A few weeks ago I was chatting with my father in law and (since I work with computers and must therefore know everything computer related) he asked me if I had heard of the 9 year old kid that worked for Microsoft as an engineer.
I said that probably, hiring 9 year olds to work as engineers was illegal, and that in most places to become an "engineer" you need to go to college, but any way it stayed in my head, like a pea in a maraca but anyway, I decided to check it out a bit.
First: no, there is no 9 year old working for Microsoft, as far as I know.
And then, a curious pattern appeared: there is not one story about that, there are several. And about different kids. And mostly in spanish-speaking media.
Let's check Mahmud Wael first.
Here's what InfoBAE says about him:
Mahmud Wael, un egipcio de 11 años y aspecto frágil, es el nuevo técnico de Microsoft gracias a su capacidad para resolver complejos cálculos en cuestión de segundos y moverse sin problemas por las redes informáticas
Mahmud Wael, a fragile looking 11 year old egyptian, is the latest Microsoft technician thanks to his ability to solve complex calculations in seconds and to move effortlessly through information networks.
If one actually bothers reading the story there's more: apparently Mahmud joined the American University in Cairo at age 9, and is now attending Cairo University for a degree in some computer-related area.
In fact, a bunch of those stories even say "With 11 years, he already works at Microsoft", which is somehow not in the InfoBAE story which is taken from the EFE agency.
Now... does he work at Microsoft? I bet he doesn't (or EFE would have mentioned it). It's just that when someone writes "Microsoft Technician" or "Microsoft Engineer" in english, well, that makes no sense in spanish, so the spanish media and readers are lead astray.
A Microsoft Certified Engineer is someone who has taken some Microsoft training courses and exams.
On the other hand, in most of the spanish speaking world, you can't call yourself an engineer unless you get an engineering degree from a university. In fact in Argentina calling yourself an engineer if you don't have one is illegal.
So, "Microsoft Engineer" is taken as "an engineer that works at Microsoft", because the alternative simply makes no sense.
What is the real story about Mahmud Wael? Well, let's check some egyptian sources, which is what all those newspapers should have done in the first place.
Here's Egypt Today's take on it from when he was 9.
Did he attend the American University?
Well, he had a scholarship from them to attend the Greenland International Language School, and attended one english course.
What about the "Microsoft Engineer" thing? He was planning to take the MCSD exams. Did he succeed? Well, Reuters says he got a MCTS.
An MCTS is not an MCSD, or an MCSE. In fact, just by saying someone has an MCTS (very impressive for an 11 year old!) you have no idea of what he knows, because a MCTS is about a specific product, and there are MCTSs for almost all of MS products.
So, in short: Mahmud is a very impressive and intelligent kid, but he is not an engineer, have a college degree or work at Microsoft.
And now the second case, Marko Calasan from Macedonia, which is the one actually mentioned to me.
And it's exactly the same story, except that he got a much better cert from MS than Mahmud, and he got it earlier.
Again the "works at Microsoft" thing seems to be exclusive to the spanish speaking media, and probably for the same reason.
Now, let's think about what this says of journalism. These stories were not hard to check. All you need is passable english skills and google. And if your english sucks, google can help you with that too.
But dozens of newspapers and sites just run with it because the "Microsoft hires (small age) kid!" is just too nice and people would accept it because hey, it's in the newspapers.
And you know what? I suspect that it's the same thing with a large part of what you read in the papers. If checking a tiny piece just because I have some peripheral knowledge about it says there are dozens of articles that are just wrong, what happens in all the areas where I am clueless?
Because we are all clueless in almost everything, and journalists are probably clueless about 90% of what they write about. It's not even a conspiracy, it's just ignorance amplified by their job description.