By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
“I just helped this 11 year old learn HTML and it reminded me of how I learned HTML in middle school,” he said. “Two high school students came to our school and taught us how to code.”
Wright, a 16-year-old student at Austin High School, now works as a web developer and participates in Hackathons around the country. He spent Saturday afternoon volunteering at San Antonio Youth Code Jam, a free community event sponsored by Rackspace and the 80/20 Foundation. He was one of more than 100 volunteers.
Debi Pfitzenmaier started Code Jam three years ago at a library with 30 people attending. Her teenage son, Aaron, is a programmer who volunteers at the event. This year, Rackspace hosted Code Jam with 300 kids attending and another 150 on a waitlist.
“Every year we’ve doubled in size,” Pfitzenmaier said.
Code Jam is San Antonio’s largest youth coding event for elementary and middle school students, Pfitzenmaier said.
Rackspace has sponsored the event since the first year, said Daniel Sherrill, its spokesman.
“This is another great opportunity for us to build the technology pipeline here in San Antonio,” he said. “The secret sauce for this event is the parents participate with their kids. The parents stay and learn as much as their kids.”
John Saddington, partner with The Iron Yard, gave the keynote address to the kids at the beginning of the event. He started coding at 11.
“I love video games and I began asking the question how do these video games work and how do I make them,” he said.
He learned to hack the code on PC games to create his own.
By 15, he landed a job working for a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson creating marketing websites. After high school, he attended Georgia Tech University to study engineering.
“I thought that was the right thing to do,” he said. “But I was challenged in many ways. I’m autistic so I struggled in school.”
He failed his Freshman year and attempted suicide. But he got help. He went back to school and graduated with a liberal arts degree.
Saddington became an executive of a Fortune 50 company when he was 25. He then launched his own company. And he sold his second startup, Datecraft, a World of Warcraft dating website, for a big paycheck, he said.
Today, he runs the The Iron Yard, a technology accelerator, incubator and investment group in Atlanta that runs 12-week coding bootcamps that take students “from zero to hero,” he said. He’s grown the company to nine campuses nationwide with more than 30 employees.
One of the biggest challenges for young technology kids, and even professionals, is their worldview is too small, Saddington said.
“Events like this open their minds to what is possible,” he said. “And then their imagination can take them the rest of the way. I think most opportunities are lost simply because people are unaware of them.”
Children have a limited exposure to the working world, Saddington said.
“But here it’s about video games, blogging, writing, storytelling and making worlds,” he said. “Kids see they can do this for a living. It expands their horizons.”
These events also begin to plant seeds in the bigger education system about a need for change to accommodate these tech kids, Saddington said.
Michelle Lowery, co-founder of Passion Fruit Creative Group, volunteered at Code Jam to teach kids WordPress. She helped kids as young as six.
“I really liked seeing them get excited about writing something and getting it published,” she said.Ted Oakley brought his son, Nathaniel, 12, to Code Jam to feed his love for technology, coding and programming.
“He’s really taken this on,” Oakley said.
Nathaniel first learned to code when he jailbroke his Playstation Portable device and then made his own games when he was ten.
At the Code Jam event, Nathaniel worked on HTML and CSS. Josh Singer, a high school senior who co-founded Apps for Aptitude and School’s Out Hackathon, helped him.
“They went way past what was on the schedule,” Oakley said. “They posted a website today. He burned through the lesson like that. Josh stuck with him all the way until after this was over.”
That’s the idea, said Pfitzenmaier.
“We want kids to take this as far as they can,” she said.
Code Jam is creating a community for parents to support their kids and their passion for computers and coding, she said.
“We are trying to equip those parents and kids to get to where they want to be,” she said. “If we can just introduce them early and get them excited about technology the possibilities are endless.”
Dallas also launched a Dallas Youth Code Jam on Saturday, based on the San Antonio event, Pfitzenmaier said. Code Jam, which is now a project of SASTEMIC at Geekdom, is expected to branch out to other cities in Texas as well, she said.