5 Things I Learned About Leadership and Project Management With A High School Startup Team

What was the point of this startup team project?

Our project R2H, or Resource 2 Health, centered around providing resources for millions of caregivers in the US. Examples of caregivers include nurses, parents, and people caring for unwell friends or family.

  • Medical symptom assessments
  • Collated lists of free healthcare resources
  • Emotional self-assessment questionnaires
  • Specialized scheduling user interfaces to help organize care
  • An encouraging chatbot
  • Targeted ads and freemium features for revenue

What is the point of any high school startup team?

An entrepreneurship team experience has a lot of value for an ambitious high school student:

  • A fantastic opportunity to practice and improve technical skill, motivated by a peer group
  • Early exposure to professional experiences like disciplined teamwork, leadership, and collaboration with adults in a non-academic setting
  • A superb personal portfolio piece for college admissions applications and resumés
  • Possibility to win entrepreneurship competitions

The Five Things

Keep asking and answering questions, first broad then specific.

A project feels good when questions are answered, and the answers are specific and validated. Answering broad questions first helps filter down to more specific ones. For R2H, the initial broad questions and answers were:

  • Can we learn to do this? Your favorite web search + real life teacher
  • Do we understand our goal? We discussed caregiving with a subject matter expert
  • Can we work with our chosen platform? Tong had a prototype web app by week two
  • What are the specific features? Spreadsheet of 80+ features refined during discussions
  • Can we overcome these technical limitations? Rapidly prototyped working features
  • Are these the right features? Expert interviews, testing with prototypes, user surveys

Make plans, and more importantly, be ready to change them.

Nearly every plan we made changed. Nearly every list had missing elements that we didn’t see till we started implementing. Real life events changed things too. Covid-19, for example, had big impacts on our project, but in the end, it was just another situation to adapt to.

  • Before we could automate writing medical questions, we needed to get medical data.
  • Before we could get medical data, we needed to find it on the web.
  • Before pulling it off the web, we needed to learn web scraping (code that reads web pages is really important in projects that combine data in novel ways).
  • Before learning web scraping, the team needed JavaScript and data structures practice.
  • And on and on …

Those led by the best leaders will say: we did it ourselves.

Before the project started, I had been meditating on a quote about leadership from Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Easier said than done.

A champion must push through the hard parts and the quiet parts.

There will be times when the next task is unclear, or boring, or has seemingly invisible outcomes, or lacks accountability, or is too far outside of comfort zones. When that unpleasant task shows up, the project functionally ends when no one takes it. Either unwavering passion, or a committed and disciplined work-ethic is required at that moment. The team members who do that hard work deserve the title ‘Champion’.

A project can’t fail if the team stays curious.

A lot of successful startup founders will tell you that if they knew how much work it would take to succeed when they started, they would not have started. They kept going because they didn’t know, and they were curious. They asked questions: Have I solved my problem yet? Could I make this easier for people? Can I make it better? Faster? Cheaper? What happens after I figure this next part out? I have to know, what’s the answer?

Epilogue: This is not the last project.

Eventually, Tong, the technical mastermind, headed off to college. The team became a different team. After exploring Tong’s code, they saw how much they needed to learn to fill the void he left behind. And they understood, at least intellectually, that what they saw was the tip of an iceberg. The old plan needed big changes. They re-scoped, planned to drastically reduce features, and to end the project at least somewhat gracefully in a final presentation to ACF.

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Applied Computing Foundation

Applied Computing Foundation

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