The Real Teens of Silicon Valley

Nellie Bowles looks inside the almost-adult lives of the tech industry’s newest recruits – the real teens of Silicon Valley – for California Sunday Magazine:

…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.

Hardcore Hackers

Photo: Brian Klug (CC)

 

Their parents watch from afar, some more supportive than others. “We just miss him. We miss him a lot,” Tanya Latta, Zach’s mom, told me. “But the ultimate goal for us as parents is to have our kids be able to be self-sufficient and happy. So when we saw that he’s reached out a little early, we were really happy that he’s in his element. But it happened so fast.”

Fontenot isn’t an entrepreneur right now so much as the Peter Pan to these Lost Boys — and they are mostly boys — a playful leader and evangelist. At one point, he wanted to build a startup called Doork and even bought Doork.com. “Door with a k for knowledge,” he said, laughing. He told me he’s in a creative period of his life, trying to apply the “growth mind-set” to everything, which in his case right now means playing ukulele, recruiting young talent for companies, and hosting enormous national hackathons. One of Fontenot’s acolytes made T-shirts with a stencil of Fontenot’s face and the words: do you know dave? He uses his Facebook url shortcut (bit.ly/helllyeah) as a business card, coded in such a way that adding more l’s will still lead to it.

“Hackathons are technological Woodstock,” Matin said, using a phrase repeated by many of the young programmers when talking about these events, which have become increasingly powerful tools for recruiters to find young talent, as well as for teens across the country to meet one another and gin up the courage to move west. “Woodstock was a beacon for an ideology. Janis Joplin — ‘Look to your right, that’s your brother.’ That’s what hackathons are, too.”

As it got dark, Fontenot left to go to a Y Combinator event for female founders. Matin left for something called Nerd Night. I climbed back down the metal ladder to the living rooms, where a party was starting. I met Latta, the soft-spoken and brilliant son of Los Angeles social workers; Jackson Greathouse Fall, a dapper 19-year-old who moved here from Oklahoma; and 18-year-old Ryan Orbuch, handsome, outgoing, and geared up for the startup hustle.

“I would compare it to a very extended family,” said 19-year-old Max Wofford, who wore a baggy startup T-shirt and recently moved here from Southern California. “In this sort of house, in this environment, I get to do what I like, and I excel.” He hesitated for a second and gestured around, his messy hair falling in his face. “But I can’t really say I know exactly how living works here. Since I’ve just been sleeping on a beanbag.” (Wofford, who is 6 foot 3, has recently upgraded to a sheet of memory foam.)…

[continues at California Sunday Magazine]

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