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Google, Microsoft plug teens into tech

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Getting young people interested in jumping into the Silicon Valley meat grinder is major work for tech firms like Microsoft and Google.

Tot talent is what keeps the business alive (and your job at constant threat), but the kids aren't always going to line up nicely for computer science education without at least some furtive pushing by the big firms.

Reps for several Silicon Valley staples were out and about for SDForum's third annual "Tech Titans of Tomorrow" conference held at the Hewlett-Packard campus at Palo Alto, California. At a Wednesday panel for "teen outreach," the firms touted what they have to offer. Just how does a tech company entice one into the rabbit hole? The programs are often a telling reflection of the company's personal style.

Microsoft, as you might imagine, doesn't exactly have the sugar-coated cool that a company like Google is dripping with, so youth recruitment practices is a bit more straitlaced. Still, they put considerable effort into making its tech jobs look appealing to kids.

"As a whole, enrollment has dropped in the science and technology areas, which is basically why we have these programs," said Kenny Spade, an academic developer evangelist at Microsoft. "There's a number of preconceptions that students have where either those jobs are going to be outsourced or there's not going to be a market for them. Or they think that if you go into a tech job, you'll be sitting at your computer - you know - with people sliding pizza slices under the door and working all night."

Spade said his team tries to get teens interested in science and technology by programs such as showing them a "day in the life" of a developer or program manager at Microsoft. Spade also said programs like DreamSpark which give students free access to Microsoft developer software are useful tools to get kids down with things like Visual Studio and Windows Server.

Google, meanwhile, has youth appeal pretty much in the bag. In fact, the company's complete emphasis on youth culture is a fault. It's notorious for worker perks like flexible hours, casual dress every day, free massage and yoga, free meals, free snacks and drinks, free recreation on campus, and friggin' goats frolicking in the fields. We don't call it the Mountain View Chocolate Factory for nothing.

But Google also has some other interesting tricks up its sleeve, like frequently using contests as youth recruiting tools. Programs like The Google Online Marketing Challenge get students dabbling in the company's AdWords advertising system early. The grand prize? A trip to the fantastical Googleplex, of course.

"One of the trends Google has been getting involved on a high school level is looking at girls who are enrolled in computer science programs," said Dana Nguyen, an associate product marketing manager at Google. "It's a dismal percentage across all high school, across all courses. It's much lower than physics, chemistry or other sciences. One of the initiatives now is a partnership with the National Science Foundation to work on how to restructure the teaching of CS and even looking at the AP exam. How can we make this a more attractive option for girls to enroll in? It's such a mystery how it's not really accessible to girls."

Both firms have CS-related course materials available gratis for teachers, but the tot has got to do some of the bootstrapping themselves.

"As a student, you just need to let them know you want to be learning about some of these topics, that you actually want to go out there and start working with them," said Spade. "Because if the faculty doesn't know there's a demand for this, they're going to stick with their yellowed pieces of paper that has exactly what they've been teaching for the last ten years." ®

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