Tech & Work

Zoli Kahan: Teenager. High School Dropout. Silicon Valley Recruit.

While many high school seniors are busy plotting prom proposals and college admissions applications, 18-year-old Zoli Kahan was ready to ditch school and start his programming career.


Five months before finishing high school, Zoli Kahan dropped out. It wasn't because he couldn't finish- he just didn't want to. He felt he'd passed the point where he was getting anything useful from going to class. And why waste time when he could get going on a career in programming? San Francisco is far more enticing than a desk and locker.

So, the Austin, Texas native, who had already gotten his parents used to the thought of him skipping college, introduced them to the idea of cutting out before turning his tassel.

"Not going to college was one thing, not finishing high school was another," he said. Still, they supported him.

SEE: Do programmers still need a computer science degree to land a great job?

As far as early starts go, this isn't totally unexpected. Kahan's interest in computers started at age 10. He and his dad put together a Shuttle computer. A few years later he got into coding by way of grey hat hacking, and eventually started building his own tools. All of this is to say, he couldn't wait to get started doing the thing that he loved.

His job search even got going early - well, one day early. The day before his 18th birthday, a Google recruiter got in touch with him after he participated in Google Code Jam.

But once legal, Kahan was proactive in reaching out to companies on his own, as well as signing up for, a site that lets employers bid on job candidates for positions like UX/UI designers, software engineers, and data scientists.

In the roughly two and a half months Kahan spent trying to nail down a job, he went through a bevy of phone calls and technical interviews, getting to various stages of recruitment.

There was interest on the part of companies like Yahoo, Klout, and Optimizely. Frequently, though, it fizzled when the employers found out he didn't have a degree. Kahan said initial calls would start off well, but then in a case like Yahoo, for example, the representative would quickly jump off the line saying something like "We don't hire people without a degree." His call with Yahoo lasted four minutes.

While experiences like these made Kahan feel like things were getting "bleak," there were other moments that gave him hope.

Google, for example, didn't seem to have a problem with him not having a degree. On his blog, which features a detailed log of his job search, Kahan even notes that after completing a second phone interview with with Google, they called back the same day wanting to fly him out to the company's Mountain View headquarters.

Around the same time, Nomic, an app that's a city directory for Las Vegas, was also recruiting Kahan for an engineer position. He flew to Las Vegas to meet the co-founder, and then to San Francisco to meet the team and to do more technical interviewing.

He wrote on his blog: "Everyone is extremely smart and shares many similar interests, and I get a great feeling that working with these people would be an amazing experience."

On December 13, Nomic made an offer, and despite Google trying to get Kahan in for that onsite interview, he went accepted.

But... Google

A job with Google might be the dream gig for a lot of folks in the tech industry, but for Kahan, once again the seemingly best route wasn't what he wanted.

During his job search process, he'd identified that one of the characteristics he wanted out of a company was for it to be small enough that he could be involved with more than just code.

His end goal is to start his own business someday.

"My dad really inspired me," he said of his father who had started two companies of his own and gave Kahan the desire to "run the ship" himself.

Whereas working at Google would have meant focusing on coding and solving problems, working at Nomic means Kahan gets to be a part of bigger conversations, like where the company is going in the future.

But for now, he's settling into life in San Francisco, which these days involves fewer video games and more tech meetups than when he lived in Austin. While he had already started networking when he lived in Texas by going to local tech events to hear stories from engineers, now he gets to immerse himself in tech at least two or three times a week in the Bay Area.

He also continues to blog. Though he didn't always get much out of high school, that is where he picked up the habit that he now considers to be incredibly valuable.

His blogging came about as a class requirement. Then Kahan began to post about side projects he was working on even then, and realized that he really enjoyed writing about the ways he had approached and solved coding problems, as it helped him process what he'd done.

So whether he's posting about Zethos, his speed reading app that he's submitted to JS1k, or about his quest to dive into the San Francisco tech world, it's clear that the thread running through it all is the extent to which is life is focused on coding.

"If you're not doing what you love, you're doing it wrong," he said.

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Erin Carson is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the impact of social media in business and the ways technology is transforming the future of work.

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