High School Students vs. the NSA

high-schoolBelieve it or not, the NSA has more secrets than we—or maybe even Edward Snowden—suspected. In addition to knowing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s (and potentially your) cell phone information, I found it revealing when watching last week’s 60 Minutes report that the National Security Agency’s HR department is no stranger to a new secret of business success in the internet era: high school students.

That’s right—NSA officials readily and proudly admit that many of their new hires still take seventh-period English and are just getting their drivers licenses. And these students aren’t manning the phones or sorting mail. They’re given full security clearance and handed the problems that have stumped the NSA lifers. Deputy Director John Inglis reports that it is “more often the rule than the exception” that the high school interns are successful at finding solutions to these issues that the best NSA technologists can’t solve. So successful in fact that the NSA holds on to as many of them as they can; of the 61 interns who requested to stay on at the NSA last year, the NSA gave full- or part-time contracts to—you guessed it—all 61.

Inglis credits the students’ “different perspective[s]” and the “audacity” they bring for enabling them to solve problems of national security. I’d argue it goes beyond audacity and hits at the root of who has the most expertise in an increasingly technological marketplace. In the 1960s and 70s, businessmen may have peaked in their 50s and 60s when they rose to the rank of VP or President. Now the peak age for a start-up founder is probably mid-twenties, meaning they’d be best served by getting their start in business in their late teens. Even the age of Fortune 100 CEOs—who head the companies that will react much more slowly to a changing marketplace than tech companies—has steadily declined, from 56 years old in 1980 to 52 in 2001. Kids don’t just have audacity; they possess an intuitive understanding of how computers and modern-day technology work that someone my age will never have.

A 2013 Gallup Poll found that despite the high numbers of unemployed, many U.S. businesses are struggling to find employees who are the right match for their companies. Nearly 30 percent of small business owners report that a lack of qualified employees has negatively affected their businesses. But my hunch is not that there is a dearth of qualified workers, but that these business owners aren’t looking in the right place. Take a cue from the NSA and start recruiting at the local high school. In a society where technology is at the root of most disruptive high-growth companies, young people have more power than ever, and the bar is forever raised for the elderly (which, in the tech world, is defined as 40 and over) to stay relevant and prescient.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on December 30, 2013.

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