The annals of technology are filled with exceptional figures—Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates—who dropped out of college, only to attain later greatness. But Steve Corona, 25, never saw himself as becoming one of these industry-defining figures. In fact, Corona, who dropped out of school during his sophomore year, was convinced that he’d never amount to much of anything at all.
In fact, Corona, despite his lack of a college degree, eventually rose to become CTO of Twitpic, the service that lets users post pictures to Twitter. Corona had firmly believed that dropouts fell into one of two buckets: the nobodies making a subsistence wage, or the rare Zuckerbergian figures who strike gold. Corona discovered that in fact, there’s a middle ground for people like him: dropouts who nonetheless have a hankering for a real measure of success, and attain it.
We caught up with Corona to learn the story of how he came to drop out (really, fail out) of college, and to learn his thoughts on how you can discern the rare case in which doing so may be the right move for you.
FAST COMPANY: Why do you call your year and a half of college your "biggest mistake"?
STEVE CORONA: My family was very pro-college. Neither of my parents went to college. I went to Rochester Institute of Technology, in 2005. It cost $44,000 a year. I was 18, and I had no idea what $44,000 a year meant. I signed on the dotted line, and off to college I went. When I got there, I found it really unchallenging. Not that I’m some exceptionally smart person, but my classes seemed very slow, and I was really unhappy. I was doing lots of extracurricular programming, and had all these ideas of companies I wanted to start and projects I wanted to work on.
By your third semester, you stopped going to class.
I basically said, going to class is not worth my time. I ended up failing out. I was 19 or 20 years old, making 10 bucks an hour at a little job, and I was like "Holy crap, I’m screwed." I did not tell my parents. RIT has this internship program where you have to do internships for four semesters. I lied to them, said, "I’m doing an internship." I had this job that paid just enough for me to sleep on the floor of an apartment I rented. I lied to everyone in my life. I almost lied to myself. I knew I’d failed out, but I never thought about it enough to believe it.
Did anyone suspect?
My grandfather pulled me aside one Thanksgiving. It’s not that he knew I was lying per se, but I could tell by his tone that he knew that something was up. He pulled me aside and said, "Steve, I think it’s really important that you finish college. It will open up opportunities. It’s something I regret I never did." He dropped out to start a shoe store in Italy in the 40s and 50s, before he immigrated to the US. To have him say that was a huge, huge thing. Still, I knew in my heart that finishing college wasn’t for me.
You eventually wound up landing on your feet.
I was working this $10-an-hour job, and I got into this belief that that’s all there was for me. I had this self-limiting internal voice stomping me down, preventing me from becoming successful. Finally for the hell of it, I decided to apply for jobs. Maybe I could get something that pays $15 an hour, I thought. I put out applications, and a week later, I got a job offer for around $40,000. I was blown away. I’d been eating rice, kidney beans, and cheap chicken from Walmart to scrape by. $40,000 seemed like a million bucks. I contemplated, should I take it? Meanwhile, another job offer came in, this one for $60,000. My mom was excited, and said I should take it.
And yet you didn’t take that offer right away.
My whole worldview had shattered in front of me. It was so ingrained in my head this belief that I’d never have opportunities like this. It was almost like "The Matrix," this feeling that the reality I’m living in isn’t actually what the real world is. It flipped everything I thought upside down. There was a new reality, and I was like, let me play with the boundaries. Let me see what I can do. It’s just like if you discovered a new physical substance. A scientist would play with it: How does it react when it’s under fire? How does it react when you boil it?
So I called back and said, "I really appreciate this job offer, but I can only consider job offers over $100,000 right now." I was so scared. I was shaking when I made the phone call. And I did that with all my job offers. No one ever came back and said, "We can’t give you more money—you don’t have a degree!" No one came to my apartment with the job offer and ripped it up and threw it on the floor. In fact, a lot of them responded positively. Eventually one called back and said, "You can only look at job offers over 100,000? Here’s 80,000, how about that?"
You made a lot of gutsy moves, but for every dropout who hits it big, there’s many more who are stuck working the checkout line. What kind of diagnostic test do you recommend people run on themselves if they’re considering dropping out?
You need to have a history of making things, a history of being successful outside college. You need that inner fire when exploring things outside what you’re doing in the classroom. I didn’t really give myself that diagnostic test, but looking back, I see that I was doing things on my own, I was building stuff outside of the classroom. I was building all sorts of web applications. I was doing web hosting online, and I remember the thrill of running my own company. The first time a dollar came in, even though it was only a dollar, it was such a thrilling roller coaster, I just wanted more of it.
So your side projects need to be taking up the majority of your time before you consider dropping out?
Not so much time as the passion and energy devoted to these projects—that they’re more important to you than anything else. You can spend a lot of time doing something but be really bad at it. The better metric is if you’re spending your, sort of, "passion dollars"—that’s a really bad analogy—but spending all that love that you have, all your energy, and that’s distracting your attention from college. That’s a sign that maybe you should be doing other things.
[Image: Flickr user vfsdigitaldesign]