How teens can get on the path to a happy career

Teens and their first job: How to get on the path to a happy career

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I grew up in the 1980s in Columbus, Georgia. You needed a car to get around, so I did not work until I could drive. Within months of getting my driver's license, I got my first job as a part-time computer programmer for a stockbroker.

It is easy to forget that in the 80s, computers and programming were not nearly as pervasive (or popular) as they are today. I had been interested in computers for a couple of years by then. My prized possession was my Kaypro II with 64K RAM and dual floppies. Part-time jobs using computers were rare, so I felt lucky to find the perfect fit. I was tasked with building a computer program that would perform contact management, tracking interactions with potential and current clients. I wish I understood the value of such a system back then. Good thing Marc Benioff did. (Thank you,

I ended up working with the stockbroker for more than two years until I went to college. I learned several very valuable lessons.

#1. While I loved programming and was fascinated by computers and technology, I did not want to pursue programming as a career.

Nobody appreciates the work that goes into keeping software bug-free and running like computer programmers, engineers, or developers do. It is a tedious and sometimes thankless job to make sure these programs are functioning and continuously improving. In fact, that's one of the things I respect the most about our Red Hat engineers and developers—they maintain Red Hat products for years to meet the needs of our enterprise customers. For example, not only is each version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux maintained for 10 years, engineers keep versions running while handling truly mission-critical compute jobs. Also, I found out I'm an extrovert. I love working with people. So as much as I loved programming, I knew I would need to find a profession that also allowed for a healthy dose of human interaction as well.

#2. My experience solidified my desire to go to college, obtain a computer science degree, and get my MBA.

Discovering that I'm an extrovert was a key lesson that shaped my college experience. I had always wanted to major in computer science, which I did. But I also added economics. Because I loved technology, but did not want to have a career as a programmer, I needed basic business skills to be successful. I think this early realization put me on the track to my role today as Red Hat's president and CEO. And, I would not have learned this lesson had I not spent so much time programming early in my career at the stockbroker's office.

#3. I learned how the business world worked.

I was 16 years old when I worked in the stockbroker's office. I had no idea how you were supposed to behave in a business environment. My dad was a medical doctor and mom was a nurse. I knew more about the hospital and doctor's office environments than I did a business environment. But luckily, the only computer the stockbroker had was in a central location in the office, which happened to be close to the secretaries. Fortunately for me, they took me under their wings and taught me what was and was not appropriate in the office.

I know it may sound trivial, but it's a real challenge for those just entering the working world. The confidence I gained in those years certainly aided me when I got my first full-time job at The Boston Consulting Group after college.

#4. I was lucky that my first job helped me build on my existing skills.

I was already heavily into computers when I began working for a stockbroker, but my experience at his office helped me to develop, hone, and build upon those skills. I could not have done that if I handpicked a traditional first job such as lifeguarding, waiting tables, or working at a retail store. While all perfectly respectable first jobs, knowing what I know now, I'm glad I had a head start in the technology industry.

The truth is, I consider myself very lucky that at such a young age, I learned valuable lessons that helped me get to where I am today. If I were to impart any wisdom to someone embarking on this journey, It's to look for a first job that will help you build on your existing talents. Look for a first job that can help you figure out if you want to go to college or get technical training. And once you've landed that first job, be a sponge. When you're young, it's easy to fall into the "know it all" territory. I encourage you to stay away from that temptation and rather assume you know nothing. Learn as much as you can from those around you. You have no idea the impact it could have on your future.

I still keep in touch with my first boss, Murray Solomon. He was a great person and first boss who started me down a path that's led me to my current career. Murray, thank you!

Originally posted on LinkedIn. Reposted with permission.


About the author

Jim Whitehurst - Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments. Since joining Red Hat in 2008, Whitehurst has grown the company, and its influence on a variety of industries, by reaching key milestones—the most...