• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

How I Went From Novice to Coder in a Few Months

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How Square’s first ever High School Code Camp inspired one young woman to learn to program.

By Chelsea Clark (Student, Saint Ignatius College Prep)

The closest I had ever come to “coding” before this year was when my dad’s enormous 1996 Toshiba laptop crashed as I played The Sims. I was nine years-old and the scary kill screen just looked like a random combination of words, parentheses and semicolons. It never occurred to me that I could understand this gibberish, let alone learn to write and build something from it.

Surprisingly, 90% of high schools do not teach computer science, even though it is one of the fastest growing industries. My school (Saint Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco) is one of the few that offers this opportunity, with an AP Computer Science course — but it is an elective only taught online. While this is extraordinary, I am a visual learner and a class with no human interaction would be less than ideal. Instead, I applied for Square’s first-ever High School Code Camp.

High School Code Camp

Modeled after their College Code Camp program, High School Code Camp is designed to “inspire, educate, and empower the next generation of women in technology,” and prepare us for the AP Computer Science exam. The program is a perfect combination of real-world experience and in-person learning opportunities.

The first time I set foot in Square’s downtown headquarters, I was mesmerized. The space did not look like any other work environment I had ever seen. There were no cubicles or offices; just open areas to meet, couches, cabanas, and tables set up with computers; there was even a coffee bar! I instantly fell in love. We set up camp in an open conference room and got right to work.

The first day of class I learned my first code, “//”, which is used to edit something out. Four months have now passed and, with the help of Square engineers, I have created Mad Libs, quizzes and even my own Android app. We are working with the AP Computer Science curriculum, but it does not seem like “work”. We do not have to follow the textbook; we have hands-on lab time using Java and learn by writing our own code. We discuss ideas and work in pairs with the other students and our non-engineering mentors.

The Magic of Mentors

The mentorship aspect of the program is a key part of our education because we learn to code side-by-side with our mentor. My mentor and I often break down new ideas together, and she always encourages me to think of the next step. It is great working alongside professionals from all different parts of the company because they are all so passionate about what they do and expose me to new careers — from marketing and international expansion, to finance and legal work.

Classes are twice a week and begin with an icebreaker, which sets the tone for the class ahead by encouraging open discussion. From these icebreakers, I have learned everything from my peers’ favorite Thanksgiving food, to who they would most want to high-five in the world. Next, our teachers introduce a coding theory through a game, keynote, or “beautifully” drawn illustration. We then break down the concept by walking through it step-by-step. If I get confused, one of my fellow high school students is always ready to jump in and explain the theory in a different way — it is a very collaborative environment. Once everyone understands the lesson, we spend the rest of class pair programming and experimenting with code.

The Best Feeling in the Whole World

The best feeling in the whole world is when something I have programmed runs for the first time. I can not believe that in a few short months, I have gone from total novice to a semi-functioning engineer. I can now take a hypothetical concept and write the backend to make it work. Because of High School Code Camp, I am proud to consider myself a total programming nerd. I am even considering studying Computer Science next year in college.

With less than 25% of computing jobs in the US held by women, it is not surprising that I had previously never considered coding as an option for my future. Sure, I have always been told that woman can do anything, but I had never been exposed to engineering, especially as a career path. Square’s initiative to encourage women to pursue engineering has completely changed how I look at the fields of tech and engineering, and I am looking forward to the possibility of majoring in CS. I hope more and more young women will try programming, and will not let stereotypes hold them back — they may find that they are a CS nerd, just like me.

Intrigued by the Code Camp program? Hear Square’s CFO, Sarah Friar, speak at our conference.

Chelsea ClarkAbout the guest blogger: Chelsea Clark is a senior at Saint Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. She plans on attending a university next year, and is considering majoring in Computer Science. She spends her free time dancing, traveling and exploring the city with her friends.