The Vine City Code Crew

20th November 2014

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Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. Racing heart. And nervous talk. That usually about sums up my physiology just before I talk to a group or present a session as a speaker at a technology conference. Only this time, I was in way over my head, and I knew it.

Initially, I thought the idea I had for the Vine City Code Crew was a good one. But then that first night it began to all sink in: I’ve never worked with youth before (I remember a little bit about being one quite a long time ago). What do I know about kids who live in the inner city anyway? Oh, and I’ve never actually taught a programming class before either. In truth, I don’t even really know the Python language; I’ve only ever played around with it. Suddenly, as I was hastily jacking in all the equipment a few minutes before our first Code Crew class was to begin, this all began to sound like a really bad idea…

Almost exactly a year ago, when I began my role as Director of Business Intelligence at EmeraldCube Solutions, the idea for the Code Crew began to take shape. When I told company partners and co-founders Craig Kelly, Marcelo Tamassia and Todd Chromzak about what it was that I wanted to do with the Code Crew in Vine City, they were totally onboard with the idea and wanted to know how they could help. The historic, resilient and rightfully proud—albeit, under resourced—community in the heart of Atlanta known as Vine City is nestled in the western shadows of the Georgia Dome. This neighborhood was one of Atlanta’s many alcoves with a rich historical heritage. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joseph Lowery lived in the community during the Civil Rights movement. A once vibrant and flourishing town, Vine City fell on very hard times later in the 70s and 80s.

Something stirred deep inside me last fall to give to these kids in Vine City. I was moved and inspired by a pastor friend of mine, Drew Henley, who relocated to Vine City over half a decade ago to become part of this town and help plant a community church. But there was really nothing, I thought, that a suburban tech guy like myself could do to make any real or meaningful contribution for a community I lived far away from and had no feasible channel for which I could engage. I asked Drew what if anything I could possibly contribute to become part of what they were doing down there. The challenge was to marry the passion of what I had felt awakened in my heart with something I knew how to do—or could at least learn to do—with my head. After sharing a bowl of the world’s best salsa at Nuevo Laredo, we had our idea. The credit-card sized, fits-in-a-cup, $35 Raspberry Pi computer would tackle the job and be our vehicle to deliver the class; a class to teach boys and girls the basics of computer programing. The donations, contributions and the overwhelmingly positive support and backing of friends, churches and corporate sponsors working together would be the fuel.

One of the inspirations we had around why this class was so important in general, is really best summed up by the likes of rockstar will.i.am, NBA star Chris Bosh, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and one of the wealthiest philanthropists and tech icons in the world, Bill Gates.

We knew we wanted to class to be fun, engaging and educational. We wanted to expose these young men and women to concepts that maybe they hadn’t seen before, heard of before or just didn’t an opportunity to explore before. So we introduced the kids to the “Do Something Box.” The caution on the front ominously reads “WARNING: Contents awesome inside…” The contents of awesomeness incorporated the likes of littleBits, LEGO WeDo motors and old school breadboard-like circuit kits to give the kids something tactile to experiment with and discover before and after class. The hope was that by providing these hands-on, tactile kits for experimentation and discovery, the kids would begin to creatively analyze problems and learn how to build (i.e. play!) in spaces they hadn’t explored before.

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We also wanted these kids to feel and realize the power of something amazing that technology allows us to do — to control and interact with objects in the real world around us. So on that first night together, we lit up Philips Hue LED light bulbs with a small sample Python program I wrote. The idea was to show the kids a little illustration of what is possible with technology, and give them a goal for all of us to strive for by the end of the six week course. And wouldn’t you know it, on that last night they too wrote a simple program that did the same!

The Code Crew was multifaceted in its approach. We learned simple programming concepts in Python using labs that I wrote on Codecademy (if you’d like work the exercises yourself, you can do so here!). There was the field trip we took to MailChimp in Atlanta to see one of the most fun, innovative and creative tech companies this side of San Francisco. Oh, byt the way, it’s a company that just happens to be exactly one mile from where these kids live in Vine City.

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And at the end of each night together, we heard from inspirational guests from an array of technology fields who we interviewed about their own careers, experiences and how they worked hard to reach success. A few of the most notable guests we had give of their time to the Crew included David Kobia, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow (along with 19 others and a guy named J.J. Abrams!), MailChimp Chief Data Scientist John Foreman of Data Smart fame, and particularly special to me – EmeraldCube partners Craig Kelly and Marcelo Tamassia.

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In addition to my company EmeraldCube being a financial sponsor for the Crew, they were also been gracious enough to allow me to donate hours of my work day when needed to prepare for the class. I was even able to block out two months of limited travel to my clients to make sure I could be here in town for seven Wednesday nights in a row.

Despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have worked, in spite of my corny jokes and campy sense of humor, and regardless of all the technical difficulties and lessons learned along the way, the kids were really into the Code Crew! Meeting in a building that had Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix emblazoned on the side, I suppose I should’ve guessed that this class – and these kids – would rock… The response was so overwhelmingly positive that we ended up with a waiting list for this first time around, and people from Vine City have already been asking when the next class will take place! We’ve already beginning to work on what “part two” will look like…

To say that this experience has truly been one of the most remarkable times of my life would be an understatement. What a pleasure it was for me to be counted among this Crew.

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