I Got Schooled by a Group of 7th Graders

If you're feeling overconfident in your public speaking skills, step into a class full of 7th graders. They are a tough crowd. 

That's what I did last week when my daughter's "Career & Technology" teacher asked me speak to her class about my work in technology. I prepared a 15-minute presentation that covered my years at Microsoft, a couple of startups, and positions at Puget Systems. 

When it was my turn, I stood in front of 25 students who stared back at me. The computers on their desks were locked. Not a cell phone in sight. I had their attention, but for how long? 

I began with a story about my friend who worked as a welder for Audi in Germany. For over fifteen years, he welded specific areas of the chassis as it  moved down the assembly line. Over time, auto manufacturers introduced unibody chassis and used materials that didn't require as much welding. 

The students could see where the story was headed.

Within a few years, a robot that could perform my friend's job took over, and my friend moved to a position in their warehouse. As part of his new job, he organized, prepared and inventoried thousands of different parts. The work wasn't as interesting as what he used to do on the assembly line. But it was a job, and he's not one to complain. 

Over time, automation found its way into the warehouse. My friend began working alongside robots that could organize, sort and retrieve parts at a much faster pace than he could. The robots never got sick, went on strike or showed up late for work. 

Again, the students could see where the story was headed. 

You might ask why I decided to share a story like this with a group of young students. I wanted to get their attention, but I also wanted to get their minds working. I wanted them to think about what they will study when they go off to college. I wanted them to understand that, when it comes to jobs, there are no guarantees. My goal wasn't to scare them, but I wanted them to understand that technological advances are changing careers and putting some people out of work. 

Each week, I get to hear how our customers are using the computers we built for them. I recently finished a project where I spoke with customers using their computers to conduct deep learning. It was humbling to hear them share their stories with me. So I decided to share a few of these stories with the students. I told them I worked for a company that built workstations that were being used for the following: 

  • To customize treatments for cancer. 
  • To create neural art to get student excited about deep learning. 
  • To process and map genes.  
  • To analyze traffic to make our streets safer. 
  • To recognize patterns in x-rays that lead to quickler diagnosis. 

As you can imagine, the students had a lot of questions about what it takes to perform this type of work. That morphed into a discussion about what types of jobs computers will take over in the next few years. They decided that we won't need taxi drivers or checkers at the grocery store anymore. 

I wrapped up my presentation by telling them about how I've always wanted to be writer. I told them how I started a blog back in 1999, but only began earning money by writing a couple of years ago. "There are no shortcuts", I told them. Immediately, a boy in the back raised his hand. 

"Do you think a computer will eventually do your job?" 

The students laughed. I should have expected that question, but it hadn't crossed my mind. 

"I don't know", I shrugged. 

Not exactly a brave answer on my part. The teacher saw an opportunity and jumped in. "As you begin to think about college and your career, that's a question you'd be wise to ask yourself." 

You could hear a pin drop. 

With all the political drama we've experienced over the past few months, I walked out of the school that day with a lot of hope for our future. Don't underestimate our youth because they create goofy stories on Snapchat or communicate with emojis. These kids are smart. They are creative and passionate. They ask a lot of questions and expect answers. 

And if a computer is ever able to perform my job, it could be one of them that programs it.