My Most Challenging Tech Presentation Was to Middle School Teenagers

I've been to several conferences the last few months sharing my insights on digital transformation, agile culture, and enabling the data driven organization - all key practices that I cover in my book, Driving Digital: The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology. I've done long tutorials, fast TED-like keynotes, moderated panels, and participated in webinars all with different challenges in connecting to the audience and delivering insightful messages.

So when I was asked to present to 8th Graders at the Robert A. Van Wyck Middle School 217 in Jamaica, New York I jumped at the opportunity. My goal was to get them interested in STEM and hopefully enlighten them that a STEM education can lead to a challenging and rewarding career.

I was prepared knowing that talking to sixty young teenagers in two thirty minutes sessions and keeping them engaged was going to be a challenge. I started with a briefing on who I was, my background, and what CIO do at corporations. As excited as I am about my accomplishments, I knew this would not peak their interest.

So I elected to share some pictures with them. First, I shared charts from the Department of Labor on job growth projections for 2024 (roughly when this group may graduate from college) and other metrics on salaries of STEM graduates. I then selected my top five technologies that will still be important ten years from now. Two were technologies that I believed they would have some familiarity on (self-driving cars and wearables) and the other three were somewhat new to them (artificial intelligence, smart cities, and digital health).

Now Here's What I Didn't Expect

From the opening minutes I was barraged with questions of all types. Some were personal, "How much money did you make when you graduated and how much do you make now?" Others were inquisitive, "What should we be doing now to be ready for a career in computer science?" Many were thinking several steps ahead asking questions like, "Can we develop devices that will connect to our brains to make us super intelligent?" There was a flood of questions, one after the other, and the group often cut my answers off to ask their next question. Many of them were very good questions, and although it was difficult to control a classroom of excited teenagers, I was happy to see young minds thinking out loud and challenging the status quo.

I should point out that there were some in the group that were silent and clearly overwhelmed by all the questions their friends were asking. Many of them were girls, and I had to help bring them into the conversation. They were brilliant, asking questions on the impact of design on technology or about what life will be like when self-driving cars are widely available. Two girls asked me about how a STEM background would help them become architects one day. Another showed me a book of her drawings and wanted to know what types of work she could do in technology.

I asked the group how many knew how to code and I was floored when about half of them raised their hands. Several students asked me about programming languages and wanted to know whether they should learn ruby, php, or java. I thought to myself, "Wow! This is awesome," recognizing how important it is for younger kids to learn how to code.

The Unfortunate Side of Tech for Teens

Tech is everywhere for these kids, but what they get exposed to isn't going to significantly help them in their careers. Playing video games, watching videos, texting, and shopping are their day to day technology experiences while basic math, science, history and language consume them academically. The gap from basic high school education and the technology that's being implemented in new technology backed products or that run enterprises is significant. Kids interested in STEM have a tall order to fill that gap if we're to be successful innovating beyond today's capabilities.

So here's the advice I shared with these students:

  1. Develop your communication skills; writing, listening, presenting
  2. Learn to code
  3. Math, more math, and even more math
  4. Ask questions, challenge assumptions, and learn to be “data driven”
  5. Create something 

I'm glad I spoke to them and would gladly do it again!

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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.