I recently took a trip to Florence, Mont. to visit members Jeff White and Colleen Rudio, founders of Cascadia Business Development and its sister company NEWBOS Partners. The two organizations recently developed and launched StrongestLink™, a task-based learning management platform that allows companies to “organize, capture and deploy specific operational training and all support documentation by function.”
One employee on the development team, Jeb Rosen, was only 18. At first I mistook him for one of the owners’ children stopping by the office. Jeb just graduated in a class of 26 students from Victor high school and is on his way to study Computer Science at the University of Montana in the Fall.
I was astounded to learn that this young man has been working with the Cascadia/NEWBOS team since he was 12 years old. White and Rudio emphasized to me that Rosen is a professional coder, not an intern, and essential to the product development team.
Years earlier, Jeff White went into the Victor schools searching for a student who was good with computers to help him with a project. The teachers recommended Jeb, a 7th-grader who was passionate about coding, hungry to learn, and grateful to find a mentor who validated the way he thought.
Since he was 6 or 7 years old, Rosen enjoyed technology and computers. He liked messing around with his mom’s computer, reading the instruction manuals and taking stuff apart. He got into programming around age 10. Rosen taught himself to code using a book his grandma gave him as a gift and tutorials recommended by a family friend who did programming for Microsoft.
Rosen started working on projects for White after school and on the weekends, beginning with computer maintenance and gradually moving up to programming tasks. He has spent the last two summers writing code for the StrongestLink™ system.
On the job, Rosen learned a lot from his bosses and the other programmers on the team, and not just about coding. He was exposed to business concepts like marketing, sales, and cash flow. He also had a chance to practice collaboration and communication skills.
Rosen was recently complimented on the way he writes emails, which he sends to co-workers, vendors, or occasionally customers in a support function. “I would never have gotten that if I’d just done stuff on my own, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be in a position to need to write good emails,” he said.
How Bill Gates Got a Head Start
Rosen’s experience reminded me of a story Malcolm Gladwell told in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. When Bill Gates was in 8th grade, the Mother’s Club at his Seattle school organized a rummage sale and used the proceeds to buy an early computer – the kind that used punch cards. This was a time when many universities didn’t have computers.
Gates spent countless hours as a middle schooler learning to program this machine. Gladwell argued that having the unique opportunity to learn his craft at such an early age gave Gates’ an advantage and accelerated his path to become a brilliant software developer, Microsoft founder, and one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Internships, Apprenticeships and Code Montana
Jeb Rosen knows his situation is unusual, but he sees potential for other Montana kids to benefit from similar experiences.
“A lot of people say that I have a very unique gift and a unique opportunity, but I think that it doesn’t have to be. I don’t always have to be the only kid who had a weird hobby that I turned into a job.
As a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew I liked programming. A lot of middle school and high school kids are in the same place.
There are a lot of [young] people with an interest in computers, who want to tinker, not necessarily just programming, but using them for things like databases, publishing, presentation-making, or Photoshop. There’s something they enjoy and they never get the chance to see that as a career possibility. Internships and apprenticeships might be a great way to get the word out.”
Rosen is also optimistic about Code Montana, a non-profit program founded by Alliance board members Rob Irizarry and Greg Gianforte. Code Montana gives middle school and high school kids anywhere in the state the opportunity to learn to code and to earn college credit doing it. At a time when most schools don’t teach computer programming, Code Montana empowers kids to uncover their love for coding and develop their skills before they go to college.
Programs like these are increasing the number of computer science majors in our universities and the odds that the next great software company will be built here in Montana. One can only imagine the legacy of these investments in Montana kids, 20 years from now.
Image Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Christina Henderson, Executive Director