though, tech can be pretty socially isolating as a teenager, especially when it’s not the summer. Essentially all of my coworkers are 21 or older, many of them married, and some have children. Because of the age and maturity gap, it was difficult to relate to my coworkers initially, and even harder to socialize with them. Over time, I was able to be more integrated within the company, but even then, it’s hard to build friendships as strong as those from high school or college. I initially tried to overcome this by spending time at Stanford or Berkeley, but it was sometimes equally difficult to relate with students because I was not also a student. I fit imperfectly between two worlds, making it near impossible to latch onto any social graph.
Closely related to impostor syndrome, it was sometimes frustrating to be an unproven teenager in a workplace of adults. You’re constantly fighting against the default and almost subconscious expectation your coworkers have of you, which is an inexperienced and risky teenage hire. You won’t have any ethos to begin with, and the only way to overcome the initial teenager stigma is to perform much better than people expect you to. Even then, if you make a mistake, it can hugely affect how coworkers perceive you because the implicit expectation is that you’re not as experienced or knowledgable as an employee with more schooling or experience. The magnitude of this effect varies between companies, and I’m thankful to say Quora doesn’t suffer much from this because many of the teenage hires have been successful.
I’ll close with a few realizations I’ve had from working in Silicon Valley over the past year:
- You (and I) are not special. Working in Silicon Valley as a teenager doesn’t make you special. It doesn’t matter if you were a wunderkind who managed to get offers at 12 companies and start a startup at 16; your age is only relevant to the headlines. Your success will be determined by what you accomplish, independent of your age. Being a teenager in Silicon Valley doesn’t entitle you to any special attention or treatment. The bottom line is you’re not too different from everybody else working in tech unless you prove it through your actions and endeavors.
- Tech isn’t wonderland. After reading about Silicon Valley in the news, and maybe after one’s first few onsite interviews, one might think that Silicon Valley is this glamorous place where thousands of incredibly smart people come together to solve some of the most interesting problems humanity has ever faced. In some sense, this is true; Silicon Valley does have a lot of very smart people, and there are a lot of interesting problems being worked on. But, just like any industry, there are also incompetent people, arrogant people, and malicious people. Sometimes these people are even very successful. You should expect to encounter these people, and you should be prepared to realize that many companies and projects are not interesting, innovative, or revolutionary.
Overall, being a teenager in tech can be extremely rewarding or frustrating depending on the opportunities you have. I would not say that it is always glamorous or exciting as is sometimes portrayed, and one should be aware of the trade-offs and caveats of working in Silicon Valley as a teen.
[EDIT: I do still plan on going to school at MIT. I just wanted to point this out as an example where my position has changed a lot, and an area where I’m considering things I hadn’t before. For what it’s worth, I think my primary reasons for going to school are social, rather than academic.]
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