Presentation that I gave at Monktoberfest 2022. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzdVSMRu16g
Coming of Age
Developing young technologists
without robbing them of their youth
Oxide Computer Company
“A version of college replacement”?
• What is the purpose of a college education?
• What is the purpose of education in the abstract?
• What exactly are we trying to replace and why?
• Are we trying to address its cost… or its purpose?
“Find the smartest”?
• What does “smartest” mean? How is this assessed?
• Is this selecting for precociousness or ultimate ability?
• How does precociousness correlate to ultimate ability, anyway?
• And is precociousness more common in well-structured domains?
• Is there a peril in telling children that they are smart?
• How are these children found? And does this process not start at a
much younger age?
“...and most driven”?
• What does “most driven” mean?
• How is this assessed?
• What does drive mean in someone so young, who is necessarily
• And, um, might you be in fact selecting for driven parents?
“18 year olds”?!
• As recently as the 1990s, prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that
most brain development was complete by mid-childhood (!)
• We know now that this is false; the prefrontal cortex continues to
develop into the mid-20s – it is underdeveloped in an 18-year-old!
• The limbic system – emotions and social processing – is further along…
• This means that 18-year-olds are likely to exhibit developed emotions
and heightened social rewards – but their judgement is still developing
• 18-year-olds can seem fully adult, but they remain vulnerable
“a decade+ of salary… on whatever they want”?!
• A still-developing frontal cortex means that “whatever they want” is very
likely to shift over time – and this is healthy!
• Applying a “decade+ of salary” is adding ﬁrepower to a weapon that
can’t be reliably aimed; is this wise?!
“a smart peer group”?
• This seems less controversial, but it just has subtler issues…
• Speciﬁcally: from whom do we learn?
• Do we learn from true peers, or older peers?
• Are the perils of telling a child that they are smart compounded by
isolating an entire group and telling them that they are smart?
“in exchange for small % of future earnings”
• This is just… gross: it is rapacious, manipulative, exploitative, cynical
• What happens when (say) the prefrontal cortex develops a tad and
someone wants to get out of this terrible deal?
• What happens when (say) someone wants to pursue non-proﬁt work?
• What happens when (say) someone wants to return to school?
• This is gross because it feels predatory – it is taking advantage of the
impulsivity of a still-developing prefrontal cortex
There I ﬁxed it?
The importance of childhood
• Childhood is not merely knowledge accumulation
• Focus should also be on character development: honesty, integrity,
decency, persistence, grit, resilience, teamwork
• That limbic center is really important: adolescents care a lot about their
friends – and this is healthy!
• Experimentation in youth should be encouraged – adults have a
responsibility for keeping this safe (easier said than done!)
Whither the young technologist?
• The still-developing brain is not without its strengths: risk-taking is really
important for technologists; it can be helpful to not know the impossible!
• It is incumbent upon young technologists – especially capable and
motivated ones! – to learn how little they know
• The purpose of a higher education should be to bridge the ego from the
narcissism of childhood to the collaboration of adulthood
• Older peers are essential in this process: e.g., graduate students –
humanity’s most embittered – serve a thankless but essential task
Building the foundation
• As part of their education, young technologists should seek out
opportunities that will allow them to build foundation – but that still
appeal to their risk-tasking and the sense of the possible
• An internship is a great opportunity: interns should be given projects that
are wildly speculative rather than menial tasks
• Large companies are often a better ﬁt than a startup because they
increase the odds of an older peer group to learn from
• As the foundation is built and judgement develops hits a sweet spot…
Innovation through the years
• One’s mid-twenties to mid-thirties are a prime for individual innovation
• Innovation does not stop in one’s mid-thirties, but it does change
• Solving hard problems is a team endeavor, and as technologists age
into full adulthood, they will increasingly need to take leadership roles…
• This does not necessarily mean management! But it does mean, e.g.:
problem formulation, team formation (hiring!), conﬂict resolution
• The mid-thirties (and beyond!) are a sweet spot for teamwork
Coming of age
• Young technologists should temper their sense of the possible and their
desire to take risk with learning how the world works
• We should be guiding our “smartest and most driven” towards big, hard,
thorny problems – and to developing the character for those problems
• Entrepreneurialism can wait: there is a lot to be said for starting a
company in your forties!
• Life is long; let children have their childhood – let students be
students, and let young adults have their young adulthood!