Michael Furdyk and Jennifer Corriero have many goals. They want to overhaul the education system. They want to make the Internet accessible to more people. They want to figure out what the next generation of knowledge workers is looking to get from technology. And then, if there's time left, they want to stop saying "like" so much. To tackle this last goal, someone they know recently suggested that they purchase clickers to monitor each other's speech. Their methods for achieving their first three goals are slightly more complex.
We live and work in an era of youthful exuberance and unbridled ambition. Yet even by the standards of Internet time, Furdyk and Corriero are younger and more ambitious than most. Furdyk just turned 18; Corriero is now 20. Since March, the pair, who are natives of Toronto, have been headquartered in Redmond, Washington, where they have taken on a six-month consulting project at Microsoft. But the Microsoft gig is only their latest project. Furdyk has already founded or cofounded two startups. In the spring of 1999, he and his partners, also teenagers, sold MyDesktop.com, a collection of computer-information sites, to internet.com Corp. Furdyk's current focus is BuyBuddy.com, a consumer-information and shopping Web site that already has nearly 30 employees -- including Furdyk's own father. Meanwhile, Corriero has facilitated a host of technology-related programs for young people and has served on several youth-advisory councils, including that of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Both of them are regular speakers on the techie-conference circuit. And if that's not enough, they're also busy drumming up support for the project that's dearest to their hearts -- TakingITGlobal, a plan to create centers around the world that would provide access to technology while fostering a sense of community and celebrating cultural differences.
"Things are moving really fast," Corriero says. "But this is our speed. It's almost like we're setting the pace." Indeed, as two of the most visible members of the generation of 88 million young people between the ages of 3 and 23 -- a group referred to, variously, as the Net Generation, Generation Y, and the Echo Boom -- Furdyk and Corriero command the attention of many powerful people and companies. This fact is indisputably impressive. At times, it is also more than a little surreal.
"They're just amazing," says Tammy Morrison, a group product manager in Microsoft's knowledge-worker solutions group, as well as Furdyk and Corriero's supervisor. "Michael has great business intuition and a track record of success. Jennifer is a youth leader. She can understand people and become a leader for her peers."
Morrison refers to Furdyk and Corriero as "the dynamic duo" -- a nod to the fact that although they work well alone, they work better together, balancing out each other's professional and personal strengths. (Indeed, they are so inseparable that they keep both of their Microsoft employee badges on a single cord that they take turns wearing around their necks.) As Corriero puts it, "We do things differently, and we motivate each other. There's a lot of synergy."
Furdyk is more technologically facile and has greater business savvy; Corriero teasingly calls him "Mr., like, Successful." Corriero, whose own nickname is Jenergy, is no slouch herself. At an age when many of her peers are still baby-sitting, she boasts a three-page résumé filled with both corporate and nonprofit work. Corriero is also the more charismatic of the two. Furdyk, who is tall, dark-haired, and slightly gangly, comes off as logical and focused. Given the turn that his life has taken -- one recent trip found him in the town of Whitehorse (population 23,000), in Canada's Yukon Territory, where he had been invited by the Canadian government to speak to all of the local high schools, the college, and the Chamber of Commerce about how the town could capitalize on the Internet and e-commerce -- he is astonishingly unpretentious and low-key. Ultimately, however, it is Corriero who makes the greater impression.
When Corriero is discussing a subject about which she feels passionate -- and there are, it seems, many such subjects -- she speaks loudly and quickly, and for long stretches at a time. When she is truly inspired, she erupts from her seat. "I get very, very excited about things," admits Corriero. "My friend was like, 'Jen, I like being around you. You can make drinking from a glass exciting.' I want to share my attitude with other people."
Corriero has offered tips to Furdyk on how to be more outgoing. At one conference, Furdyk had brought stickers featuring the name of one of his startups. "He wanted to give them out, but he just left them at the booth," Corriero says. "I'm like, 'Mike, if you want people to take the stickers, go up to them.' He assumes that he's making people mad. I assume that people want to talk to me -- that I'm going to brighten their day." Corriero's coaching seems to have done the trick. "Now I'm an Amway salesman," Furdyk jokes.
Where Do You Want to Go Tomorrow?
Furdyk may joke about it, but his and Corriero's ability to communicate was, in fact, partly what attracted Microsoft's attention. The two youths first connected in the summer of 1997, through a Toronto-based organization called the NRG Group (then known as KidsNRG). Part Internet incubator, part venture-capital and advisory company, the NRG Group offered students the chance to work on real projects (such as creating Web sites) with real companies (such as Xerox). Through their work there, Furdyk and Corriero met Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1998). Tapscott, who consults for Microsoft, knew that while the company was pursuing traditional research methods to gather information about so-called Net Genners, it was also interested in bringing in some living, breathing representatives. He recommended Furdyk and Corriero to Tammy Morrison.
Morrison flew to Toronto to meet Furdyk and Corriero, and the three of them had dinner at a swanky CN Tower restaurant. "They were so easy to connect with," says Morrison, who is 30 but, perhaps due to her current proximity to Furdyk and Corriero, often slips into teenspeak. "It was totally fun. I learned about them, and they wanted to know about me. The thing that was clear was that they're very smart, they're very passionate and very committed, and they bring a high level of fun to everything that they do."
Furdyk and Corriero were similarly impressed by Morrison. "She got it," says Furdyk. "We knew that we'd be working with someone who understood us and who knew what our mission was."
Microsoft's decision to hire Furdyk and Corriero is part of a larger company effort to glean information about what the next generation of workers will be like, what products and services they'll want -- and how Microsoft can be the first to provide them. The reason for hiring Furdyk and Corriero was twofold: First, on the human-resources front, as members of the next generation of employees, Furdyk and Corriero could offer valuable insights about what tomorrow's knowledge workers will be looking for in an employer. Second, in terms of product innovation, they could communicate easily with other Net Genners to gather data and combine that information with their own thoughts and opinions. That means that Furdyk and Corriero divide their time between having their brains picked by various Microsoft employees, including top-level executives such as group vice president Jim Allchin, and doing their own research.
That research has mainly taken the shape of focus groups across the country. When they're not wooing participants with pizza, Laser Tag, and free Microsoft products, Furdyk and Corriero ask them probing questions: What motivates them? What technologies do they like? How do they prefer to communicate?
"We think that we're going to accomplish more than we set out to do," Corriero says. "At the rate we're going, we'll exceed expectations. And I don't think that six months will define the length of our relationship with Microsoft."
For many teenagers, the idea of giving advice to one of the most important companies in the world might be intimidating -- but not for Corriero. "Because of why we were hired, I'm not afraid to be myself," she says. "That's why they picked us. If there's something about ourselves that we're hiding, then we're not providing value."
Those who work with Furdyk and Corriero downplay their age, though Morrison admits, "The way that I work with Michael and Jennifer is different from the way that I would work with someone who has years of experience. The differences can be as basic as not having early-morning meetings with them. They have a very flexible work schedule, which is fine with me. And the work that we do is very interactive and fluid. We're in and out of each other's offices, brainstorming, talking. We have fewer scheduled meetings."
Betsy Johnson, 35, a general manager at Microsoft in the knowledge- worker solutions group who meets with Furdyk and Corriero two or three times a week, has noticed the same phenomenon. "I never meet with them in my office, and I don't know why that is," says Johnson. "I tend to meet with them in the cafeteria or some other open space, and we have these high-energy conversations. I find it very invigorating to talk with them."
Johnson has been impressed by Furdyk and Corriero's egalitarian approach. "I think that they take people for the individuals they are, rather than looking at a person's larger status in the organization," she says. "They're engaging with our most senior vice presidents. New MBAs might come out of school and say, 'Oh, that guy's a senior vice president!' But Michael and Jennifer say, 'Hey, great, you're a smart person. I have an opinion, and you have an opinion, so let's get together and talk.' "
Both Tammy Morrison and Jennifer Sloat, 25, human-resources manager at BuyBuddy, say that working with people who are so young brings out their protective instincts. At BuyBuddy, cofounder Furdyk is not the only kid on the block: Michael Hayman, the company's other cofounder and its chief technology officer, is 20. (Corriero has no professional involvement in BuyBuddy.) Sloat, who refers to the company's two cofounders as "the Michaels," says, "Even though they're so successful and brilliant, something will happen to one of them, and we'll think, 'Oh, he's stressed, the poor guy. How can we help him out?' I'll say, 'Hey, do you need to go for a coffee?' They're kind of like the little brothers -- but we don't want to tell them that."
More than once, Sloat reports, Furdyk and Hayman have been contacted by older businesspeople whose motives seemed questionable. "There's a lot of what you could call vultures," Sloat says. "People realize that these kids have great ideas, and somebody finds out how to get a hold of them. They email or call and say anything from 'What do you think about my idea? What would you do in this circumstance?' to 'Maybe we could have a potential equity stake if we do this for your company?' The Michaels want to help people out, but sometimes that can bite you back."
At this point, however, even Furdyk is starting to show signs of being slightly jaded. When discussing a startup that he is especially unimpressed by, he observes sarcastically, "Their company vision was, like, having a Porsche."
Furdyk has at least one prominent sympathizer who knows what it's like to work in an adult world before officially reaching adulthood: Bill Gates. In October 1999, Furdyk was a panelist at the elite Business Council conference in Boca Raton, Florida, where Gates was a speaker. The two met briefly. "He said that when he was 20, he had the same problems I'm having," Furdyk reports. "Not being able to rent a car and not being able to get into a bar when they had their company meeting there."
Furdyk's mother, Marcia Furdyk, captured the exchange with a camera. "I don't know who was more excited -- Michael or me," says Marcia, who notes that Gates was "very nice and very sincere." In the photo, which now hangs in Furdyk's Toronto bedroom, Furdyk is gesticulating with his arms while Gates nods sagely.
As noteworthy as the early success of Furdyk and Corriero is, Tammy Morrison argues -- rather vehemently -- that they are not young people who happen to be talented; they are talented people who happen to be young. "It's not about age," Morrison insists.
"There have definitely been times when I've thought, Oh, yeah, they're 18 and 20," says Betsy Johnson. "But when we're brainstorming, it's not even something you care about or focus on because of the value of the conversation you're having. I am struck at different times by their maturity level in that they're not intimidated. They can stand up in front of a group of people and present their ideas. They have valid opinions, and they're more than happy to share them."
School's Out, Learning's In
When Furdyk and Corriero are not busy winning over the corporate world, they turn their attention to more service-oriented efforts -- namely, to TakingITGlobal. The project represents the answer to a couple of questions that they asked themselves during a conversation last fall: What would we do if we could do anything? What would be our dream? (As the TakingITGlobal prospectus mentions, this conversation occurred while "rollerblading along the streets of Parliament Hill in Ottawa," where they had gone for yet another conference.)
Furdyk and Corriero envision TakingITGlobal as a series of community centers, open to people of all ages, which eventually will exist in every country in the world. These centers will provide access to computers and to the Internet, giving people in economically depressed areas the opportunity to start online businesses. The centers will also offer programs to encourage teamwork and entrepreneurship, as well as serve as cultural hubs where community members can learn about the history of their region. And, because the centers will be linked to one another, Furdyk and Corriero hope that they will foster a global sense of community.
The pair's proposal is anything but modest. But their approach is systematic, with attention to both the big picture and the small details. They've also begun to think about how not to ruffle feathers across cultures by being too imperial. They're assembling a well-connected advisory board, and they're contacting a slew of companies that they hope will fund everything from one center to thousands of computers. "In the next four to six months, we'll be solidifying partnerships and figuring out a strategy to get this project in as many countries as possible as fast as possible," Furdyk says. The two anticipate that by late 2001 they will have five centers up and running. At that time, they will hold a five-day conference, with each participating country planning a day's events.
In March, Corriero attended a conference in Malaysia, where, she says, the thousand-plus attendees were "captivated" by the idea of TakingITGlobal. "They'd been talking about empowering youth," Corriero says. "Everyone was saying how young people are so Internet-savvy and that we learn about technology so quickly. So I said, 'Don't just tell us, guys -- we need you to volunteer and do these small, menial tasks.' We have so much potential!" Corriero outlined the goals of TakingITGlobal, asking the crowd, "How are people supposed to be thinking globally if they're living only in the constraints of their own environment?" The reaction was overwhelming. "People didn't even let me finish," Corriero says. "They flocked. They said, 'I want to get involved.' " At the end of the week, a report was distributed with 15 key goals that had been extracted from the conference. One goal was to support TakingITGlobal.
Furdyk and Corriero describe the TakingITGlobal centers as libraries-plus-schools-plus-workplaces-of-the-future. And, in an act of unapologetic hubris, they speak openly about their hope that these centers might one day replace today's schools. If the centers are successful in developing countries that lack formal schools, Furdyk and Corriero reason, then developed countries might use them as models for overhauling their own schools.
Both Furdyk and Corriero have always excelled in school, and both have long felt frustrated as students. It is telling that Furdyk is technically in grade 12 at Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke, Ontario, just outside Toronto, and that Corriero is technically a freshman at York University's Shulich School of Business -- but that both of them are actually several thousand miles away from their respective classrooms. They are finagling varying levels of credit from their schools for their work at Microsoft; still, it's unclear whether either of them will see much of academia in the future. Furdyk is planning to sidestep grade 13 (it will be eliminated in Ontario in 2004, but right now it is a requirement), meaning that he will be free as of this summer. He has no immediate plans to go to college, though he allows that he might eventually enroll to study "astronomy, or something else that I'm really interested in."
Corriero is less certain about leaving school behind. "If I'm convinced that it's more valuable for me to be in school than to be pursuing other opportunities, I'll go to school," she says. "For me, the purpose of school is to learn, to grow, to build skills and experiences. But what if I'm able to accelerate that a thousand times more by not being in school? If school holds me back, rather than helping me grow, then I can't be there."
Corriero's mother, Mary-Jo, is not entirely convinced by this argument. "That might be the only area where I nag Jennifer," she says. "I was raised believing that without a university degree, you can't get a job. I want my daughter to have a profession, because she has to be in a position to be able to take care of herself. Mike is so bright, and he says, 'Oh, you don't need a degree. We can do it this way.' And he's very, very persuasive. But I say, 'No, no, no. That's not what we're teaching here in the Corriero school of thought. The Corriero school of thought is, Get your degree, then you can do what you want.' "
Furdyk and Corriero's main problem with schools is that they emphasize grades over genuine learning and that they don't incorporate real-world experiences into the curriculum. "The bottom line is the mark you get," Furdyk says. "So why would I spend 10 hours doing something when I could spend 1 hour and get the same mark? We're not encouraged -- we're taught to do what we're told -- so kids aren't excited about learning."
Corriero agrees. "We need mentors. We need facilitators. We need coaches," she says. "But I see the role of a teacher completely changing. It's not for a school to say, 'You're worth an A, and you're worth a B.' We're all great in different ways." Corriero speaks from experience. In grade nine, after winning her school's art award for two years in a row, she received a 75% on a drawing. She was so disillusioned -- the drawing that she received the low grade on is one that she was particularly proud of, and today it hangs in her Redmond bedroom -- that she dropped art altogether. "I've always strived to do as much as I can, but, within school, I've been told what to do and how to do it," she says. "You know, this is your deadline, this is your audience -- and your audience is always your teacher. Requirements are made up of what the teacher thinks is important. I was always frustrated by that. I want my success to be evaluated by the impact that I have and not by the impression of one individual."
Furdyk is frustrated by what he feels is the irrelevance of much of what gets taught. "KidsNRG was perfect for me," he says of the internship program where he and Corriero met. "I could apply what I was learning directly to an actual project that had substance. I wasn't just doing some equation that 50 million kids all over the world have solved from the same textbook every year."
Furdyk believes that universities should be run like businesses, thereby forcing innovation. He isn't the first person to make such an argument, but he might be the only one who's making it without ever having attended a university. As he hastily points out, however, "I sat in on a lot of Jen's classes."
Furdyk and Corriero consider their efforts to be on behalf of teenagers everywhere, from whom they have received hundreds of emails asking how they got where they are. TakingITGlobal is, in part, a response to those emails -- a clear, concrete way for teens to get involved. But Furdyk and Corriero also hope to touch the lives of young people with whom they don't have direct contact. "We don't necessarily want to bring every person in the world into our physical centers," Corriero says. "We want to just set an example -- to show that you have to realize what your needs are, what fulfills you, and how to pursue it. People need to depend on themselves for change. You don't like something? Then have the courage to say and do something, because that's what creates a movement."
It's a Family Affair
As Furdyk and Corriero gear up to change the world, their busy schedules beg an important question: When do they just get to be kids? The surprising answer is, more often than you'd think. In fact, if anything, they sometimes seem a little young for their ages. Upon returning from a trip and encountering Tammy Morrison in the Microsoft cafeteria, Corriero leaps into her boss's arms to hug her. Corriero's office features lots of stuffed animals, multicolored plastic rings, and wooden blocks. (She seems not to see any irony in her fondness for children's toys. As she explained about a purple plastic mailbox with a smiley face on the outside and crayons stored inside, "I can write letters to people as if I'm young.")
And to hear Furdyk and Corriero's accounts of their business travels, most of which have centered around the focus groups that they've led, is to be both amused and alarmed by what the digital economy has wrought. They liked the Crowne Plaza in New York, and they really liked the W Los Angeles hotel. Corriero admired both the W's "huge, plush" beds and its high-speed Internet access. The Radisson in Cleveland, however, "sucked," according to Furdyk, who jokes, "The pillows were, like, filled with wood chips." They may or may not be going to Portugal, they may or may not be going to Germany, they usually fly first class (thanks to their free upgrades), and on a recent trip back from New York, Furdyk forgot his luggage on the plane. But then he found it again, and everything turned out okay.
Many of the pair's experiences have a caperlike quality. There's the time when they attended the "Technology With Curves" conference in Ottawa, meant to foster female interest in technology. Corriero was speaking at the event, and Furdyk accompanied her -- not realizing that he'd be one of only two males present out of hundreds of attendees, most of whom were 13-year-old girls. "Every head in the room turned to look at me," Furdyk says. "I was like, Uh..."
Then there was the time -- Corriero warns that this is "the stupidest story" -- when Corriero was getting her legs waxed, again accompanied by Furdyk, who apparently had not yet learned his lesson. First, Furdyk was merely waiting for Corriero; the next thing he knew, he had been whisked by salon employees into a room with a tanning bed. "They gave me, like, this little tiny thing of oil," Furdyk says. "And I'm like, am I supposed to take all of my clothes off? Do I wear something? All of a sudden, the tanning light goes on." Finally, there's the time when the pair found themselves, on their first visit out to Microsoft, wandering the mean streets of Seattle. "There were all of these sex bars," Corriero says. "We were like, what the hell? We were scared for our lives." Furdyk adds, "We just wanted to eat dinner."
There is something endearing about Furdyk and Corriero's energy and enthusiasm. But there is also something oddly indiscriminate about that enthusiasm. When a visitor -- that is, a Fast Company writer -- goes to the house that they are renting outside Redmond, a frenzied show-and-tell ensues. Among the items that they proffer for inspection are a note from a neighbor asking them if they would try to keep their trash better sealed (both Furdyk and Corriero point out the note separately); Cookie Crisp, Furdyk's cereal of choice ("Mike is a cereal monster," Corriero explains); a program from the Broadway musical Swing! ("It was almost pornographic," Furdyk says. "It didn't really have any content -- just senseless dancing. But I guess that's what a Broadway show is"); a letter from Corriero's aunt, which begins, "Dear Porcelain Doll, We are very proud of you.... "; and Furdyk's electric razor ("It's the coolest shaver in the world," he says. "It's waterproof. And it has, like, gel in it").
Corriero gives a tour of the artwork hanging on her bedroom wall, explaining in detail what prompted her to create each piece. That one on the right, for example? As Corriero explains it: "One time, I was having this dream with an image of a child dancing through the skies and spreading stars across the universe. Then I woke up and thought of Charlie Coffey -- he's an executive vice president at the Royal Bank of Canada -- and I don't know if the dream was directly related to him, but I sent him an email. And he wrote back about how I inspire him. Like, I don't know, it's so weird. There's this cross mentorship, and it's very powerful."
Sometimes Furdyk and Corriero seem utterly lacking in self-awareness, sometimes they seem very self-aware, and sometimes they seem both ways at once. Corriero, in particular, has a penchant for lengthy analysis of her own personality (she is, to be fair, not the first 20-year-old in the history of the world with this tendency). "I'm very motivated to make a difference," she says. "I really want to do something good. I believe that I have so much potential, and I want to reach that potential.
"And it's not just about me: I think that everyone has so much potential and that if people are given the right type of environment and the right types of opportunities, they can grow and flourish. One of the challenges I have is that I'm very articulate, I'm very creative, I think about the big picture, and I have a lot of energy. I can see this as a great strength of mine, but it's also a weakness in the sense that it can be intimidating, or somebody might just think I'm crazy. Some people love it, but some people don't think it's possible. I think anything is possible."
Corriero's confidence is nothing new, according to her mother. "When Jennifer was in kindergarten, I went to visit her teacher," Mary-Jo remembers. "The teacher said, 'I find Jennifer to be very authoritative and sometimes a bit bossy.' I was shocked. I said, 'With you?' She said, 'Oh no, no, not with me. Just with her peers, with her friends.' So I said, 'That's just fine, I'm not worried about that. That's leadership.' "
Furdyk and Corriero both come from very supportive, down-to-earth families. The Corrieros are self-consciously Italian and self-consciously Catholic. Mary-Jo, who has not worked outside the home since hurting her back in a car accident several years ago, is warm and talkative, with a hearty laugh. She and Jennifer are extremely close, communicating daily by email. Jennifer's father, Nick, a real-estate agent and an obsessive online investor, is a fan of inspirational speakers such as Tony Robbins and Norman Vincent Peale. He proudly notes that Jennifer's outlook is naturally similar to theirs. The Corriero children -- Jennifer has a sister, Nicole, who is 16, and a brother, Joseph, who is 14 -- are avid athletes, especially when it comes to kickboxing. Their basement is filled with gym equipment and trophies.
The Furdyks are similarly close-knit. Michael's mother, Marcia, also does not work outside the home, while his father, Paul, joined Michael at BuyBuddy last March as VP of sales. Their home is decorated with aphoristic wooden plaques -- "Friendship is only a word until someone comes along and gives it meaning," reads one hanging in the kitchen -- as well as with Beanie Babies, which Sonya, Michael's 11-year-old sister, and Marcia like to collect. Michael's bedroom, where he has logged countless hours working on his startups, is so small that during the day he must fold the futon that he sleeps on in order to make his doorway passable.
The Furdyks' first inkling of how truly unusual Michael's life would become occurred last year when MyDesktop.com was sold -- and the media descended, calling from as far away as the Ukraine. "The phone was always ringing," Marcia recalls. "It was very hectic." Since then, Marcia has tried her best to keep things low-key. The family is renovating the upstairs bathroom and the kitchen -- a gift from Michael -- but otherwise, she says, "It's his money. It's whatever he wants to do." For her birthday this year, Marcia asked for a garden rake.
Both the Furdyks and the Corrieros are gracious in answering questions about their children, but they are also guarded, seemingly intent on not letting Michael and Jennifer overshadow their respective siblings. However, Marcia admits, "It's exciting when you hear other people talk about Michael when they don't know he's your child. It makes you feel special."
Actually, Michael's siblings have now become minicelebrities themselves. "At school, a lot of my friends or my classmates are like, 'I saw your brother on television!' " Sonya reports. "They're, like, frantic. They say, 'Can I have your autograph?' I say, 'Happy face or signature?' "
Daniel Furdyk, who is 14, is less enchanted with his brother's adoring public. "People say, 'Oh, your brother's rich.' Or some of the girls are like, 'Can I meet your brother?' I say, 'No, I don't want you to.' "
Like Jennifer, Michael demonstrated his talent early on. When he was eight years old, he and a friend named Sean started a business called M & S Enterprises and posted signs around the neighborhood offering to help people learn more about their computers. When he was 12, Michael tied up the phone line so much with his Internet use that for his birthday his parents gave him his own line. By the time he was in middle school, he was helping his teachers set up the school computers.
Both families are excited about, if not completely surprised by, the adventures that lie ahead for Michael and Jennifer. "Working is one thing," Mary-Jo says. "But to be able to go to work and feel good about what you're doing and be happy about your life and who you are and what you can become -- that's fantastic, right?"
At the same time, it's not easy for either family to have a child living so far away. "We really miss Jennifer," Mary-Jo says. "She's so much fun. She just commands attention when she comes into the room. She helps you enjoy life."
When Marcia Furdyk misses Michael, she thinks about the times last fall when the two of them went driving together. Michael had his permit but not his license, so he needed an adult to accompany him. "We'd go out late," Marcia remembers. "We'd buy gas, and because he needed driving experience, he'd go to a gas station half an hour away. He'd just drive and drive and drive. Sometimes we would go to a coffee shop and buy a coffee. I considered that my private time with him; we talked about a lot of things. But then he got his license, and he was gone."
Curtis Sittenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Contact Michael Furdyk (email@example.com) and Jennifer Corriero (firstname.lastname@example.org) by email.
Sidebar: What Do Young People Want?
When Microsoft invited 18-year-old Michael Furdyk and 20-year-old Jennifer Corriero to spend six months on its Redmond campus, the company took a step toward figuring out what the next generation of workers will be like and what products they'll want.
It was not the only such step that Microsoft has taken, however. This past January, Microsoft created what was known as the "Net Gen Lab" -- a ramshackle house in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood where 10 college students spent two weeks being observed as they used technology. It was, as Microsoft general manager Liz King puts it, "like a focus group that went on for two weeks, 24 hours a day." King, 41, culled students from her alma mater, Oberlin College, because she knew that they had the month of January off to pursue independent academic projects.
The dining room of the house served as the technology hub, complete with six computers. So that the students would have some structure and sense of purpose, Microsoft assigned them the task of creating an online magazine for other college students. Then Microsoft stepped back to observe -- or at least that was its intent. In reality, the so-called observers found themselves answering questions about technology, giving rides to the students (none of whom had cars), and, in the case of an especially big-hearted observer, baking them cookies. The 15 observers, who came from all areas of the company, worked in pairs for eight-hour shifts -- some of which lasted until 2 AM. This dedication did not go unnoticed. As one student remarked to the Microsoft contingent, "I used to belong to a cult, and you're more intense than it was."
That intensity paid off with three findings. The first is that Net Genners will challenge any prescription that they're given. After receiving their assignment from Microsoft, the students mulled it over for a few days -- and then rejected it. "We had expected a certain level of independent thinking, but they still surprised us," King says.
The second finding is that Net Genners have high expectations of the technology's performance -- and little tolerance for it when it disappoints them. Says King: "This group is not going to give us a second chance. Their parents gave us second chances; they won't."
The final finding is that tomorrow's workers differ dramatically not just from previous generations but also from each other. "One student used his computer only when he was doing his work," King says. "When he wanted recreation, he played music, went out in the city, or read a book. Contrast that with another student who would hit the switch on the coffee pot in the morning and sit down to check his email while the coffee was brewing. He'd be up until two in the morning by himself, listening to music, sitting at the computer and just cruising around, looking at stuff. Technology was woven into his fabric -- as a social creature, a working creature, a son, and a friend.
"It was good for us to recognize that the world is not simply shifting from one place to another. It's a more subtle panorama."
Sidebar: Father Knows Best
Some parents dream that one day their son or daughter will join them professionally, allowing them the opportunity to work with their kids. For Paul Furdyk, that dream has been inverted. In March, at the age of 45, Paul left his job at NCR Canada Ltd. in order to become VP of sales for BuyBuddy.com -- a startup of which his 18-year-old son, Michael, is a founder.
"I'm sure that I'm not the first parent, nor will I be the last, to be in this type of a situation," Paul says. "Technology has made it possible for youth to innovate very rapidly. We're seeing earlier adoption, we're seeing faster exploitation, and, as a result, we're seeing a quicker entry into the business world for younger people. There will be a significant number of people who will be as successful as Michael is early on in their lives."
For Paul, the decision to take a job with BuyBuddy, a consumer-information and shopping Web site, was an easy one. "They wanted someone more mature to come on board and help them with sales and marketing development," he says. "It just seemed like it would be a good fit for me."
Jennifer Corriero's mother, Mary-Jo, says that she, too, can imagine working with her child someday, perhaps in accounting or in bookkeeping. "I've worked for my family my whole life," Mary-Jo says. "I've worked for my parents' restaurant and for my brother's law firm. And I've always pictured myself doing something with Jennifer. When I've said that to her in the past, her response has been, 'That would be perfect, Mom, because I can't think of a better person than you to trust with things.' "
Yet working with one of your children is not without complications. BuyBuddy's management style is intentionally loose and casual. But, as Paul himself observes, "Parenting is a lot more hierarchical in nature." However, Paul says that this contradiction has not been problematic for him at all: "There's a delineation -- with parenting on one side and business on the other. From a business perspective, Michael and I are on a peer level." Besides, Paul is quick to point out, Michael is unusually mature for his age.
No matter how professional the two Furdyk men are able to act, Paul is still Michael's father. "I'm very, very proud," Paul admits. "Every so often, I kind of pinch myself on the shoulder to make sure that this is real. I have to tell myself, Yes, I am standing here, and yes, I am beside my son."
Sidebar: When do We, Like, Hang Out?
Most teenagers have a lot on their plates: homework, dermatologist's appointments, and the thorny issue of who will be their date for the prom. Michael Furdyk and Jennifer Corriero have even more to contend with: They're consultants to Microsoft. As designated representatives of the Net Generation, their opinions and expertise are in high demand -- which can make for an awfully busy schedule. Herewith, an overview.
10:12 AM Microsoft cafeteria, building 16: Furdyk and Corriero are having breakfast. Their supervisor, Tammy Morrison, whom they have not seen since they returned from a trip to New York, walks by. Corriero jumps out of her seat to embrace Morrison. FC writer is warned that in order to keep up with Furdyk and Corriero, she might want to gulp down several cans of Mountain Dew immediately.
11:38 AM Corriero's office, building 18: Furdyk, Corriero, and Morrison prepare for Furdyk and Corriero's upcoming meeting with Kevin Purcell, director of organizational consulting in human resources. "Any time you meet with someone at that level," Morrison says, "you have to be prepared. Do you own the meeting or do they? You have to be flexible. It can go either way."
12:20 PM Campus shuttle: This shuttle, like all Microsoft shuttles, is stocked with candy. Furdyk and Corriero partake.
12:42 PM Conference room, building 28: Purcell is asking Furdyk and Corriero about how Net Genners break down barriers and achieve a common goal. Purcell says, "Let's do something, instead of just thinking about it."
"Like, do you want to stand up?" Corriero asks.
"Yeah, okay," Purcell says.
The three stand. Nothing happens. Purcell suggests that they try communicating only by writing on the whiteboard. Purcell draws a stick figure surrounded by the words "Help me be creative." Corriero draws a mouse eyeing a piece of Swiss cheese. Furdyk labels the mouse AOL. They all write words such as "energy," "inspiration," and "share."
Several minutes pass, filled with more scribbling. Finally, the silence ends. "That was really good," Corriero says.
"I found it really fun," Purcell agrees. "I especially liked the moments when I lost inspiration myself and felt anxious, and then one of you would do something."
FC writer has no idea what was achieved by the exercise and is deeply embarrassed for everyone present, including herself.
1:09 PM Cafeteria, building 26: Lunch. Corriero is discussing a girl she met on the plane last night who attends snowboarding school in Vermont but who is home in Seattle visiting her parents. The girl has invited Corriero to attend a power-yoga class with her. "It's good meeting people," Corriero comments. She ponders having a party for all of the people she and Furdyk have met since coming to Microsoft. "Not, like, a cheesy party," she explains. "A gathering."
1:50 PM Conference room, building 18: Furdyk, Corriero, and Morrison are regrouping. Of Purcell, Corriero says, "He's great! He's amazing!" She cannot, however, recall his name. "Does Kevin rock?" Morrison asks. Then she answers her own question: "Kevin rocks!"
2:24 PM Conference room, building 18: Furdyk and Corriero are meeting with Shawn McMichael, a group product manager in the PocketPC division. The pair will use the PocketPC for the next few weeks and report back on what they like and don't like about it. This meeting serves as a brain dump during which McMichael talks for 95% of the time. Furdyk, it turns out, has already researched the product extensively. Everyone is impressed.
3:45 PM Furdyk and Corriero's offices, building 18: Furdyk and Corriero are camping out in their offices, preparing for a presentation two days from now in which they will discuss the findings of recent Net Generation focus groups that they've led.
6:35 PM Chez Furdyk and Corriero: The pair arrives home -- home being a four-bedroom house overlooking Lake Sammamish. "When we first looked at it, I was freaking out," Corriero says. "We had this disposable camera, and I have all of these pictures of me jumping around from room to room." The house is about 20 feet from the water. It is mostly empty. Furdyk and Corriero put on a Pearl Jam CD and pad around in their socks eating cereal.
8:30 PM Gameworks arcade, downtown Seattle: Furdyk and Corriero are gearing up for an evening of video gaming. FC writer takes one look at pulsating screens and bolts to grab a burrito -- and some sleep.