Why Young Geeks Leave School

By December 21, 2010

This is the third article in Flyover Geeks’ series on college entrepreneurs in the science and technology fields.

If we look at almost all of the most successful tech companies founded in the last ten years, it is easy to see the change in the old “origins” story. Google, Apple, Hewlitt-Packard, and many others have one thing in common: their first corporate headquarters were located in Silicon Valley-area garages. When Bloomberg, CNBC, or happy-go-lucky CNN anchors recount the “rapid rise of [some new web-app or whatnot]” for mesmerized audiences, the deep-voiced narrators no longer tell the story of the lowly garage. Rather, the voiceover invariably says something like, “Company X was founded by a college student trying to solve a problem. He/she coded/built the first version of what’s now known worldwide by millions of users as Company X from the confines of his/her college dorm room.”

For this series, I’ve Skyped gawky, venture-capitalized college kids who’re still grappling with acne. It seems as though tech entrepreneurs are getting younger. What explains this trend toward younger people entering the tech-entrepreneurial space, even while still in college? This necessarily leads to a second question: why is it that nearly all of these successful college-aged entrepreneurs ended up dropping out of college to start their ventures?

There’s the obvious answer, of course. The opportunity cost of not starting a company around a good idea is often very high. Additionally, as anybody who has started companies is aware, doing so is time-consuming, so much so that it becomes impossible to develop a nascent company and get good marks on coursework.

The above explanation is sufficient to explain a general reason to skip out on college to start a business, but it fails to explain why young entrepreneurs in the tech space are special. A more nuanced approach to this yield the following insight: young coders’ accomplishments did not occur within the context of school. Tech’s Young Turks are autodidacts. In short, they’ve had to teach themselves to code in spite of the somewhat Luddite education paradigm—the most successful among them have at least a bachelor’s degree worth of computer-science experience before they’re sophomores in college.

I polled some of the college entrepreneurs I’m profiling for this series, their computer science colleagues at top-notch programs in the country, and friends of mine in political science and that least tech-oriented academic field: comparative literature. I asked them if they had “experience” (as opposed to “an interest”, about which I also asked) in their chosen field of study prior to entering college, and if so, how much. Of the eleven computer science majors polled, 7 had experience in the field prior to entering college. Of these, most knew more than four programming languages, and had an average of 2.5 years experience. Contrast this with only two of the thirteen political science majors, and none of the six comp-lit majors I polled.

Although the overwhelming majority of high school students aren’t equipped with basic (and we’re talking Java-basic) programming skills in school, and that most schools do not offer programming classes, coding tutorials and books abound. The students (and ex-students) I polled can recall their first forays into programming and development. All were self-starters and driven by curiosity. As kids begin to teach themselves to code in as early as middle school or younger, they will enter college with “native level” fluency in many programming languages. Those who’ve done so early, who are currently college students are lucky early adopters in what ought to be a continuing trend. Their head start should narrow. That said, I’m not going to place any bets on when high-school students drop out to develop successful new programs. Oh wait, Chat Roulette. I forgot.