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Fall 2001

Vol. 02, No. 1


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Computer whiz kids

Some children, I'll call them computer whiz kids, learn important lessons while mastering information technology. While many adults feel disarmed when facing a computer, kids don't imagine that they are interacting with a machine, they think of gaining access to other kids. This is the new gathering place. It's a telephone to them, it's what church socials were to some of us or the malt shop to others.

Children learn to use computers faster than adults and they are more comfortable being creative while using computers to communicate with their friends. They initiate conversations using pseudonyms; they adopt personas using avatars (a picture chosen to represent a mood or to project an attitude). They want to build a reputation around their on-line role, it's part of the game. Some of them, the whiz kids, learn important lessons about themselves and about other people from using computers. I call them whiz kids because, without adult influence, they learn from their experiences and act on the lessons. They read, research, take each other's counsel, and keep moving ahead. They build and rebuild the gathering place; they invent new rules for the game. Watching them play and remedy mistakes may yield insights about enhancing our work places, attracting and retaining the best people, and adding value to lives of others, so far as these activities revolve around the use of computers.

Here are a few archetypes that I have watched several whiz kids traverse as they gain experience on-line: The Kid Next Door, Pinball Wizard, Lone Ranger, the Hacker, the Leader. Bear in mind that these are my archetypes. They help me organize some of what I have observed. Not all computer whiz kids go through each phase, and my list is not exhaustive. I mean to illustrate that whiz kids graduate from one phase to the next as quickly as circumstances require and that the whiz kids avoid getting stuck in a phase at all costs. They don't like others to pigeonhole them. These whiz kids play roles, use role models incessantly, and get quite good at intuiting the roles others wish to play.

As they gain confidence in themselves, they see the strengths of others who prefer different role models. These are some of the characteristics of future leaders.

The Kid Next Door
The kid next door phase might be announced by a child rushing into the house with: "My friend just got a new PC, and you should see what it can do." The notion is simple, new is faster and faster is better - better for playing games, running the latest software, downloading Web pages. Kids want the fastest computer because it gives them an edge in the game. At first, there is nothing better than a new, fast PC. But almost immediately, new is old, and that's not a very satisfying phase to get stuck in.

The Pinball Wizard
Once the kids realize that someone else will always have newer technology, another sort of competition sets in. Whiz kids hope that through self-mastery they will become larger than life in the minds of the peers, like Tommy, the Pinball Wizard in the rock opera by The Who. Typing at light speed, for example, can be impressive and accurate. Fast typing can win the latest game. I know two kids who competed in everything between the ages of 7 and 11, including keyboarding, as typing is now known. They were the computer whiz kids to their friends because they both typed so fast. None of the peers really knew what it was these two did with computers, but no one missed the fact that they did it really fast. Eventually, the one kid mastered graphic design and the other became a programmer, so they no longer compete. Now they laugh about the fact that after four years of head-to-head competition early in life, no one can type as fast and as accurately as they can. It's no longer seen as much of an accomplishment, but it set them apart from everyone else for several years, and that was their intention once.

The Lone Ranger
Some kids learn to distinguish themselves by doing good in others eyes and then riding off into the sunset a hero. Fixing someone's computer or helping others master a new game or navigate the 'Net does feel good; kids get immediate gratification for a job well done and gain stature in other kids' eyes. I imagine that the whiz kids see themselves as heroes helping the less fortunate, the less able, and the desperate. Heroes are, however, in demand, and as the word spreads, requests for help begin to come in from adults and all of a sudden it's no longer a game but a job. Adults' expectations are higher - they demand more, some even demand that the kid accept payment - this is real life.

The Hacker
Kids respond to adults in surprising ways. Some, with entrepreneurial acumen, accept the payment, advance their skills, and grow into an advanced Lone Ranger - a hacker. Braggadocio is added to the prescription for getting the grownups back on their feet and on-line. The hacker recounts past exploits to point up other's failures, thinking that once the truth is revealed and others' weaknesses are exposed, we all can advance. Smarter is best, rules are meant to be broken because the hackers are smarter than those who make the rules, and being slow is synonymous with getting caught. Computer-speak rules, acronyms abound, jokes focus on how dumb everyone else is who struggles with IT. Distinguishing yourself this way, being in the spotlight, has a catch - the trouble is you may get in trouble. One whiz kid I know was blamed for something he didn't do. Who else but the hacker, the adults reasoned, would know how to break into our systems? If the hacker didn't do it, he'll know who did. All of a sudden, no one except the hacker appreciates the difference between knowing how and doing it. Being seen as the one to call for help also means that you'll be the first suspect when something goes awry.

The Team Leader
Some hackers learn the strength in numbers lesson. It takes real maturity to admit there is always someone who's better and there's always a better solution. Harnessing the right people, at the right time, to do the right job is a different sort of challenge. In my observation, team leaders transcend the phases outlined here and see teamwork as synonymous with getting good things done for other people.
One of these team leaders launched a Web site for teens, and five kids, who hail from around the world and have never met, manage it. They act as a support team to 187 registered users who contribute content for distribution on the site. The five teens administer the site, organize the users' contributions, advertise the site, affiliate their operation with other service providers and establish formal, contractual partnerships with others to add value to their users' experience. They have served almost 90,000 discrete visitors to their Web site since its current home was opened in March 2001. It's a small wonder that when they sit down at the keyboard, they are confident and aggressive. They are on a mission. But they are not alone.

-Jim Ross

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.