The drive of these three Divergent Academy interns will change your mind about Gen Z

Left to right: Laurentiu Victor Balasa (T-Me Studios co-founder), the interns Victor, David and Tudor, and Matei Pavel (T-Me Studios co-founder)

The T-Me Studios-founded Divergent Academy is just two months old, but it’s already off to a promising start in its quest to attract young people to the Romanian IT industry and help it change its focus from outsourcing to locally-made tech products. The Academy’s first order of business, a summer internship program for high schoolers, had T-Me and partner companies MReady and GameDev Academy sifting through tens of applications, looking for the brightest young minds to shape and train over the course of one month, or more.

‘I’ll intern here until someone kicks me out!’ (Tudor, 17 yo)

David and Tudor

The pick of the crop, the interns whose applications to Divergent Academy made it to the top of the pile, weren’t chosen for their grades or academic achievement (that wasn’t even on the questionnaire). Instead, as Andreea Per, program coordinator for Divergent Academy, tells me, ‘what we looked for were those young people who best fitted the “divergent” profile — to wit, whose answers showed a spark, a hunger for learning and an original, divergent style.’

Officially, the plan is, they’ll work side by side with us for a month or so, get a feel for the things we do here at T-Me, and then figure out if they’re staying on through the end of the summer. Unofficially, one week in, they’ve already made up their minds to stay until school starts — David and Victor have their senior year ahead of them, while Tudor will be a junior come fall. ‘Even if I didn’t come here, it’s what I’d be doing all summer anyway,’ explains Victor, and David rejoins: ‘At least, in coming here, I’m doing something more than I’d normally be doing.’

What is that, exactly? T-Me isn’t all about coding, just like IT and tech isn’t just about the backend, and the guys are here to learn the ins and outs of the business, not just churn out code. So each of the high schoolers chose a different department to intern for: David is coding a ‘slider-like image previewer’ for our core Android apps, Victor is working on a web app that our graphic designers use to load the app resources and elements they draw, while Tudor has teamed up with our head of SEO/ASO, to learn marketing and optimization through A/B testing. To his credit, the reasoning behind choosing the marketing department is sound: ‘I figured it’s not something I can easily learn on my own… The field is still pretty new, but it’s important, especially if you want to start a company.’

‘I want to start my first IT company right out of college’ — Tudor

My biggest takeaway from chatting with the youngsters is don’t be fooled by their age, they dream big, but keep a level head about it too. Tudor, for instance, wanted his first internship to be at T-Me Studios so that he ‘might gain an insight into what makes IT companies tick,’ with a view to starting an IT business himself after finishing college. Still, he knows it won’t be easy getting it off the ground — ‘I’m here to glean as much information as I can. I know it won’t be easy striking out on my own, one doesn’t make it on the first go, the first couple of businesses usually fail. I want the failure to hurt as little as possible.’

How do you protect yourself from failure? I think Tudor has the right idea in learning as much as he can before going all in, as well as in entertaining all possible outcomes, even failure — if his first company does end up folding, at least it won’t have snuck up on him.

Victor’s plans for the future sound just as well thought out and grounded: ‘I want to work on electronics at Intel, building microprocessors.’ And, to look at him say that, with a perfectly straight face, you know that’s not hot air. Neither is David’s answer, delivered in a slightly less self-assured voice though: ‘Ideally, I’d be making games… but getting there feels a bit complicated right now. When I think about where I see myself after college, it’s either that… or a YouTube star,’ he adds, playfully.

‘You can’t do anything in this country as a high schooler.’ (Victor, 18 yo)

David and Victor

On a more serious note, one would think that someone who wants to go into coding games might have applied for an internship at EA. ‘I did, but I got turned down because they were only looking for college students,’ explains David. When Victor pipes up on the subject — ‘you can’t do anything in this country as a high schooler’ — the outrage is crackling in his voice, but he name-drops a few companies who would only accept college students and it soon becomes clear his isn’t a typical adolescent overreaction. The status quo is indeed geared towards grooming interns as future hires, rather than teaching the next generation the ropes without expecting an immediate return on the investment.

So, perhaps there really isn’t much out there for inquisitive teens to do on the side, even if they are willing to put in the work during their summer holidays. And what about the main thing they’re expected to do? How is school serving the next generation of coders?

Well, that’s actually second on our interns’ list of complaints…

Victor and Tudor

We aren’t very big on formal education and, coincidentally or not, neither are our interns. David and Tudor’s foremost gripe about high school — ‘It sucks,’ they both chime in at once, though they go to different schools — is how little of what they learn in the computer science class actually dovetails with what they’re studying on their own, at home — that is, what they’ll actually need to know once they’re out there in the job market.

Much of the curriculum is outdated. ‘[School] only teaches you C++,’ David explains, ‘It has no bearing on what you’ll be doing after graduation.’ Victor also notes, ‘high-school-level Computer Science is all about cramming: you learn 5 algorithms and that’s all there is to it… I took a programming class, from the 3rd grade through to the 9th, and then I realized high-school teachers have little interest in helping you learn anything that deviates from the curriculum. If you know more than what’s on there, they won’t care. You just have to know the subject matter for the senior-year finals, the same old stuff that’s been taught for years now.’

‘I worked at a fast-food chain before this — it’s the difference between a Trabant and a Rolls Royce.’ (David, 17 yo)

It’s worth pointing out, if it’s not amply clear by now, that these aren’t your typical youths — they’re not the disaffected layabouts most of us imagine gen Z-ers to be: born smack in the digital era, to engineer dads, Victor and David have been on the computer pretty much since before they could walk. Ask them about their first memories from their digital-first lives and they’ll start enthusing about playing Zuma. And now, as they’re staring down the barrel of college applications, they’re the picture of confidence, with a dash of age-specific restlessness. Gung-ho, practical-minded preppies concerned with getting into the best colleges — abroad, of course: David will apply to UCL, Tudor is set on Cambridge, while Victor wants to go to MIT and study Electronics.

But they’re all well aware that to get into those top-flight colleges, they’ll need to beef up their resumes.

Tudor is still two years away from college interviews and isn’t all that stressed out about it — as he puts it, ‘I’m interning for the experience and the opportunity to learn from people who are actually doing what I plan to be doing after college.’ Meanwhile, David and Victor are taking steps to building foolproof applicant profiles. After a miserable (but, to my ears, very Western-sounding and age-specific) experience flipping burgers for a month last summer, David’s focused up and is now working intensely towards his goal. ‘I’m doing everything from volunteering to interning this summer. I previously worked as a volunteer with disadvantaged children, I volunteered at the debate club, I’m in charge of the school’s film club, and just this year some friends and I launched a record label, called Hall Music.’

That’s pretty impressive — but I quickly pick up my jaw from the floor because I’m curious about one last thing: where the Divergent Academy internship ranks, among all these experiences — and not necessarily in the scheme of the long game they’re playing for college admissions boards. Sure, they haven’t been at T-Me that long, but they’ve proven themselves to be very opinionated so far, and they answer my last question in similar fashion: ‘I like that everyone’s so friendly and easy-going,’ Tudor says with a smile, adding that ‘this isn’t your typical corporation where people come to punch in. And it’s the kind of place where you can be creative — if someone has an idea, they don’t have to write it up and wait a week for approvals from higher-ups, they can just go ahead and do it.’

David too appreciates the startup mood at T-Me, noting ‘people aren’t stuck-up here, I don’t feel like anyone’s running me ragged… And I love the office! I remember watching The Internship last year [the movie about two interns at Google] and being impressed with the atmosphere at Google, the ping pong tables, the fun they all had. So I was so stoked when I got here at T-Me and saw it’s in the same vein!’

Victor rolling around the office

I have a feeling that the unconventional setting where the interns first laid eyes on all of us — namely, on our annual team-building — might also have something to do with the high praise! And, sure enough, Victor remembers ‘the team-building was cool. Everyone’s so open — you can go ask anyone for help and they won’t leave you hanging.’

And there you have it — to my mind, that’s the most important lesson the Divergent Academy interns can glean from their stint with us. A company is defined by its team — the lighter the mood is, and the tighter-knit the team is, the better the odds are for the company to thrive.