March 29, 2013 6:18 pm

‘I coulda been an app vendor’

How to nurture your child’s inner Nick D’Aloisio
An illustration of a child spending time on the computer©Lucas Varela

On second thoughts, maybe the kids aren’t spending enough time on the computer.

The news that 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio had become an overnight millionaire when Yahoo! purchased his app business, Summly, will have left many parents wondering if we had made a monumental tactical blunder. I hurried home and stormed into the boy’s room. There he was, engrossed in some homework – well, OK, engrossed may be stretching things but he was doing it. “Why aren’t you on Minecraft?” I demanded. This is what’s wrong with so many kids today, frittering away their lives on schoolwork when they could be on the computer figuring out how to make their parents rich. The English reformation is all very interesting but it’s not going to build a genetic algorithm.

More

Robert Shrimsley

This time I really do blame the parents. Oh, the mistakes we made. I could cry. All those hours wasted making him go to the park; the guitar lessons. All those sunny days that could have been spent in his room coding but, oh no, we had to pull him off the laptop and insist on picnics when he could have been working on Scratch or Codea. I know the boy was willing. He was certainly prepared to put in the hard hours on YouTube.

If only we had our time again, it could all be so different. We could confiscate the football, draw the blinds and incentivise him to reach higher levels in World of Warcraft. By nine we would have expected him to have had a go at an angry Hitler Downfall video. Then we would have a step-up programme to pull him into original coding. After all, it worked with soccer stickers and the times tables.

Now, young Nick, who built Summly aged 15, is obviously a prodigy. But we owed it to the boy and ourselves to have nurtured any latent talent by indulging his computer habit just in case he had a killer app in him. He’d have been keen; $30m goes a long way at the tuck shop. It’s not that he isn’t working hard but the success of Summly puts one A- for computing into some sort of perspective.

One day he’ll hold it against us. I can see him standing, like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, lamenting, “I could have been an app vendor.” Now he’ll be living off us for years, hitting us up for that first deposit to get on the housing ladder. Once we grasped that he wasn’t going to make it as a footballer – and, to be fair to him, he was swimming in the shallow end of the sporting gene pool – we should have got past this “rounded childhood” nonsense. Just as cave-dwellers had children to take up the hunter-gathering duties, we now need our spawn to top up our pension pot before they shove off to university. What with stagnant savings, long-term care costs and increased longevity, those who thought it was enough to turn their kids into lawyers or accountants are looking pretty damn last century.

Now the challenge is to get him back on track. We don’t want to destroy his confidence just because he hasn’t made us all millionaires yet or let him think he’s a failure if he doesn’t crack this till his twenties. A breakthrough in your third decade used to be enough. Zuckerberg, Brin and Page, David Karp of Tumblr: they all made it in their twenties. At the time, it seemed astonishing but now we see them for the doddering old slowcoaches they obviously were. No doubt there was a fair bit of hype around Summly and a smart business and marketing team to turn the first iteration into the real deal. But there’s no way round it – 15 is the new 20.

Fortunately, we’ve learnt our lesson so there’s still hope for the girl. She’s got five years to develop a killer app and she’s already showing willing. Last night she notched up three hours on Moshi Monsters; we were so proud. True; we aren’t actually seeing any coding yet but at least she’s deeply engaged in becoming a digital native.

So here is my appeal to new parents. Don’t make the mistakes we did. Burn your What to Expect books. Forget phonics, solids and potty training. A new laptop and a matchstick for each eyelid; that’s all a modern parent needs.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts