ODTUG Member Series: The Code Crew

The “ODTUG Member Series” is a 1-year long installment of articles highlighting the non-technical obsessions of our wonderful ODTUG community members. Blog posts are published monthly and advertised on ODTUG’s News blog. Enjoy!

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If you haven’t had the privilege of meeting Jeremy Harms, you might just be missing out on a good thing. Jeremy is the kind of laid back guy who is humble, giving, fun, and superbly intelligent. I had the pleasure of working with him on the KScope BI content selection teams and watching him present. Just for the record, he kicked butt on all accounts.

1442187173_thumb.jpeg(“The De-evolution of the Beard”, circa 2010)

(The above time lapse photo was done by his awesomely talented photographer wife, Sarah. He explains that he has to shave his beard in stages to avoid frightening his two children, Evelyn and Luke. He’s afraid his kids won’t recognize him.)

When I first met Jeremy in person at KScope14, he was in full beard. (I’m talking facial hair explosion level.) Then at KScope15 he was magically…not. I asked him about his whisker preferences. After laughing for a bit, he gave me the details of his historic hair. Back beard story: When Jeremy lived in Austin, TX a few years ago he grew out his first full beard. He liked it but found that he preferred to be “in beard” seasonally. So now every year he goes through what he jokingly refers to as a “season of Jeremy”. He claims that this stubble cycle helps him keep seasonal time. The beard usually first appears in Fall/Winter and gets shaved off during Spring/Summer. Current beard story: For those wondering, he is currently growing it back out. He restarted his beard bloom this past July 4 and has promised to keep it until July 4 of next year. He calls this year’s set of whiskers his “Liberty Beard” and this will be his biggest beard endeavor ever.

I asked Jeremy if he joined the Austin Facial Hair Club or dabbled in any Whisker Wars while he and his family were living there and he gave a hearty laugh. He hasn’t joined any facial hair club yet. Like all good padawans, he must achieve Jedi level before competing.

Some Things You May Not Know About Jeremy

  • He is a die-hard Crimson Tide fan; his buddy Wayne (and past highlighted ODTUG member) won’t let him forget their losses to *THE* Ohio Buckeyes
  • He shares a love with his wife for motorcycling – he has motorcycled on 3 continents and at the conclusion of KScope14 he went on a 2.5 day, 760 mile motorcycle trip around Washington State
  • Jeremy loves being a Dad and a husband and those are his top two priorities

The Code Crew

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Jeremy is the founding member of the Vine City Code Crew (a.k.a. “Code Crew” or “VC3”). This crew is comprised of boys and girls who live in and around the historic but under-resourced Vine City neighborhood in west Atlanta who are learning to code for free with Jeremy and a host of other great volunteers. The targeted ages for these students include late middle school through high school. Each course has weekly classes that run 8 weeks long and there are currently two courses a year. For their first course Jeremy created eight lessons on the basics of programming (console output, variables, if/then/else statements, loops, functions, etc.).

Each course has a different focus. For instance, his first course was focused on coding, but the second course was focused on maker culture (creating DIY technology components). He’s hosted two total courses so far in the first year and both have been quite successful. The third course will start up soon in October and will go back to a coding focus.

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As mentioned in a great interview by AGT (one of their sponsors), Jeremy says “the initiative was created in hopes to encourage and inspire kids to pursue continuing education in STEAM courses (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) and hopefully give them a picture of what it could look like to have a rewarding career in a technology field.” Jeremy offers further explanation by saying, “they gain confidence in doing something that they didn’t know how to do before. They have a sense of achievement and pride.”

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Their current coding language is Python and they use it on credit-sized computers called Raspberry Pis. “After the first course, the Coders who completed the course earned the Raspberry Pi computer, Python lab manual, monitor, keyboard and mouse to keep to continue their learning on their own at the conclusion of the course.”

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Why Vine City?

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(the welcome sign in Vine City, courtesy of Google images)

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution once reported that “zip code 30314 ranks the fifth worst neighborhood in the United States” and that “residents have a 1 in 8 chance in a year of becoming a victim”. As the AGT interview mentions, “this neighborhood is 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. But a once vibrant town, Vine City fell on very hard times later in the 70s and 80s.” Currently, Vine City is a neighborhood that suffers from a high amount of crime and is under resourced, facing many challenges. Ninety percent of the homes are vacant. Jeremy pauses for a moment as he thinks about what Vine City means to him. “Vine City is a beautiful city in its own way. It’s full of resilient and wonderful people. It’s not a place without hope.”

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(vacant homes in Vine City, courtesy of Google images)

Jeremy chose to give back to Vine City after his good friend and pastor, Drew Henley, moved there with some friends over 6 years ago to help the city. Just for the record, Drew’s friends all thought he was crazy. Drew is a pastor at Redeemer Community Church (who is also a sponsor of the Vine City Code Crew). They provide the Code Crew a free space for their classes.

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(locked gates in Vine City, courtesy of Google images)

Drew and his friends have become part of Vine City by creating a simple mission to love their neighbors, learn from them, and provide a common ground on which to bond. Jeremy felt a call to action when he saw Drew give his heart to the city. He was also inspired by the great civil rights leaders that once resided there. So in 2013 he and Drew put their heads together to figure out how Jeremy could engage with the community. And one year later the Vine City Code Crew began.

Why Coding?

Jeremy picked coding for many reasons. He believes that his own background in coding led to a lucrative career. In addition, “my IT background and coding experience has taught me to not be afraid to learn new concepts, and has given me tremendous confidence that I can figure it out if I just dedicate some time and focused effort to it”.

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(United States statistics on computer science education, courtesy of code.org)

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) – an upgrade to the previously known concept “STEM” – is a hot topic nowadays when it comes to education. As those within our own industry look to the next generation, there is a gap between the number of jobs needed and the number of kids interested and/or the number of schools putting forth this type of education. If you’re not convinced that this is true, take a look at the infamous “What Most Schools Don’t Teach” video below created by a few people you may have heard of – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, will.i.am, amongst many others. They believe that coding skills are lacking in America and have started the code.org organization to teach anyone how to code. As the video states, “only 1 in 4 schools teach students how to code.”

Vine City is one area where STEAM education is lacking. It was uncertain if interest in coding was lacking, too. The honest truth is that Jeremy and Drew weren’t even sure if creating a coding class was a good idea. Drew confided in Jeremy later that he wasn’t even sure anyone would show up to the first class! However, thanks to the outreach of the church and their word of mouth, 10 kids showed up to the first class. Jeremy worried that they wouldn’t return the following week. But they did. Every week. “They were amazingly engaged. People were asking about the waiting list for the next class.”

They never thought their coding class would have multiple courses a year, but during the first class it became apparent that there was a desire for it. So they decided to add a second course after the fall of 2014. They chose to have a “maker” theme for that course (vs. a coder theme). Maker culture is currently all the rage right now. Jeremy believes that offering different formats for each course allows them to broaden the appeal.

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The Vine City Code Crew Experience

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When I started researching the Vine City Code Crew online, I was in awe by what I read. I got my hands on whatever material was available and I. Read. It. All. It’s compelling, it’s emotional, and it’s nothing short of amazing. I even re-learned how to count in binary code! This is the kind of giving back that I think most of us in this industry strive for. Jeremy and his volunteer buddies are changing children’s lives. And he’s doing it in a way that allows him and those involved to learn and grow in much the same way as the kids. They get to play with cool, fun, and creative technologies and then turn around and teach what they’re learning to the next generation.

They’re offering schooling that is nonexistent in that part of the city. He’s creating building blocks for STEAM education, as well as self-confidence and a sense of empowerment. Kids who thought that coding and technology were opportunities only for people in more financially viable areas are getting a quality introduction to technology and an appetite for a what their future could hold.

How do you put together a class like this?

“The challenge is just starting. It’s too hard to get it all prepped in advance.” He didn’t have it all figured out on Day 1. He Googled, read up on it, came up with an idea, and cobbled it together. He tried it out.

In the first class, Jeremy impressed upon these kids the value of what they were doing. He explained why they should learn to read and write code and how they would learn Python. They then started looking at the code and Jeremy showed them something tactile: how to light up an LED light using a few lines of code that he wrote.

Ms. Cheryl's flickering firefly. #MakerCrew #VC3 #codecrew

A post shared by Jeremy Harms (@jeremyharms) on

He put thought into how they should set-up the classroom and eventually decided on a horseshoe shape for the tables – best suited for this teaching style. He had many friends help out – they made sure to have one helper per every two students. (There were even several ODTUG folks in the Atlanta area who assisted: Stewart Bryson and Kevin McGinley were interviewed technology guests. Andy Rocha and Pete Tamisin served as advisors and tech guests and even developed and conducted labs for the kids!)

In each class, Jeremy ensured to stress the following tenets:

  • Community. He used Atlanta themes (sports teams, etc.) to relate to the kids.
  • Diversity. Jeremy wanted to pick people who didn’t all look like him to guest speak. It was important that the kids heard a different set of voices and saw the diversity that exists within the technology sector.
  • Inspiration. He wanted to give the kids a message of inspiration. He emphasized the rewards. “If you look at the Forbes top 20, nearly half of those folks are nerds or made their fortune in tech business. The nerds inherit the earth. We’re the first generation where you could build something in your Mom’s basement and become a millionaire.”
  • Accessibility. He wanted the kids to realize that the opportunities that he spoke of are within their own reach…and often within their own backyard. MailChimp is literally 5000 feet away from their classroom, for instance. “You don’t have to move to Seattle or San Francisco – you can stay in Atlanta and get to a place like that in your career.”
  • Effort. Finally, Jeremy stressed that these opportunities could be a reality if they put in the effort.

There were also some concerns. One of the constant challenges was keeping costs down. Although there were quite a few sponsors, it was expensive funding all of the equipment and food (they shared a meal at the beginning of each class). This is one of the reasons why Jeremy went with the Raspberry Pi, as you can get the latest model for less than $35 USD. Another concern was the need to be nomadic – in case they had to switch locations, they needed a way to set-up and tear down equipment easily. Finally, Jeremy knew that to keep the kids’ focus, he would need to maximize their ability to pay attention during each 1.5 hour class. So he leveraged the engaging nature of Prezi for his presentations and kept his slides to a minimum. (Note: You can see all of his slides, code, etc. on his blog. They’re available for everyone to learn from.)

I asked him if he required his students to do homework between each class. I could hear him smile through the phone, but this was quickly followed by seriousness. “No. It’s a challenge to make it non-computer based – almost all of the kids don’t have internet in the home.” Point taken. He also wanted the classes to be less like school so that the kids would be more engaged.

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There was a lot of thought that went into what specific toys they would play with and what the outcome of each lesson would be. “We want 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 we create demos that attempt to give them a vision of what they too will be able to do with the technologies they’re learning about and exploring.” Being a childless adult, I marveled at the selection of tech toys that he brought into the first course. I asked him how he knew what the kids would like to work with. He thought about this for a second and then mentioned that the one thing that he prides himself on is being an “internet aggregator”. He has an amazing network of friends and technology professionals that live all around the world and they trade notes. He also follows various blogs, reads thought-provoking tech magazines like Wired, and is a YouTube nut. One of his favorite parts about doing Code Crew is that he gets to play with cool toys, learn them, and then teach kids (including his own) how to use them.

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(the MailChimp field trip)

Finally, each course gets one memorable field trip. “During the span of each course, we try and take a field trip together to go onsite to an interesting Atlanta-based technology company. The Crew gets to see and hear first hand what it looks like to work in an innovative, energetic and exciting technology setting – that just happens to be in the same city where they live.”

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(the Google Atlanta field trip)

How do you get such top notch guest speakers?

“…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.” The way they approach this last part of each class is pretty unique. They don’t have guest speakers come in and teach directly – they engage in something called a “Rapid Fire Five”. Jeremy first interviews the tech guest in a talk show format and then the kids get an opportunity to ask the guest five random questions. An example: “if you didn’t have this job, what was the dream job you always wanted to do?” They got some pretty neat responses, which helped them relate to these guests on a more personal level. For instance, David Kobia, MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, said that he would be a guide on safari, showing people the beauty and wonder of his native land of Kenya. Other notable guests who gave their time to the Code Crew included MailChimp (“MailKimp?” for all you Serial fans…LOL) Chief Data Scientist John Foreman, EmeraldCube partners Craig Kelly and Marcelo Tamassia, UX guru Cliff Seal of Pardot, and as mentioned before fellow ODTUG’ers Stewart Bryson & Kevin McGinley of Red Pill Analytics and Andy Rocha & Pete Tamisin of Rittman Mead.

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I asked him very seriously how in the world he managed to line up all of these recognized technology leaders. He said very humbly, “I’m blessed with some pretty amazing friends.”

What do you personally get out of this experience?

Jeremy’s personal perspective can be found on his Medium page and it’s totally worth reading. Jeremy is a great writer and he’s very honest and genuine. From his blog: “I’ve never actually taught a programming class before… In truth, I don’t even really know the Python language; I’ve only ever played around with it.” It takes a lot of courage to step up and do something for the greater good and not feel pressured to be a complete expert first.

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If you read his blogging journal about the Code Crew, it’s clear that he spends a lot of time on it. I asked him if there was a way to quantify the effort he’s invested. “It’s an insane amount of time,” he laughs. At one point he spent every weekend for months working on prototypes through trial and error. “There’s no success like excess.” He obsesses about the details. He rarely lets things go until they’re where he wants them to be. It’s clear that this project is a labor of love more than anything else. “I’m crazy enough to want to go do this.” But, it takes a village. Although his wife accuses him of biting off more than he can chew, she clearly supports him. In addition, his employer EmeraldCube supports him. They help with the costs of putting on each class, have provided guest speakers and chaperons, and gives Jeremy the time he needs to make the Vine City Code Crew happen. “Seeing the awe and happiness in these kids or seeing their eyes light up when they finally get it – those have been the things that help fuel me on those hard occasional late nights at 3AM when I’m preparing for the class.”

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There are some tangible benefits. There is the story of his friend Daniel. Here is the tale in Jeremy’s own words: “When the first Code Crew started a year ago, an older gentleman named Daniel from the community (and neighbor of Drew’s) asked if he too could attend and be involved, even though the course was originally thought of for youth. Daniel is a bit of a re-starter in life: he’s been trying his best to become employed again after being out of work for a long time, but he has a very curious and inquisitive mind, and has loved and been excited by computers ever since he was young. I think that maybe more than anything, Daniel was excited about finding a place to belong. Well, ‘belong’ he has at the Code Crew. This past course we hired Daniel to be our TA (Teacher’s Assistant) to help with lab setup, tear down, and coordination of each class. He has been to every single one of our class meetings without fail. And attended all of the Python study hall evenings we would host after our first season had completed. Daniel has been the picture of consistency and determination. He’s now in a vocational rehabilitation program to regain an employable skill set and training to be able to re-enter the work force and get back on his feet and on his path to independence. He was so excited about the Code Crew that he decided to, entirely on his own, start his own Chess Club for the kids in the community to teach them the tenets of the game! As a bit of a culmination of all that he’s done with and for the Vine City Code Crew, Daniel and I will be doing a co-presentation this October for an audience of 600 attendees at a formal charitable fundraiser gala event in Atlanta. I’ve been learning from Daniel as he has in return, taught me. I’m honored by the friendship we’ve formed through our opportunity to first do code together, and now, share life together.”

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(Jeremy leading the Code Crew, with Daniel following directly behind)

At the end of the first course, all 10 students earned the right to keep their Raspberry Pi lab setup. (Pat Jeremy on the back! Seriously.) When he told me this, the pride was clear in his voice. I can’t imagine what he and his team must have felt after seeing these kids win their reward after learning something brand new for several months. Jeremy took this cue and created an extension to the class – he offered optional “study hall” hours from December-March to anyone who wanted to keep the learning going with either Python or Linux. “If one of these kids could work in tech one day, that would be great.”

What kind of help does Vine City Code Crew need?

I’m sure some of you are wondering a) how you can start your own local coding crew or b) how you can help Jeremy out with his. Reach out to him on either account – he’s willing to share what he’s learned. If you live locally, he needs helpers at every class. If you’d like to donate to the cause, here is the donation website.

What’s Up Next for the Vine City Code Crew?

“I think this is a bit of a ‘moonshot’, but it would be incredible if the kids of The Vine City Code Crew formed a robotics competition team one day.” In addition, Jeremy mentions something about creating a hovercraft out of a leaf blower, shower curtain, aluminum chair, and paint cans. Insane, but also brilliant…

Long term, Jeremy is hoping that Code Crew will become a precursor to a direct technology career. If kids could earn some sort of certification as a result of attending multiple classes, this would give them a resume builder. Another wish is that they could pass a standard exam that would then lead them to a direct career opportunity. Jeremy is working with other local businesses to create internships and college scholarships for these kids, as well as investigating how to turn this group into a formal non-profit organization.

One final note…because he had the foresight to use Codecademy, Jeremy put all of the coding classes online. Like, all of them. Anyone can access them. You can find them here. If you have some free time, take a spin and learn some Python!

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So…Jeremy, if you didn’t have your current awesome job and didn’t have to work what would you do? Without me even asking him this question, the answer was clear from a mile away. In another part of our discussion he mentioned that 3 weeks into the first Code Crew course he knew where his passion was, even though he hadn’t figured it out until that point in his life. “If I could figure out a way to do it, I would do this all the time.” Outside of the joy that his family and community have brought him over the years, this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his life. The connections that he’s been able to make have been “one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve ever had the honor of being able to do in a place like Vine City. It’s humbling and amazing. It’s been a very ‘moving season of life’.” He pauses and gets a little choked up as he reflects. I think there is something in my eye, too. We both sit in silence for a moment, just taking it in. His emotion is endearing. And I’m in awe of him again.

A big thanks to Jeremy for the great interview. And an even bigger thanks to Jeremy and the folks involved for the amazing work that they do with the Vine City Code Crew – we need more people like you in this world!

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(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

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