The miseducation of young nerds 10/18/1999
Byline: Carlene Hempel
Photos: Jim Bounds
The miseducation of young nerds
Phillip Jones, 23, (at right, with roommate, Isaiah Weiner, 19)
says of his peers who are now college graduates just entering the
work force. Jones left Appalachian State after three
failure-ridden semesters and now makes $37,000 a year working in
tech support for IBM.
Chris Evans, 33, Dropped out of electrical engineering program
at N.C. State to start his own business. Sold his third start-up,
Accipiter, for $55 million a year and a half
Jim Hoeg, 23, High school graduate, senior systems engineer for
Ryan Tilder, 24, Dropped out of college, heads the community
relations department at Red Hat. Chris Blizzard, 25, Dropped out
of high school, works as a software developer at Red Hat.
Given a choice, technologically inclined teens are passing on
higher learning and aiming for higher earnings.
It's late on a Friday night at the Third Place coffee shop on
Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh's Five Points, and all around are late
20-somethings trying to look like early 20-somethings, with their
tight pants and shiny shirts and tough talk about sex and too
Sitting in the middle of all this, a little out of place, are
Phillip Jones and Isaiah Weiner.
Jones, 23, is tall and thin, and wears his long black hair
pulled into a messy bunch at the base of his skull. Weiner is
short, wears glasses and is still young enough - 19 - to host a
cluster of reddish pimples on his roundish face.
The two are great friends and it's obvious, their conversation
peppered with insider jokes and obscure references. Both are
wearing pro-Linux T-shirts, shorts and old sneakers. They share a
messy apartment with two others, have a penchant for Dilbert, the
same friends and the same kind of job, technical support.
Oh yeah, and one other thing: Neither bothered much with
college after graduating from Broughton High School in Raleigh.
That, they will tell you, would have been a shameful waste of
What these two and a large number like them represent is the
get-rich story of the decade. Or, maybe it's just the newest
chapter in that old, familiar tale of the American Dream.
Bill Gates started it, quitting Harvard University with a good
business idea. In the years that followed, it became common to
hear stories about computer geeks who went to bed, exhausted
after years of working for dirt pay and no benefits other than
stock options, and woke up millionaires. Magazines like Success
and Fast Company and Wired cropped up to tell stories of how that
nerdy kid everyone picked on in high school today has his own
Suddenly, the idea was shattered that the only currency an
enterprising kid could use to buy a meal ticket was a college
Chris Evans, 33, didn't need one. He quit N.C. State after his
junior year to concentrate on his electronic mail software
company. Eighteen months ago, he sold his latest company,
Accipiter, for stock valued at $55 million.
Jim Hoeg, high school graduate and computer consultant from
Cary, hasn't made it to millionaire status yet, but he expects
to. At 23, he owns a townhouse in Cary, a sleek black Mazda, and
makes close to six figures a year.
Maybe Weiner, who works at Red Hat for "way more" than $20,000
- his legal department told him not to say exactly how much more
- and Jones, who's making $37,000 at IBM, aren't in the fast lane
to riches, but they're making more than their parents did at
their age and even contemplating real estate purchases.
"I told him he was shooting himself in the foot," Lucina
Casson, Weiner's mother, says about her son's choice not to go to
college. But he did what he wanted anyway, joining the ranks of
the hottest staff in town while most of his high school
classmates are probably still contemplating which fraternities to
'I was bored'
Ryan Tilder speaks so fast it's necessary to watch his lips in
order to catch everything. That's if you can take your eyes off
his T-shirt, which explains how he'd rather be pleasuring
A 24-year old smart aleck with a sharp wit and a tendency to
be mean, he works in community relations at Red Hat, a job he
claimed after more than a year in technical support there.
Both Tilder and his good buddy Chris Blizzard, 25, followed
similar paths on their road to big Red.
After graduating from high school in 1993, Tilder tried
college life at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.
He blames the Internet for causing him to quit because that's
where he came across his true love - well, apart from the three
ferrets - Miriam, Gatsby and Sin - that he keeps at his Raleigh
"That's when I ran into Unix and Linux," says Tilder of his
favorite operating systems. "I started drooling all over it," he
says. "Something about it made me go all tingly inside. I wanted
Blizzard, on the other hand, didn't even make it through high
school before giving himself over to things technical. He also
had various technical support gigs, before landing a job in
February as software developer. He earned his G.E.D. in 1993.
Neither would confess what his paycheck amounts to, but
conceded it's somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000.
"I didn't realize it until much later, but it was because I
was bored out of my skull," says a soft-spoken Blizzard about his
decision to quit school. "And," he adds, "I've only met like
three people in the tech field that have gotten anything out of
That's the crux of it for many of these techie types. They can
learn what they need to know on their own, or from their friends
or on a job. And as long as they've got "big brains" as Tilder
likes to say, no one cares about a degree.
"It used to be you had to go to a university to get the
skills. And you don't anymore," says Blizzard. "How could I
possibly spend $50,000 for four years to get something I can get
out of books and talking to people?"
Of course, convincing a manager of that 20 years from now
might be a challenge. Then again, it might not. But Tilder's
parents sure did need some help with it.
"'What are you thinking?' " was his father's response when he
left school. "Now he's proud as hell," Tilder says. "He's like,
'I love you.'"
And his mother: "My mom was just so angry because I was making
more money than she was."
'Too good to pass up'
Clean-cut, goateed and handsome, Jim Hoeg is one whiz kid who
would never think of dipping into Tilder's T-shirt drawer. He
wears polo shirts and Dockers, has blond, feathered hair and
bowls in his spare time. Bowls?
His is the story of offers too good to refuse. The choice was
college or cash.
After graduating from Cary High School in 1994, Hoeg worked as
a systems administrator for the online news service, Nando.net,
which then was The News & Observer's online edition, and today is
a separate company. He knew someone who worked at IBM, talked to
a recruiter and was offered $33,500 to come on board. "To be 18
and be offered a job at IBM, well, it was just too good to pass
up," says Hoeg.
He stayed at IBM for a total of eight months, until he decided
he wanted in on some of Microsoft's action. Hoeg wasn't going to
wait around for an offer; he paid $10,000 for a six-week course
to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. "My mom thought
I was crazy," he says.
But it paid off. A week after finishing the program, he was
offered a three-month consulting job with CNC Global Consulting
for $58,000. "When I showed up the first day, I got some odd
looks. They'd be like, 'Where's your dad?' " The story of his
From there, the jobs - and the money - kept coming. Next, he
was making $72,500; three months later, he was laid off, and
hired by the end of the day for $50,000. "It didn't matter
because at my age I was just happy, happy and working." With his
resume on the Web, Hoeg, at one point, was getting 25 calls a
week from recruiters. "Ridiculous," he says, still delighting in
the excesses of it all.
By the time he turned 21, Hoeg was earning $120,000 as a
consultant for companies installing Microsoft Windows NT. Today,
he won't say exactly how much he makes as a senior systems
engineer for Dallas-based CompuCom Systems - his colleagues
wouldn't like it - but it's enough to keep him feeling happy and
lucky. This is his life: He works 60 hours a week, goes to the
shooting range on weekends, rents Kevin Spacey movies with
live-in girlfriend KeAnne and sits on his beat-up couch every
night, with cats Bit, Lucy and Nippet around, to watch Howard
Stern on a 32-inch TV.
"I think a little bit underneath, you feel like you cheated
the system. But when I started, there was something inside that
said, 'You know what to do with your life. Everybody, just get
out of my way.'"
Though he's not entirely without regrets, Hoeg does understand
how fortunate he is; when he and his friends go out to eat, he
always makes sure to pick up the check. Of course there are some
things he can't buy. "Everybody's always got dorm stories, and I
missed out on that," Hoeg says. "But I have a crazy career to
The four-bedroom apartment off Avent Ferry Road houses four
humans and 23 computers. The machines are always on, providing
enough heat to keep them warm in the winter. In the summer, the
air conditioning must run at full blast.
This is where Phillip Jones and Isaiah Weiner live. Together
and with their machines.
Neither of them can say when it happened; when they morphed
into nerds or geeks or whatever it is people call them. It just
sort of always was.
They do remember being treated as techie outcasts at Broughton
High School, a place they regard with about as much affection as
a root-canal patient does the dentist's office.
Even though they never attended the school together - Jones is
five years older than Weiner - their experiences were the same.
They were picked on. They didn't get good grades. And by the end
of their tenure, they say they just about ruled the place.
What happened is that they began to understand the power of
the computer tech, that geek in every office endlessly sucked up
to by the typical employee. Instead of co-workers, though, the
dependents at Broughton were administrators, teachers, even other
students who relied on their technical expertise.
Picking on someone can be fun, but if that someone is the only
guy who can rescue your term paper from a corrupted disk, he is
your best friend.
"We were no longer treated as simply students," says Weiner,
who enjoyed his status as computer whiz "as long as it didn't
involve interaction with stupid people."
"We were almost faculty," Jones adds.
"Well, not necessarily on par with teachers," Weiner corrects,
"but certainly higher than students."
But that was enough, because it did two things. It gave them
countless hours of keyboard time to hone their skills, and it
gave them the kind of cocky arrogance that puts them at ease
everywhere from hip joints like Third Place to an office where
most people have the name of a university atop their r"sum".
Jones did try to follow his friends to school, but after three
semesters at Appalachian State University and too many Fs to
confess in public, he quit.
Weiner, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less. "I
dislike school so much that it would have been a waste of money
and a waste of time," he says.
Today, neither looks back, and neither feels any regret.
OK, so they work on average 10, 12, sometimes even more hours
in a day, and their primary socializing consists of running the
electrical equipment for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" every
Friday night at the Rialto.
But, they live in an apartment heated by computers, each of
them given a name - Lemuria, Forth, Milliways and on and on. And
they can drink all the Coca-Cola they want, somewhere between
nine and 12 cans a day.
Weiner cracks a slight smile when asked if he feels left
behind, or left out of the experiences his peers from school are
having in their first year of college.
He almost doesn't even bother answering, and then:
"I don't have to deal with them anymore. They will find their
own niches. They will grow out of their cluelessness."
Jones, whose peers would have graduated from college last
year, has a broad smile on his face. He crosses his arms and
leans far back in his chair.
"They will be making less then me," he says, "and I feel
really good about that."