After Facebook (FB) recruited Michael Sayman last November, it didn’t mess around—it flew him out from Miami to meet Mark Zuckerberg. The chief executive talked to Sayman about 4 Snaps, the mobile game he built using Facebook’s development tools that has attracted more than 500,000 players. Sayman’s mom, Cristina, came with him, because he was still in high school. “When I got the e-mail saying—oh my God—Mark Zuckerberg wants to meet you, I had to make sure nobody was playing a prank on me,” the young coder says.
Sayman, now 17, started in June as a summer intern at Facebook’s Menlo Park (Calif.) headquarters just after graduating from high school and six months before he’s due to get his braces off. “I try to keep my mouth closed during meetings because I don’t want people to see them and not take me seriously,” he says. He’s staying in a suite in Facebook’s Mountain View intern housing with an older colleague. “They gave me the option of living with my mom, but my mom was like, ‘No, you have to learn to live on your own,’ ” he says.
While teens aren’t overrunning Silicon Valley yet, talent-starved tech companies are reaching out to kids to fill spots in their internship programs. Facebook says it has just begun to recruit teens before their freshman year of college. LinkedIn (LNKD) opened its summer program to high schoolers two years ago; Airbnb has had interns as young as 16. “Talent is our No. 1 operating priority and our most important asset,” LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said on his company’s most recent earnings call, welcoming this summer’s crop of interns.
For established companies, it’s all about playing defense against Silicon Valley’s newer-is-better culture, especially as the young and technically inclined see that the biggest jackpots can come from creating their own startups. College dropout Zuckerberg is an obvious example; Summly founder Nick D’Aloisio became a millionaire at 17 last year when Yahoo! (YHOO) acquired his mobile news-summarizing app. Early Facebook investor Peter Thiel pays teenagers $100,000 to quit school and work on their own projects.
Online coding tutorials and collaborative Web communities are helping high schoolers produce successful apps before they earn computer science degrees. Hackathons and bug-hunting contests can connect skilled kids with companies, says James Anderson, 15, who met the founders of Portland (Ore.)-based Web startup Planet Argon at a conference on the Ruby on Rails programming language. Then 13, the self-taught app maker impressed the Argon engineers and persuaded them to let him intern for them last summer after he graduated from middle school. “I felt like age shouldn’t hold me back, as long as I can code,” says Anderson, who just finished ninth grade.
On Facebook’s campus, Sayman can get a meal or a haircut or have his laundry done for free whenever he wants. “My life here is basically the opposite of my life back home,” he says. Perhaps more dazzling for high school-age kids, it’s become standard for engineering interns to make more than $6,000 a month on top of free housing and transport, according to job search site Glassdoor, which relies on employee reports. “It’s kind of insane that as a 19- or 20-year-old, you can make more than the U.S. average income in a summer,” says Daniel Tahara, 21. (America’s average monthly household income is $4,280.) Tahara interned at big-data startup Hadapt last summer and mobile security startup Lookout the year before. Tahara, who wouldn’t say how much he was paid, started full-time at Dropbox this month.
Hiring minors means dealing with concerned parents, says Doris Tong, who manages recruiting at LinkedIn and once had to get a parental release for a young participant at a company hackathon. Under-18 hires can also mean extra paperwork. Bern Coh, in charge of recruiting interns at Airbnb, says to hire a 16-year-old last year, “we actually had to get a work permit for him.”
Kyle Ewing, Google’s (GOOG) head of global staffing, says her company isn’t interested in hiring high schoolers. They may be able to build apps, Ewing says, but she’s recruiting for projects that require a higher degree of academic rigor. She says Google won’t take on an intern who isn’t at least working toward a college degree and prefers that they complete their course of study.
Facebook’s head of global recruiting, Miranda Kalinowski, says the company has “no hard and fast rule” on intern ages, though it typically recruits from universities. “The point is we’re always on the lookout for really top talent,” she says. Sayman has heard there are other high school-age interns at Facebook, but he hasn’t seen them.
Sayman taught himself to build apps when he was 13, partly to help his mother, now a driver for Lyft, and father, an audio engineer, pay the bills after a home foreclosure four years ago. Almost immediately, he became the family’s main breadwinner, his mom says. Sayman says he isn’t sure whether he’ll go to college. For now, he’s busy touring the Valley and snapping selfies with the likes of Apple (AAPL) software chief Craig Federighi and CEO Tim Cook. If Facebook makes him a full-time offer, he says, he’ll take it. “I’m 17, and these guys are the best of the best,” he says. “I don’t know the things that they talk about that are old, like cassette tapes, but we get along.”