Who Needs A Diploma?

Why the High-Tech Industry Wants Dropouts
The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2000
(approx. 2,200 words)

A couple of years ago, just before Dan Hammans dropped out of high school, his guidance counselor told him that he would never earn more than $15,000 a year, that he would never hold a job for more than six months at a time and that, to put it plainly, he would never amount to anything. “He pretty much told me I was a loser,” Dan says. He is sitting in his 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse, which is fire-engine red, cost $23,000 and boasts 210 horsepower off the factory floor—though with Dan’s modifications, that’s up to 260. Dan is on his way home from a job at which he earns roughly $1,600 every two weeks, or about $25,000 more each year than a certain Mr. Sternberg of Gilbert High School in Iowa would have thought possible.

“What the heck?” Dan mutters at a passing car. “That’s a real interesting body kit. It’s got Ferrari side skirts or something.” When traffic is light (and the Eclipse running well), the drive to Richardson, where Dan lives, just outside of Dallas, takes about 15 minutes door to door, though on bad days it can take more than an hour. Commuting is one of the small annoyances Dan has learned to put up with in his new life as a computer networking engineer, though it is clearly not as frustrating as walking a mile through subzero Iowa winters to grade school. Such experiences, Dan says, help explain his preoccupation with fast cars. There is that, of course, and then there is the fact that he is 19. “I’m also fascinated by traffic patterns,” he says after being cut off by another driver. “It reminds me of fluid dynamics.”

Mr. Sternberg can perhaps be forgiven his pessimism: in the United States, 25-year-old male high school dropouts make less than $25,000 a year, on average. Their compatriots with high-school diplomas make only about $31,000, the same starting salary as college graduates with engineering degrees.

The Department of Education does not compile data for 19-year-old high school dropouts with a natural working knowledge of computer systems who teach themselves fluid dynamics in order to design airflow parts for their new cars. But perhaps they should: more and more American teenagers are forgoing college educations or even dropping out of high schools to “drop in” to jobs created by the technological revolution. “I’ve talked to some people who go to college,” says Anthony Yarbrough, 19, a network engineer who graduated from high school last year. “They say, ‘O.K., we read this book all day; we get to do a little of this.’ From what they’re telling me, I’m learning a lot more just working than I would’ve in the college system.”

Bonnie Halper, whose high-tech placement firm, Sendresume.com, occasionally finds jobs for such young people, says: “When I look at some of the resumes that I get from people right out of college, I think, Why are they teaching you these useless technologies?” Dan and Anthony, by contrast, learned their skills not in classrooms but in pursuit of the passions that grip so many teenagers these days: computer games, digital music, video editing, computer animation and film. They are hobbyists whose hobby just happens to be part of the fastest-growing industry on the planet, and they are learning to take advantage of it.

Though Dan wouldn’t like to admit it, we are lost. It is early afternoon, and a brief stretch of President George Bush Turnpike (estimated completion date: 2004) stands weirdly overhead to the left, connecting one patch of flat Texas sky to another. Orange detour cones have left us well north of the customer we are to see, but Verio, the company for which Dan works, gives him 31 cents a mile to take the Eclipse on site visits, and we’ve skipped lunch to arrive on time.

At the site, a long, low concrete commercial block that houses a telecoms company, we are led through an open-plan cubicle warren so vast that the paths between cubes have been given street names. Just off Crowley Avenue, between Colleyville Road and Clyde Boulevard, sits the “electrical room,” where Dan is to test three network lines. To do this, he has brought a small device known as a router, with which he will “ping” a similar device back at the office, some 15 miles away.

Routers are the traffic cops of the Internet, guiding countless bits of information between computers, e-mail servers and Web sites around the globe. An intimate knowledge of routers comes in handy at Verio, one of the largest Web-site hosting companies in the world, but this is a knowledge Dan has only imperfectly at present. Most of his morning was spent back at Verio trying to get the two routers to talk to each other—though at one point there was a break to check out a new screen saver, based on “The Matrix” (“awesome,” in Dan’s estimation).

At the site visit, the problem is solved with a call to Dan’s boss, but the morning has not been in vain. This is what passes for training in an industry that moves too quickly for textbooks and knows precious few rules. “When I got this job,” Dan says, “they’d ask me, ‘Do you know how to do this?’ And I’d say, ‘No, but I will by the time I get it done.'”

That Dan came to Verio with gaps in his skill set is fine with his boss. “I learned stuff on the job from scratch, which is the way I feel people should learn their jobs,” Ric Moseley says. “I’m not sure Dan’s quite as mature as he needs to be—a lot of that maturity I think is learned in college—but four years anywhere is going to do something to you, being out on your own for the first time, meeting new people, having to deal with different situations by yourself. Which is what he’s doing now.”

The network test takes only a few minutes, and Dan is back in the office by 4 o’clock. “I’m going to be glad when this day’s over,” Dan says. “I guess I’m always just paranoid about doing things wrong.”

I first met Dan in Manhattan, where he was competing in a professional computer gamers’ tournament. A past champion, Dan estimates he has garnered almost $100,000 in cash, prizes and endorsements since he began competing in 1995. Computer games have also been Dan’s ticket to the job market. He learned his networking skills at “LAN parties” in the mid-90’s, wiring friends’ computers into Local Area Networks for all-night sessions of video games like Quake. (Ric Moseley, who is 28, learned his trade the same way.)

And even in the Internet age, it’s who you know. Dan landed his first job in Dallas, testing computer games, through contacts made at Quake tournaments. In March 1999, he moved out of his parents’ house and joined the skilled labor force. Most of us take much longer to reach that point. For Dan, it came when he was barely old enough to vote.

Teenagers, of course, have been dropping out for as long as schools have been in session. While most probably still become manual laborers or minimum-wage toilers, our fast, new information-age economy allows some dropouts to move along productive paths rather than simply run from age-old conflicts. Like Dan, some even seem to be doing both. “It really was hard having a pager in high school,” says Michael Menefee, a 21-year-old product developer who dropped out of college after just a few months. “The principal would say, ‘I’ll just hold this for you, and if you get a page, I’ll come get you.’ Well, that’s not the point. The point is, I’m making more than my teachers.”

Still, as Dan’s mother, Alice Hammans, says, dropping out is no guarantee of a good job: “You don’t get something for nothing. Daniel hasn’t just begun in the work world without first acquiring a lot of knowledge.” His schooling in computers, in fact, began around the age of 3, when his father got a Commodore 64, one of the first home-computer systems. By 7, Dan was programming in Basic. In high school—just as the World Wide Web was exploding into America’s consciousness—Dan got a part-time job at a local Internet service provider. Dan describes his childhood as happy, sort of, until he got into school. “Dan had a really hard time in grade school,” his mother says, “so he just chose an alternate path. Luckily, because of everything that he has internally, he was able to make it.”

Other “drop-ins” echo Dan’s frustration. “I was always one of those people who sat there and argued with my teachers about why I should be in school all the time,” says Matt Levine, who, at 18, has decided that starting an Internet-based media company is more important than college. “I looked at the opportunity and the opportunity cost, and sort of went where my heart desired, at least for the moment.”

Furthermore, says Peter Pathos, founder and chief executive of Theplanet.com, a Dallas start-up specializing in “advanced” Web hosting, “Right now, I think there’s much more opportunity diving into the phenomenon than going to college.” Pathos employs both Anthony Yarbrough and Michael Menefee, as well as other “drop-in” young adults. “There’s almost a gap between the ones you catch right out of high school and the ones who’ve been used up and burned out by the time they’re 21 or 22 by the high-tech jobs,” he says of his employees. “The younger ones are some of the most talented people.”

It’s a busy Friday night, and Dan is having dinner at Campisi’s Egyptian with his girlfriend, Wendy, an 18-year-old pre-med student at the University of Texas, and his roommate, Mike, a 23-year-old college dropout who works in computer game design, something Dan hopes one day to pursue. The place is aclatter with waiters and barmen and locals cheering the Dallas Stars, but none of this seems to reach Dan, who is lost in a video game on the tiny screen of his cellular phone. “Take this away from me,” he tells Mike, after we have put off ordering a second time. The episode sparks a reminiscence of early video games and the Commodore 64’s Dan and Mike both owned as children. “We had one we actually used for a stepping stool,” Mike says, “because it was so solid.” Dan describes with pride loading games onto the Commodore system at the age of 4, which involved typing commands his father had printed on the disk. Though he couldn’t yet read, he was able to copy letters well enough to get the computer to play the game.

“Even back then,” Mike says, “even when we didn’t know anything about computers, I always thought it was silly that it didn’t just load the game, that you had to type something.” It is a small point, but a telling one. When the Commodore 64 came along, those of us old enough to read followed the instructions. But Dan and Mike are unburdened by such received wisdom. They are first-generation citizens of the information age, not immigrants to it, and are intuitively familiar with its language and its ways. We who remember the dawn of the personal computer may feel that the future has at long last arrived, but Dan and Mike were born into that future. It is nothing more exciting than their present day.

Though Dan is currently wrapping up his G.E.D., his education is not over yet. With Verio’s help, he plans to go after a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certificate, the information-age equivalent of an M.B.A. According to Cisco, the starting salary for the 2,000 or so C.C.I.E.’s awarded thus far in the United States is roughly $75,000. Even without a Cisco certification, it’s impossible to tell how far Dan could go in the high-tech job market, where brain sweat and elbow grease are still the best predictors of long-term earning potential.

Dan’s stormy relationship with school may have cost him little in terms of salary and the kind of statistics tracked by the Department of Ed., but even at 19, he recognizes that stepping through the door to the adult world of work has left other doors to swing shut behind him. “The day I realized I would never go to college, I was really bummed out,” he says. “I wanted to play hockey. In high school, I was, like, twice as good at hockey as I am now at Quake, and as much as I love Quake, I loved hockey twice as much.

“That’s really the only regret that I have. I watched people that I played with go on to play for Iowa State, and they won the national championship last year and they were awesome.”