We’re in that special time of year when kids are trying to squeeze in the last bit of vacation before heading back to school.
I’m hoping that 17-year-old Kresten Thorndahl makes the most of it.
Thorndahl (above) spent nearly all of his summer vacation toiling in the world’s largest software factory.
Not on the Microsoft kitchen or landscaping crews, where you might expect to see a high-schooler.
No, Thorndahl spent six of his eight weeks of school vacation working alongside executives and others in Microsoft’s global education sales group. Among other things, he helped them tailor products for students and improve their “innovative schools” program.
Thorndahl was a newcomer to Redmond — and America — but not Microsoft. He has been working at the company’s Denmark headquarters in Copenhagen since he was 15, first as an intern and then a full-fledged “blue badge” employee while still in middle school. That made him perhaps the youngest European employee, but Microsoft declined to discuss worker ages with me.
Either way, Thorndahl’s success and the influence he’s had on co-workers make you wonder why there aren’t more opportunities for students to engage with big companies before college, when most internship programs begin.
In Denmark, he is allowed to work six to eight hours a week through a program the company originally set up for college students. He generally goes to the office four days a week after school.
“They just made an exception for me,” he said, as we chatted on a bench next to Microsoft’s soccer field last week.
Teens do occasionally find summer jobs at Microsoft, especially programming prodigies or those with family connections.
The record for youngest Microsoft employee appears to be held by Zillow co-founder Lloyd Frink, who started at 14 back in 1979. Frink’s mom and Mary Gates, Bill’s mother, introduced their boys at a Lakeside School auction since both were interested in computers.
That led to a lunch in Bellevue, after which Frink was offered a summer job that continued for 10 summers, through his graduation from Stanford. Frink eventually became a Microsoft group program manager and helped start Expedia.
Frink (left) is all for bringing teens into companies, especially because they’re becoming computer savvy at younger ages.
“A little bit of it is giving back to the community, but you learn from it as well,” he said. “If you find the right people, they can add value.”
“Innovation and new ideas”
Thorndahl isn’t sure where his career will take him, but he expects to work at Microsoft through college, where he plans to major in business and minor in computer science. When he graduates from college, he would have 10 years at the company and experience that would make some chief executives jealous.
Asked about long-term plans, he smiles and shrugs a bit.
“Three years ago I wanted to be a chef,” he said. “I really can’t say what I want to do in 10 to 15 years because I’m still only 17. I don’t know how it’s going to evolve and all that, but I know that it’s going to be in a tech company with innovation and new ideas.”
How the doors opened
Thorndahl is more than lucky. Drive and personal character opened one door after another for the teen, whose story may inspire job hunters of all ages.
It started when he was 13 and elected president of the student council at his K-9 school in Ordrup, a suburb of Copenhagen. That connected him with a nonprofit organization supporting Danish students, where he was elected to a board position handling its technology policies.
That same year, Denmark allocated $100 million for education technology and sought guidance on how it should be invested. This is similar to the process school districts here and around the U.S. are going through as they modernize their systems and prepare for new curriculum and testing requiring more computer use.
At 14, Thorndahl was invited to an education technology conference with teachers groups, government agencies and companies, including Microsoft Denmark.
“At this conference I bump into a guy who asked me what the hell a young kid like me was doing at that kind of conference,” Thorndahl recalled. “I told him … and told him my story and some of the ideas that I had and some of the policies that the organization had for students and how we would use the money and (technology) in education.”
It must have been quite a first impression. The Microsoft rep suggested a partnership with the Danish students organization. The partnership didn’t pan out at first, but three months later Microsoft offered him a weeklong internship.
Again, he made a good impression. “After that week he asked me whether I wanted a job,” he said.
Once on board, Thorndahl sorted out the partnership. He set up a program of student-led tech “patrols” that manage schools’ technology and help teachers use equipment. It has since expanded to 100 schools and has $30,000 in federal funding.
After his sister spent time in Australia studying law, he was inspired to pursue work abroad with Microsoft, perhaps at its Europe headquarters in Ireland.
Summer internships are usually for software developers, which Thorndahl isn’t, but his request came through at the start of this summer: He was invited to work at global headquarters in Redmond, with two weeks’ notice.
Thorndahl had never traveled abroad alone or to the U.S., but he booked a flight and found lodging with a Danish family in Kenmore. Then he moved closer, to the Bellevue home of Steve and Rebekah Jenkins, current and former Microsoft employees.
“Kresten very quickly impressed all of us that he came into contact with,” Jenkins said. “He’s this really interesting mixture of young, enthusiastic, bold, selfless thinker and individual — and then he’s part kid still.”
At work, Thorndahl changed the perspective of Jenkins, a 15-year veteran and senior director of government partners. The teen reminded Jenkins “to be bold and think broadly.”
“You sometimes apply constraints to your thinking and then you come into contact with one of these people who just doesn’t do that. They have a good idea, they think it’s a good idea and they push that idea or work on that idea,” Jenkins said. “That’s where Kresten really struck me in my work.”
Making himself an asset
One day during their commute, Thorndahl turned to Jenkins and said, “I did something bold today.”
Thorndahl had sketched out a concept for the Internet Explorer business. He caught a shuttle across campus to the IE team’s building and stuffed it in the inbox of the group vice president.
“I just put it in his box, so he can see it when he gets back,” Thorndahl told me. “That was just a little idea and I thought, why not?”
Another bold moment came at an employee meeting where Thorndahl took the opportunity to introduce himself to a few people in the room: Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner and Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood.
“That was because I was in that internal meeting and I was just like, ‘I have to meet them, I have to say hi and shake their hand,’ ” he told me.
Thorndahl was also getting things done, according to Anthony Salcito, vice president of worldwide education.
“He did real work like an employee would do,” he said, adding that Thorndahl “was actually an asset to the team.”
The team took the opportunity to expose Thorndahl to how things work at headquarters, since relatively few Danish employees get that chance.
“Not only can he learn that for his own benefit, but he can bring it back to the local subsidiary,” Salcito said.
The education group also provided an internship this summer to a San Diego teen heading to college this fall.
Salcito said he was inspired to continue bringing in high-schoolers. He expects Thorndahl to keep the ball rolling when he returns to work in Copenhagen.
“I said ‘Kresten, get me a program in place to help do this going forward. I want to have interns rotating through Microsoft every summer,’ ” Salcito said. “He’s working on the plan.”