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Surfing Silicon Valley: Is this a cool summer job or what?

By San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre

July 10, 1998
Web posted at: 2:07 PM EDT (1407 GMT)


(CNN) -- The old line about asking a kid to help you with your computer is true. Across Silicon Valley, company after company turns to teen-agers for computer help this summer.

16-year-old Theresa Eston works the help line for 6,000 computer users employed by Contra Costa County, California. 19-year-old Shira Taowainer helps a middle-aged customer with his login at the Line Express Cyber Lounge at San Rafael, California.

Eston grins, looking younger than her 16 years. "I'm a little surprised at the faith they put in us sometimes."

Taowainer is struck with amazement that she gets to play with computers at work. She grins, "They pay me to do this, yea, and it's great."

In fact, it IS her work.

18-year-old Jason Holbrook works with Linux systems at the same county office. He says work is a lot different than school because there's plenty of cool gear to use, "I wasn't really expecting to get to lay my hands on all this equipment."

Jason says Linux is powerful, agile and that he's happy to get the chance to work with it. He gets to learn, tweak and re-tweak the computers, earning money at the same time. "What surprised me was they actually let us do more stuff than the teachers in school would let us do," he said.

Jason's boss is very happy with his teen-age employees. "One of the most important things they're learning is how to deal with that adult pressure in a very competitive environment," says County Information Officer Steve Steinbrecher.

He says gender and age differences seem to melt away. The older clients are, if anything, more protective of the young workers. "I like helping adults because they seem so...grateful," says Eston.

But what about jerks? In any job, there are a few. One 18-year-old jokes that in those cases some computers "just don't seem to be repairable." So far none of his colleagues have had to practice that rule.

Acceptance, in fact, has been great, they say. Especially by the hiring managers. Contra Costa's Information Technology Department can't fill a fourth of its openings. Recruiting tech workers in a hotly competitive environment like Silicon Valley is a daily challenge.

Steinbrecher says, "Right now in the Silicon Valley there are 30-thousand vacant positions. Obviously working for local government, we're at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to salaries and compensation."

But the youngsters are doing the work as much for achievement and practice as they are for money.

Matt Kerr says he could be flipping burgers or cutting lawns this summer. But no, "This is much cooler."

Robert Wong is installing Windows NT on a new server that will go into service soon. "When I came in here, I didn't know how the business world worked."

Ted Biggs is developing a plan to help the county debug its Y2K problem. "We tried it out on the boss' laptop...It works."

Will Hayes works on a database for a consulting firm. "The only thing hard about this job is that it's summertime and I have to wake up at 7:30."

Biggs is having a tough time dealing with the rush hour traffic.

Welcome to the real world, folks.

Surf on...

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