Youth at the Gate

StudentsAt 10 am on July 24 Marcia Stepanek, CIO Insight Executive Editor convened a roundtable on "youth and the future of the workplace" at her office in Manhattan. I was in Singapore and it was 10 pm after a long day but I was delighted to be able to participate. The roundtable participants ranged in age from 21 to 65 but we all had strong opinions about "youth". The CIO Insight story (and transcript) is called Youth at the Gate. In my book, Net Attitude, I wrote quite a bit about the importance of talking to teenagers. They hold many of the clues as to what the Future of the Internet will be like. The kids totally get the Internet and studies have now proven the obvious — most teenagers in America (and in many parts of the world) use the Internet as their preferred way to communicate. Email is prevalent, of course, but instant messaging and SMS are their modus operandi. There is so much we can learn from kids. 
In May 1994 a colleague, Dave Grossman, and I gave a presentation to a group of senior managers at IBM. It may sound hard to believe but back then most people had not yet seen the Web. We showed an artificial hip simulation from a medical site at Cornell University, some pictures from the Vatican Library, some dinosaur pictures from Honolulu Community College, and the very first release of ibm.com. The most impressive part of the demonstration was Andrew’s web page. Andrew is Dave’s son and at the time he was seven years old. After Dave showed him the dinosaur pictures at home one night Andrew wanted to make his own web page. He drew a picture of a dinosaur and gave it the name “thorcolervo” (after the name of a robot in a book he had just read). Dave helped Andrew scan the picture and turn it into a web page. Andrew then recorded a sound byte; “Hi, this is Andrew and you are looking at my drawing of a thorcolervo”. This totally blew people away. Seeing a picture of a dinosaur come across the Internet and get displayed on the screen and then to hear a voice come across the Internet describing it and then to find out it was done by a seven year old was spectacular back then! In 1994 Andrew thought that putting things on the Web was normal.

Normal

A few years later I was talking to Dave one day and asked how the kids were doing. He said the family had a nice weekend skiing and that during the trip to the mountains Andrew had a great time chatting with his buddies back home. He described how Andrew was in the back seat of their van with a ThinkPad connected to the Internet using a wireless adapter and IBM’s “instant messaging” program and his “buddy list” to have an on-line chat session with his friends. So as Dave was driving seventy miles per hour to the mountains, Andrew was having an on-line chat session with his friends — and Andrew thought that was normal. That was in 1996. At the time a lot of people were still amazed that the Internet worked at all and here was a ten year old using instant messaging in a car and he was completely unimpressed.

Dad, you should know more

One day in 1995 I was at home trying to get a new SoundBlaster audio card working in my PC. For a variety of technical reasons that I won’t go into here it was proving to be quite difficult. It had to do with technical parameters that most people don’t know exist (and shouldn’t’t have to). I got myself totally confused and frustrated trying to get the parameters set properly. To my great relief my son Aaron arrived home from school. He was 15 at the time. I told him the problem. He walked over to my PC and in about 15 seconds had everything working. After I thanked him, Aaron said, “You know Dad, for someone at your level in IBM, you should really know more about PCs”. The kids wonder why we think technology is so hard. I want to know less. He thought I should know more. He thought it would be normal to know more.

The Campus

Visiting colleges and universities is a great way to learn what is going on today and more importantly where things are headed. I have ben fortunate to be able to visit a number of university campuses to speak about the Future of the Internet. One summer I visited Lehigh University (my alma mater) and spoke at a combined session of the ACM and IEEE membership – a very technical audience. I asked how many were writing Java programs and all the hands went up. This became an important proof point for me as skeptics about Java emerged. That was seven years ago. Same scenario today for Linux. A visit to The J L Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University was nostalgic since I had attended their executive program some years ago. More importantly I got to meet with a group of students and hear their questions during an extended Q&A session. They stimulated my thinking about where things are going. Similar sessions at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford have inspired me greatly. There is no formal training program or company experience that can compare with an hour of Q&A with bright students – they ask questions that really make you think. When I leave one of these sessions I always feel that I have gained at least as much as they have. Today’s graduating classes are very fortunate because they are about to enter a networked world of e-business and they can be the technical and business entrepreneurs who can insure the world gets the remaining 95% of what the Internet has in store.

What is normal?

What we consider esoteric or even bizarre our kids consider normal. When we think of an insurance agent we think of a person. They think of a Java applet that runs on the Internet finding the optimum deal for insurance coverage. When we think of opening a bank account we might think of sitting in front of a desk while someone is filling out a form. They think of "click here to open an account”. When we hear someone say they had a chat with a friend we are thinking of them doing so in person and the kids are thinking of instant messaging on the Internet. When the kids talk about Kazaa or SimCity, we don’t even know what they are talking about.
There is so much we can learn from the kids. They represent the way e-business is going to be. I recommend to CEO’s and CIO’s that they hire a student for a few afternoons a week and make it their job to review the company web site and look for things that you can’t do. There are plenty of them. Listen to the students; ask for their suggestions. They think about things differently – like most of customers are beginning to think.

Extreme Blue

In early 1999, an Internet engineer at IBM named Ron Woan had the idea to bring in a group of a couple of dozen computer science students to be part of a really unique summer program. Ron’s idea was to go out to the top ten Computer Science schools in America and recruit the best of the best students. His idea was to create leading edge projects for the students to work on and to set up a mentoring program whereby the students would work closely with IBM’s top technical leaders; Senior Technical Staff Members, Distinguished Engineers, and IBM Fellows. A further part of Ron’s idea was to give the students the latest IBM technology to use, provide housing for them, and generally make their life as fantastic as possible. We all thought this was a great idea but questioned whether we could actually pull off the administration, find the budget, and manage all the details. There were doubters but in the main many of us thought it was a great idea. The management team; Dave Grossman, from a technical point of view, and Jane Harper, from an operational point of view, believed in Ron’s idea and made the commitment to make it happen. Today it is a program operated on multiple continents.

The project became known as Extreme Blue. Wired Magazine wrote a story about it called “Big Blue Reinvents Internships”. The vision was to enable some of the world’s brightest computer science students to have a chance to spend a fast paced summer working on real, cutting-edge IBM projects. Not running the copying machine or “make work” projects but real projects; things IBM was actually quite interested in making happen. The students were split into teams of three and each team had a mentor who was a senior technical leader from a product group somewhere in IBM. The mentor had a very specific technical project that may have been on their dream list but for which he or she had not otherwise been able to get funding or skills.

Every year the students exceed everyone’s expectations. The thing about students is that they have no “baggage”. They don’t know all the things that didn’t’t work in the past or all the reasons why something can’t get done in a short period of time. No blinders. Totally uninhibited. They have the summer – all of twelve weeks or so. Whatever it takes, they will get the job done. Students are fearless and tireless. Yes, I am sure they learned a lot about IBM and from their mentors but I think IBM learns even more from the students. How they think and work together. Their attitudes about technology. The trends they see. Their view of the future. It is so uplifting and enriching to talk to the students and learn from them.

Talk to the kids

So, talk to the kids. Look over their shoulder. Ask them what they do on the Internet. Talk to them about their values. What do they think of intellectual property rights? What do they like most about the Internet? What do they like least? What sites are really with it? Which are brain-dead? What do they think the Internet will be like in five years? How do they expect they will use it after they get a job? If what they tell you makes sense, think about how you can incorporate some of their kind of thinking into your business or institutional planning. If what they say doesn’t’t make sense or you don’t agree with what they say, talk to the kids some more. If you don’t have any kids, borrow one! If you can’t find any kids to talk to then talk to some ThirdAgers.