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High school students Tanisha Bassan, 17, left, and Ayleen Farnood at the Microsoft Technology Centre in Mississauga earlier this year.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This past summer, technology whiz Tanisha Bassan catapulted from high-school graduation – and involvement with student council, basketball, the social justice choir and tutoring – to work at a quantum computing startup that was spun out of Harvard University.

“I was not going to take a gap year until the opportunity with Zapata [Computing Inc.] came along and blew me away,” says Ms. Bassan, who, nonetheless, deliberated over the “really tough” decision to postpone postsecondary studies. “University can still wait one more year, but this unique opportunity to work with leading scientists in quantum computing may not be available later in my life,” the 18-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., said in an interview.

While Ms. Bassan’s career entry is hardly conventional (Zapata’s co-founders and many of her co-workers have PhDs), the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm is not the only company on the lookout for emerging tech talent in high schools and coding camps. Microsoft Canada Inc. enlisted Ms. Bassan as a product development intern over the summer break before her final year of school. In the United States, Microsoft offers internships to a select group of high-school students every year.

Ottawa-based e-commerce powerhouse Shopify Inc. recruits Grade 12 students interested in combining work at Shopify with honours computer science studies at Carleton University or York University over the course of four years. In the 2019-20 academic year, 24 students embarked on the “Dev Degree” program that Shopify developed with Carleton and York.

In addition to asking applicants what they love about computer science, Shopify asks them to name “one cool talent or hobby,” with a view to attracting a diverse range of candidates. This year’s cohort includes a singer, a rock climber, an outdoorsman, a cyclist, some yoga enthusiasts, a foodie and a young woman determined to make the smallest origami cranes – “so far, I can fit at least five flat on a nickel.” Shopify covers tuition costs and pays “competitive wages” for the 4,500-plus hours of work participants put in during the course of the program. It’s necessary work, “producing code, solving complex problems, delivering new features and fixes to customers,” the company says.

At Zapata, senior quantum scientist Alejandro Perdomo-Ortiz said Ms. Bassan’s contributions will be beneficial to both the company and its customers.

"There are not many quantum programmers in the world, but Tanisha stands out among the rising stars for her passion and dedication. Tanisha had already built demos and participated in quantum programming hackathons when we met her," he said.

Quantum computers can process a vast number of calculations simultaneously and have the potential to solve problems far beyond the reach of traditional computers, but have not yet reached the point of widespread commercial application.

“The playbook for quantum computing is being written right now by first movers like Zapata,” company co-founder Alan Aspuru-Guzik, formerly of Harvard and now a professor of chemistry and computer science at the University of Toronto, said in April, 2019, when the company announced it had raised US$21-million in a Series A financing. “As the enterprise demand for our quantum solutions continues unabated, Zapata has a distinct opportunity to aggressively and rapidly cultivate the next generation of quantum science talent who can transform the promise of quantum technology into reality.”

While Ms. Bassan is clearly exceptionally talented, the fact that Zapata recruited her right out of high school is a sign of the times. Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath noted in her recent book, Seeing Around Corners, that there is evidence of more employers adopting a skills-based approach to recruiting – in other words, “choosing candidates based on what they can do, rather than degree or pedigree.” There is also a greater willingness to hire people with non-traditional credentials.

This is the case at Shopify. "We do hire people with PhDs, master's or other degrees, but it's never a requirement and it's never the reason they are hired," says Tammy Connelly, director of talent acquisition at the e-commerce firm.

"We have someone on our team who is now a senior engineering lead who never went to university. He's been at Shopify for more than five years and we discovered him because he was winning developer awards when he was up against folks who had master's degrees," Ms. Connelly said in an interview. More than 50 per cent of Shopify's employees have operated their own businesses at some point.

“We have also seen the magic that happens when someone with a traditional educational background is paired with someone who is self-taught – it allows different perspectives and decisions to be made.”

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