Inspiring Young Minds: A Developer's Responsibility

I was about 17 when I had my first "aha" moment as a new coder. A talented friend in my journalism class showed me something I never thought possible for a high schooler, let alone someone several years younger than me. He built his own website and published it on the world wide web. Driven by the (somewhat misguided) desire to share mp3 files with friends, he inspired me to build my own website. He showed me the magic of HTML and Macromedia Flash, and how to host it on geocities.com for the world to see. Before long, I had my creation. Picture this: A main navigation designed like a car stereo knob, which scrolled through a list of links as you turn a knob. Animated GIFs of hula girls and tiki torches decorated the margins. And, of course, let's not forget the ubiquitous “under construction” sign. To be honest, it was bad… but it was a lot of fun.

In that moment I realized the raw potential of this new tool I had at my disposal. I felt like I had discovered a new superpower. Using nothing but the family computer, I could make virtually anything. I became obsessed with building things in my new digital sandbox. Every problem seemed to have a solution — all I had to do was make it. The ideas really started flowing then, and they haven't stopped since.

The turning point

I needed to do something different. I needed to use my superpowers to make that ‘dent in the universe’ everyone keeps talking about.

Now at 36, I code for a living, and I absolutely love what I do — though it's hard at times to see that. Looking back over the years, I've created a lot: An online learning platform for medical students, a full-featured content management system and even a website that housed half a billion cup codes letting you redeem your empty Slurpee for some serious swag.

Yet somehow the more I built, the less I cared about what I was building. Coding became just a way to earn a paycheck. Eventually that original spark, that sheer pleasure of creating something from nothing, was all but gone. Only recently did it dawn on me that I needed to do something different. I needed to use my superpowers to make that “dent in the universe” everyone keeps talking about.

How did I get to that point? I realized what it really means to be a developer. Through technology, developers accelerate the rate of change and progress in everything around us. And maybe it's so ubiquitous in all of our lives that we fail to notice it — or even appreciate it. Think about it: we have robots that can vacuum our floors. Nearly everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket. People are increasingly substituting a university education for a web-based one at a fraction of the cost.

Powered by code

When Twitter first debuted in 2006, I thought it was just a silly Internet fad. But it didn’t take long for Twitter and other social media platforms to be the vehicle that sparked an entire country’s revolution. In 2011 the hashtag #Jan25th was used to mobilize protesters to join the demonstration at Tahrir Square. Though the outcome was unintended, it was developers who enabled that. As a developer, that makes me bust my buttons with pride. You see, we are not just users of technology — we are the builders. Developers are the primary movers in the biggest social revolution since the invention of the printing press.

I couldn't help but ask myself, what have I been doing? As adults, we tend to reflect on our years and consider everything we might have done differently, if only we knew then what we know now. We wonder how many years might have been wasted along the way trying to find the right path. For many of us, that need fuels our desire to teach younger generations so they don’t repeat our mistakes.

A couple years ago, while visiting family, I was sitting on the couch hammering out some code for a client’s website. Sammy, my 10-year-old nephew, sat down next to me to see what I was doing. With big eyes he looked at my screen as if I was decoding The Matrix.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I'm hacking the government mainframe,” I said with a straight face. “Sssh, don't tell anybody.”

“No, seriously, what is all that on your screen?”

“Ok, you got me. Well, this is called code. It's what I use to build websites.”

I went on to show him how every website is made of code, and how everything I need to make a full website is right here on this laptop.

“Wow, is that like, your job?” he asked.

“Yep. Believe it or not people actually pay me to make things on the computer!”

Of course, I did my best to seize that opportunity, as he was brimming with curiosity. I showed him how we can even make simple video games just by writing code in a text file. I asked Sammy if he wanted me to teach him, and his face lit up with excitement. Moments later two more of my nephews walked in, along with my niece, Brooke.

“Hey what are you guys doing?” they asked.

“We're learning to code video games,” I said. “You guys wanna learn too?”

“Sure!” said Brooke, without hesitation.

One nephew objected. “No, Brookie, girls don't do programming stuff.”

Woah, I thought. They're not even teenagers, and yet they've already adopted this gender stereotype. I need to nip this in the bud.

“Hey guys, that's not true at all. In fact, I actually work with a girl coder, and she's one of the most clever web developers I've ever met. You never know, Brooke could come up with the next billion-dollar idea. You should be a lot nicer to her.”

The look on Brooke’s face was priceless.

I realized something that day. Not only did I have the opportunity to share the world of coding with these kids — it was my responsibility. At that point it was no longer just about coding, it was about teaching them that they can do anything they wanted, girl or boy. A few days later I found myself teaching an impromptu Python class to seven of my nephews and nieces. It was by far the most rewarding thing I’d done in a long time.

The spark rekindled

Later that year I met Robyn Brown, a freelancer working out of a co-working space called The Grove. I'd heard that she was starting a program to teach kids coding, and we became quick friends. I immediately jumped on the chance to participate in a workshop she organized to teach web development to 25 pre-teen Girl Scouts. At that workshop, I witnessed an “aha” moment in a girl who suddenly realized what she could now do. Her mom told me later that her daughter came in thinking that "coding wasn't for me.” By the end of the workshop she was talking about all sorts of ideas for her new website.

I’m all in. Let’s do this.

The following week over some gourmet pizza, Robyn shared with me her bold idea. She understood that it wasn't enough to conduct one-off workshops that taught coding for the sake of coding. For years Robyn has been mentoring Girl Scouts and helping them work as a team to make a big impact in their communities. She wants to build that same foundation of mentoring and teamwork into a long-term program that would empower our community's youth to be builders of technology. I didn't need much convincing before I said: “I'm all in. Let's do this.”

In less than a year I went from serving as a one-time volunteer, to a co-founder of Bold Idea, inc, and eventually accepting the role of Board Chair. I have made a commitment to our organization and the values it stands for, including community, inspiration and discovery. I believe wholeheartedly in our mission: To develop and empower young minds to execute bold ideas as a team through the power of coding.

This year, I’ve been mentoring several students in our Open Coding Hours program. One of those students, Bryan, is a smart and goofy High School sophomore. I sit alongside him and offer guidance as he learns Python. I share with him my love for a programming language that I use daily, and I beam with pride when a new coding concept sinks into his head. We talk about the projects he can build with Python, HTML and Javascript. I share with him my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned throughout my Web development career.

I believe that as developers, it's our responsibility to pass the torch to the next generation of technology builders. In doing so, we have the opportunity to influence them in a positive way inspire them to think big and make their own dent in the universe.

At Bold Idea, we are looking for developers who are passionate about what they do and want to help foster the next generation of technology builders. Interested? Contact me at ben@boldidea.org and let's talk.