Google scion whiz kid hacks his way to IDF service

Michael Matias, 19, son of Google Israel’s head, is a self-made man – and his hackathons are helping high-schoolers to succeed too

Michael Matias (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Matias (Photo credit: Courtesy)

There’s lots of tech talent out there – some of it still in high school. So who better than a tech-savvy high school kid to bring some of that talent to the fore?

That’s what Michael Matias, a 19-year old Israeli recent high-school graduate felt – and why he organized Hacking Generation Y, a group that has so far organized three weekend hack events that brought hundreds of kids together in Silicon Valley, Jamaica, India – and in June, Tel Aviv – to develop new and innovative tech.

And it doesn’t hurt that he is also the son of Yossi Matias, director of Google Israel. “For me, he was a great inspiration,” Michael told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “I never met anyone more passionate than my dad. When he talks he lights an inner fire in me.”

The younger Matias used that fire to organize a hacking event for high school kids during an internship in Silicon Valley over the past year.

“I was taking a year off between high school in Israel and my IDF service,” which he started last week, said Matias. “I met a lot of very talented kids who had a lot of great ideas, but nowhere to really connect with mentors, or with others who are like-minded, so I decided to start HackGenY, with some help from friends” — 30 partners, including Google, MIT Launch, the Peter Thiel Foundation, and Andreessen Horowitz, among others.

Surprisingly, said Matias, HackGenY’s Silicon Valley hackathon in January was the first one ever dedicated to kids in high school. “While high school students often go to more general hackathons, they tend to get overshadowed by the college and post-college people, and in school they might not have enough time or resources to really let loose and develop things they are really capable of,” he said.

Giving them that freedom resulted, said Matias, in projects like the Handi-hacked, a virtual reality input device based on the Oculus Rift headset that will provide a VR experience for handicapped people who cannot manipulate keys. “The judges, who came from top companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Intel were really impressed,” said Matias.

Some 450 students from around the US – including 25 from abroad and seven from Israel – gathered in Redwood City for the first hackathon, which went on for 30 straight hours, and it was such a rousing success, said Matias, that he decided to organize more events. The second one was held in Jamaica, a country often overlooked in the worldwide tech ecosystem, said Matias. In June, concurrent hackathons will be held in Israel and India.

HackGenY's January California hackathon  (Photo credit: Courtesy)
HackGenY’s January California hackathon (Photo credit: Courtesy)

So do kids who know how to develop new products – like Transponder, an app developed in the hackathon that helps parents keep track of their kids using GPS and automatic messaging – need to be in high school at all? Perhaps they are already prepared for a career in tech? Maybe the “old-fashioned” book learning they get in school is preventing them from being all they can be?

“Great question,” said Matias. “I really have to say it depends on the person in question. For me, high school was a great experience – it’s where I learned how to develop study and learning skills.”

Matias admits that this doesn’t hold true for everyone. “Eventually it’s a balance between school, learning on the Internet on sites like Coursera, and individual work at hackathons and on their own. Each person needs to find the mix they’re comfortable with.”

Matias found that balance for himself – with a little help from his dad. Contrary to perception, being the son of a high-powered tech executive at one of the world’s most influential companies did not mean that Matias got any “breaks” – quite the opposite. “It’s true that it opens some doors, but then a lot more is expected, because I have no excuse to not excel.”

But even being part of tech royalty isn’t as big an issue as it was in the past, Matias said. “One of the big advantages of being Yossi Matias’s son is being able to ask him questions and get guidance on many issues and ideas, but the truth is that option is now available to everyone, thanks to Facebook, YouTube, and other sites. Today you can join Facebook forums where mentors – top level people in top level companies – are happy to engage with you, to answer questions. It’s open to anyone, and anyone can take advantage of it. If you’re passionate, you can find the guidance and answers out there to be whatever you want to be.”

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