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Summertime jobs not dead-end for teen whiz

So, what is your teenager doing this summer to secure his or her future? The Labor Department estimates that 6-million teens are gainfully employed this summer, most of them flipping patties at the local burger joint. A whole bunch more are camped out in the living room, transfixed by Baywatch reruns and Scooby Doo marathons.

But at least one is pulling down $5,000 a month _ plus stock options _ from several jobs in Silicon Valley. He's Roddy Knight, a venture capitalist's son and a self-taught programmer. The 18-year-old Knight, who just completed his junior year in high school, has hustled up high-tech internships for the past three summers: with Hotmail Corp., the e-mail provider; with Raychem Corp., a maker of electronics products; and, this summer, with Keynote Inc., a company that measures the performance of e-commerce sites.

Knight also holds down part-time gigs with Knight-Ridder, where he maintains a Web site, and with Zealott Inc., a tiny start-up developing an Internet entertainment portal, where he is chief technology officer.

Certainly Knight isn't typical, so don't disown your teen. The young programmer's early success was partly due to his talents and partly due to the abundance of opportunity in high-tech fields these days. But he has also become pretty savvy about how to land a job.

Knight's success highlights two immutable laws of career development: Internships are important career building blocks, and it's never too early to learn how to schmooze.

He said that dealing with a family crisis forced him to grow up fast. His father, Kirk Knight, who founded Menlo Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., had a debilitating stroke when Roddy was just 3 years old. Because of it, he said, "I was always a little older than my contemporaries, emotionally and psychologically."

By the seventh grade, he had discovered e-mail, sending his first message to a cousin at a New York law firm. "I thought that was really amazing, to be able to bypass the phone system," he said. So he inhaled books about the Internet and taught himself to program.

But he really owes his burgeoning programming career to a fractured knee suffered while playing tennis his freshman year of high school. "Prospects for the summer were pretty grim," he said, so he started applying for internships.

The companies he approached ignored him. But his father's colleagues at Menlo Ventures helped him land a job with Hotmail, giving him his first lesson in the power of connections.

The following school year, he solicited used computer equipment for his school from several companies. Raychem donated a server, and a manager in research and development accepted his invitation to visit the school. Knight showed him some of the programs he had written for the server, and the manager eventually offered him work.

Knight said he called Raychem four or five times before the company finalized the summer-job offer. He feared he was becoming a pest, but he was told by a recruiter at an industry show that busy Silicon Valley managers don't object to reminders.

The Keynote connection was made at a school fundraiser, where Knight chatted up the father of one of his classmates. The conversation, mostly about technological issues, led Keynote chief executive Umang Gupta to consider giving the enthusiastic boy an internship.

First, though, he was thoroughly grilled by a parade of interviewers, providing him with valuable experience in that critical career skill. "You have to show interest in what the company is doing and in what you might be doing," he advised. Don't overstate your skills, he added, and don't be afraid to say you don't know something. "You don't want to get into a job you don't know how to do," he said. "It's pretty uncomfortable for everyone."

At Hotmail, he felt he was in over his head. "I felt some pressure," he admitted. "I wanted to do something that would benefit the company." Fortunately, his managers were patient. By the end of the summer, he had written some programming code they could use.

Wunderkind interns are a varied lot, said Eric Stokesberry, manager of engineering in Keynote's quality-assurance department. Some think they know more than they do, he said, while others are reluctant to approach people for assistance.

Knight learned early on to ask for help. At Raychem, he was assigned to a graphing program he didn't know. So he posted a query with an online discussion group and was tutored by a German professor.

Knight's eagerness prompts co-workers to go out of their way to hasten his development. Stokesberry said Knight is included in projects and meetings he normally wouldn't be involved in "because we think it would be a good learning experience for him."

The heady brew of high pay, options and the opportunity to work with the best and brightest certainly could turn a young man's head. With all that, who needs college?

Don't be tempted, Gupta cautioned. The college years add knowledge, maturity and polish. Besides, he said, these kids will have opportunities for the rest of their lives. "The trend isn't going to stop," he said.

Knight said the managers he has cornered on the issues vote unanimously for college. "It also shows your commitment to reaching a goal and finishing," he said.