Lawn-Mower, Coder, World-Conqueror

Inside Redfin

Lawn-Mower, Coder, World-Conqueror

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

One thing I’ve noticed working at startups over the past two decades is that the job applications of college students have changed: they’ve gotten much, much better. A summer coding internship before your senior year of college was once a mark of distinction, but now we see students with a royal flush, three internships from companies like Palantir, Dropbox, Facebook and Google, one following each year of college.

A generation hence, we’ll likely get the same resume from a high-school student. There’s now a phenomenally successful board game for three year-olds to learn to codekindergarten classes on coding at Chicago Public Schools, and a graphical development environment for seven-year-olds. Redfin just gave a permanent position to a 17-year-old who skipped high school completely to study computer science in college.

In a society where machines could do far more good if only enough people could program them — and with high rates of unemployment among recent graduates — this is progress. There are probably hundreds of people with Bill Gates’ talent all over the world today who won’t get what Gates got at an early age, access to a computer, and the educational foundation to master it. That’s changing, and it can’t change soon enough.

Yet still I feel mixed that many of the interns we’re hiring now have never had a job flipping burgers or trimming hedges. While I can’t quite recommend these jobs, having had them myself, I wonder how it will affect society that a new generation of creators and entrepreneurs won’t get many chances to meet the people I met each summer of my college years, the ones who poured beer into their breakfast cereal, or lured me into a dumpster and then activated the compactor.

And it’s not just me. Redfin’s chief technology officer graduated from Stanford at the age of 20, but first worked in lawn-mower repair. Our senior vice-president of engineering got a perfect score on her SAT, yet still a year later found herself dressed up as Lucky the Lion at Circus World Pizza.

These dreary experiences may have taught us something about ourselves, but mostly they taught us about others, people trying to scrape by, doing hard, nasty work and raising children. Any software companies just starting out today have nothing to do with those folks because the founders of those companies have, for so long, had nothing to do with those folks.

The latest winner of the industry’s premier startup contest is a company that will deliver butlers via an iPhone; other startups will help you rustle up task rabbits and clothes-washers; despite the dizzying number of online tools around exotic travel and fine dining, more software entrepreneurs attack these problems every year. Of course it is good to solve these problems, just so long as we remember they aren’t the only problems.

The greatest challenge faced by Silicon Valley and its outposts in Seattle and Boston is to create products not just for ourselves, but for the mass market. Eventually, the most-exclusive of services reach the broadest of audiences: Uber began by offering fancy town-cars but now has made all private transport more affordable. The question is how many teams have Uber’s common touch.

That touch is important when building software. A generation earlier, Tom Wolfe argued that a different kind of creator, the novelist, had an obligation not simply to focus inward on his own craft, but to go out into the world to learn how people live and what they do. Wolfe admiringly cited a 19th-century French writer who discovered that the horses working in the mines of that age were brought down the shaft as foals, never again to see the light of the day. This kind of real-world understanding, he said, was the proper subject of the novel.

We have the same chasm to cross in Silicon Valley: not merely to understand better how computers work, but to understand how the rest of the world works. What’s encouraging is that there are organizations promoting that kind of understanding today. Code for America helps technical folks in the private sector get temporary government gigs building applications for local governments, so citizens can adopt a fire hydrant to shovel out in a snowstorm, or find government food and housing programs for their area, or communicate with city officials via text messages.

This type of cultural exchange could go beyond city and federal governments to bring more computing power to schools, hospitals, research labs and many other parts of our society. At the same time, it could spawn hundreds of new business ideas.

One of the best reasons for optimism about our society’s future is this: when we teach kids from all walks of life how to code, the software they’ll grow up to build will help people from all walks of life. We just have to be careful to make sure that Silicon Valley’s opportunities and technical expertise don’t separate us from the rest of the world, at an earlier and earlier age, because we can sometimes link the rest of the world to a better future.

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