By José de Leon
Steve Ditko, the famously reclusive artist of the original Spider-Man comic books, recently was asked by an 8-year-old-boy if there was a teacher who made him think about drawing comics. Ditko, who also has a legend for candor, replied, “A teacher comes after one thinks or would like to draw comic book stories.” And I think it’s true: we ultimately make our own decisions about what we want out of life. Then, if we are fortunate, someone is there for us, encouraging and assisting us in attaining our goals. If we’re really lucky they remain a consistent presence in our lives, helping navigate the pitfalls and peaks that come with pursuing those goals. I also think that the best teachers have much in common with the best coaches in sport. Consider Coach Roy Rana (@Roy_Rana), of Ryerson University, who began his career as a coach in the high school system in Toronto. Coach Rana has influenced the careers of many young players, including Canadian basketball star Andrew Wiggins, and has served to elevate the community around him through his love of the game of basketball. Coach Rana would certainly be in the category that I think is critical in the development of a person’s career: the role of honest and encouraging supporter.
Back to the beginning
I was fortunate to have started my technology career by gaining real-world working experience as a co-op student in the technology industry while still in high school. At the time, co-op students in tech were very rare. Effectively, I had to set up my own path to this experience, which I believe has truly formed the foundation of my career. Many years later, I was glad to see that the Ottawa Network For Education (ONFE) is bringing similar opportunities to students today. ONFE works with education, business, government and community partners to develop programs that enrich public education in Ottawa.
Finding a way to give back
In particular, I have participated in ONFE’s TechU.me Mentor program, where technology professionals go to local Ottawa high schools to share their experiences in building software, helping high school students create educational apps for elementary school students. The mentors introduce students to real-life software development practices in a “virtual company” setting, with the high school students forming a software development team, serving the elementary school students as “clients”. The industry professionals serve in a coaching capacity alongside the teachers as “team leads” for the student development teams. Along the way, the students learn practices for building software and solving problems with technology. Additionally, they learn to work with different people in a business setting and use their talents to help others—lessons that are often different from traditional textbook lessons, even beyond learning about loops and variables. ONFE’s AppJam is an annual event which spotlights and rewards the best young developers in Ottawa. This year I also participated as a judge in this “best apps” competition, which included apps developed through the mentorship program, as well as apps developed independently by high school age student developers. This year’s apps ranged in topics from home budgeting, to biology quizzes, and mathematically-accurate spaceflight landing simulation games. The apps were judged in several divisions, with prizes awarded to the students producing the “best of the best” apps—prizes which included cash awards and scholarships to pursue post-secondary education.
In the end, I’ve been gratified to see many talented young developers get better under my watch as part of these programs. Many students who participated in the programs have come back and expressed thanks to me after their participation. They have especially appreciated that I didn’t play down reality, that I told them ‘how it is’. One such student, Asif Islam, was one of the students in my mentorship group at Colonel By High School, and was one of this year’s cash prize winners for his home budgeting app. He is a bright and promising young man, enrolled at Waterloo for this fall, and became interested in object-oriented programming – according to him – largely based on his experience in the mentoring program. It’s been a very energizing and rewarding experience. These students have come back and shared that my efforts helped them gain a better understanding of future options for their own careers in technology. In fact, many have decided to pursue further studies and opportunities in technology and software development. Engaging students through programs like ONFE TechU.me Mentorship and AppJam in the high school years can lead to successful and productive careers. Students get a vivid glimpse into possible career options, and technology professionals in the Ottawa area get to give back and grow their community. And, who knows, if we’ve truly sparked something, these students will also pay it forward and become mentors!