Why You Need a Technical Summer Program for High School Students

Can you guess what these two scenarios have in common?

Imagine seeing Google or Facebook working on ways to provide internet connectivity to remote regions, and then launching project Seed—an off-the-grid web server that solves the same problem on a smaller scale.

Or say you built an Android app, and in the process figured out a unique way to improve the user experience when the phone is turned on its side. When you write about your methods, you hear from programmers who thank you for saving them tons of time.

These would be great accomplishments for any senior technologist. The fact is, these are examples of the enthusiasm and accomplishments of high school students.

In this post I’m going to illustrate why a paid, technical summer high school program has, in my mind, no downside for students, employers, or schools.

Eric Hamber Kids come for a visit

Kids are amazing. Really amazing.

Noah, Chris, and Emmanuel
(L to R) Noah Tajwar, Chris Bolton, and Emmanuel Sales. High school students from our 2015 Summer cohort.

I chose the title word ‘amazing’ on purpose. All these high school students spent last summer with us. They are keen, curious, look at things differently than we do, and inspire us with their accomplishments.

Project Seed was built by Chris Bolton and three other teammates at Hack the North. Chris says it changed the way he thought about the power of technology to make real a difference. He landed a place in the University of British Columbia BUCS program last fall, and this summer he is working as a co-op at Mobify – another local tech startup.

Noah Tajwar, who spent last summer with us and wrote the article on orientation changes in Android, just won a prestigious Schulich Leadership scholarship to study Engineering at UBC.

A third student, Emmanuel Sales, impressed us with his personal project on socket programming. After joining UBC CompSci last fall he came back this summer to work on our Platform team.

What’s it like to be a programmer?

This is a great question with so many different answers. In late April, we hosted a “High School Tech Tour” for a small number of junior and high school kids from the Lower Mainland. In addition to an office tour, our developers answered students’ questions both on a panel and in small groups. Many of those questions focused on gleaning insight into the day-to-day ‘real life’ of designing, building, testing, and deploying software.

We told stories about discovering our technical talents, our path to software, about our current work, our teams, and how to be a great developer. Stories and conversations can give others a glimpse of our reality, but to truly understand working in the software development industry they need to experience it first hand. That’s the difference between passive learning and deliberate practice: one simply gives you knowledge, the other gives you understanding because it develops your skills.

High School Tech Tour - April 27 2016

Give them a chance

As a way to give high school students practical experience and mentorship in technology we ran a pilot last year by posting a paid role for a software engineering summer job, affectionately known as the “pre-co-op co-op”. It was such a rewarding experience for us and for the students that it is happening again this summer.

For someone who loves technology, a summer job in software definitely beats scooping ice cream.

Students sharpen their skills, test-drive life in industry, and earn an income. Employers like us get an opportunity to cement our own knowledge by teaching students and at the same time build a very-long-term pipeline of young, bright talent. Lastly, it is a way for schools to find placements for their most passionate students. The CompSci program at Eric Hamber has had a student in our program this summer and last.

Additionally, the BC Government’s big investments in technology such as introducing coding and computational thinking to school curricula will increase the number of technology-savvy students. Schools like Riverside Secondary already have most of their Grade 9s on tablets.

Now, let’s give them practical experience. But where?

Too few programs

For our summer program in 2015, there were 71 applicants, 18 phone screenings, eight interviews, three offers, and three hires. In 2016, 105 applicants, 12 phone screenings, four interviews and two hires. We kept the final number small because we’ve learned it allows us to provide the most thoughtful and attentive mentorship.

Based on preliminary research, I’m unaware of any other practical, industry-lead summer job programs specific to software development, operations engineering, security, or IT for high school students in the Lower Mainland, so at first-glance this appears to be providing an opportunity in a region where none previously existed.

Note: there are summer opportunities in science research at Science World, the BC Cancer Institute, or Shad Valley, or in the US.

You can help

Hopefully you’re reading this and run a program like ours or you know of one. Please get in touch if you do, because I’d love to work together on developing, supporting, and marketing these opportunities.

Train Wreck Grafitti

The little details

  • Students earn between $17 and $20 per hour for 40 hours a week.
  • We treat them like full-time staff. They go through the same hiring and onboarding as everyone else except that in most cases they are under 18 so we invite their parents to be involved every step of the way.
  • Legally, due to them being minors, we had their parents co-sign their employment agreement.
  • Alcohol is served in our offices so we also require the students to sign an agreement that they will not drink on premises before reaching the legal drinking age.
  • Day-to-day, students join a product team, pair with a mentor during onboarding, participate in all aspects of software development as a team, take part in our agile practices, work out loud in Guild meetings, write a blog post, give a technical lightning talk … and generally become reliably independent and contribute to our products and our culture.
  • We ask them to ‘work out loud’ about their learning and write or speak about their experiences. This gives other high school students an idea of the real work being done and provides a way for us to encourage interest in the program. You can read about their experience and their technical contributions here: Noah, Emmanuel, and Chris.
What’s next?

There’s still time before high school kids are out of school for the summer and I know there are at least 103 of them who can make a difference in your company. Think seriously about how you can make this happen and let me know how I can help.


To Lindsay, Ric, and Kimli for ideas and editing help on this post.

About the AuthorNoel Pullen 200x200

Noel focuses on culture, employee engagement, community involvement, and training for Hootsuite’s technical groups. He loves to exchange ideas and would like to hear how you do these things at your organization. Get in touch via LinkedIn.