Helping Kids Hack the Future: GeekDad Interviews Shawn Scott

Education People Software
Hack the Future
Shawn Scott mentors youth during a Dallas-area hackathon. Photo: Shawn Scott

Humans are naturally curious, and we all have the potential to become geeks or even super geeks. But the development of that potential often happens with the help of parents or mentors. Larry Page grew up surrounded by computers, and both his mother and father taught university courses in computer science and programming. Mark Zuckerberg was introduced to programming by his father and even had a private tutor to teach him software development. Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit Industries, grew up in the Boston hacker scene, and her parents were able to enroll her in classes at Boston University (and ultimately MIT) when her high school curriculum wasn’t engaging enough for her. And of course, Tony Stark would never have become Iron Man without his father, Howard Stark.

That’s why the work of people like my friend Shawn Scott is so important. Shawn is a super geek and super dad who is helping develop the next generation of geeks across the country. He is the founder of Hack the Future, a Dallas-based organization focused on mentoring kids and teaching them how to code. Shawn was gracious enough to take time out of his insanely busy schedule to tell us about the incredible work he’s involved in.

GeekDad: I’ve known you were a geek since our days as college freshmen at UT Austin, but at what age did you start getting into computers, and how did it happen?

Shawn Scott: Well, I was born in San Antonio and lived with my grandparents while my mom finished college. We moved to Dallas when I was 4, but I went back to San Antonio every summer to spend time with my grandparents. My grandmother was a teacher, and when I was 6 or 7 she bought a computer (Tandy TRS-80) to track her students’ grades. That summer she let me use the computer to play some very basic games that were available at the time, but she also got me some books on programming. I learned BASIC when I was 7 and have been a programmer ever since.

GD: What exactly is Hack the Future, and how did it come to be?

SS: Last summer, my nephew went to a technology summer camp at UT Dallas given by a local nonprofit called Project Still I Rise. A few weeks after the camp was over, the organization’s founder, Kevin Mondy, put a post on Facebook about wanting to find an instructor to teach the kids to write code. We connected, ran a two month coding class and started thinking of ideas of how we could better connect the kids to the tech industry. Originally, we planned a trip to Philadelphia for a hackathon, but after giving it more thought we decided to use those funds to host our own hackathon here in Dallas. Hack The Future was born with our first hackathon in December 2012 in West Dallas.

GD: What have been your biggest successes thus far? Biggest challenges?

SS: Our biggest success, by far, was the first hackathon we held in December. It was the first time an event like it had taken place in Dallas, especially in West Dallas. It was a lot of work getting everything together but it was a total success. All the kids had a great time and were motivated to apply the hacking mentality to the rest of their lives. One parent told me her daughter immediately went out and got a whiteboard for her room once the event was over and has been sketching out app ideas ever since.

I’d have to say the biggest challenge has just been convincing people how important learning to code is. A lot of people hear the term “hackathon” and immediately think we’re getting kids together to learn how to break into bank accounts. Anyone familiar with the industry is very familiar with the skills gap we currently face, and it is growing at a fast pace. It’s crazy that national unemployment is around 5.8%, but in the technology industry it’s actually negative.

GD: GeekDad is all about raising the next generation of all kinds of geeks, and that includes computer geeks. But it’s hard to be a computer geek without access to a computer. You recently organized a hackathon where you pulled an Oprah, and all of the participating kids got their own laptops. How did that happen?

SS: As we were planning the event, we were coming up with ideas for the winners. I went to a hackathon last summer and won some Facebook swag and Beats headphones, but I wanted to come up with something more impactful. After talking with my team, we came up with a price tag and decided we just needed to find the sponsors to give us the money to cover it. Thankfully Texas Capital Bank and JC Penney stepped up and provided us with the $10,000 we needed. When I told them what we were using the money for they immediately agreed and were happy to help.

One of the more amazing things about the hackathon is that we never told the kids they were getting laptops, or any other prize for that matter, and no one ever asked about it. They were completely content working through their app ideas. After we handed out the cash prizes for the winners, we let them know they were all getting new laptops, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a group of kids more excited. It was in that moment I knew we had achieved everything we set out to do.

GD: In the past year or so, it seems you’ve been able to network and connect with other people who are on a similar mission to work with urban youth across the country. It’s sort of a Justice League of tech mentors. What have been the fruits of this collaboration?

SS: Doing this type of work has been a long time goal of mine, and it just seems like all the stars aligned over the last year. A lot of the connections have come by way of social media and each connection leads to many more. It’s really refreshing as a guy who spent his whole life being the “token black guy” to connect with so many people all over the world doing the same work as me.

As we were getting our hackathon underway in December, I got a call from my good friend and mentor Kalimah Priforce of Qeyno Labs asking if I’d be interested in helping coordinate a similar hackathon at SXSW, one of the largest tech events in the world. On March 14-15th, we’ll be holding the first youth hackathon of SXSW at Huston-Tillotson University.

Kalimah also asked if I’d be interested in becoming a Qeyno Fellow, which I graciously accepted. I’m now working with Kalimah and his team to produce a series of hackathons around the country, including this year’s Essence Festival in New Orleans.

Additionally, our Project Still I Rise and Hack the Future teams are working to produce our first “Summer of STEM” in Dallas. It will be a series of events spanning the entire upcoming summer to keep local students engaged in academics over their summer break.

Finally, I’m getting contacted by quite a few people about producing hackathons at their schools or in their communities. We’re working through it all, but ultimately my goal is to create an environment where hackathons and related events are happening all over the country all the time, whether I’m personally involved with them or not.

Needless to say, my life is pretty busy these days.

GD: Most of your efforts have targeted and positively impacted racial and ethnic minority youth in the Dallas area. Have you had any difficulty achieving a gender balance in the kids that show up? Why or why not?

SS: During our hackathon last December we had 50 students sign up–30 boys and 20 girls. Racially speaking, we had kids who were Black, Hispanic and even a group of girls who were Nepali. I think any type of diversity starts with you deciding you want it and being intentional in achieving it.

We made sure to talk to parents who had both boys and girls and invite them to the event. We went to the local high school and invited the students there, most of whom had never heard of a hackathon before.

I don’t think there’s a secret recipe to achieving diversity in most things. If you find yourself missing an underrepresented group, go to where they are and talk to them. More often than not, they will be interested in hearing what you have to say and trying something new.

GD: What advice do you have for those adults who may be interested in mentoring kids?

SS: The main thing I’d say is just to get out and do it. Whether you’re solo or with a group of people, just get started. I’m always reminded of a story a good friend of mine shared about a kid he was working with. This kid was a genius when it came to math, and one day my friend asked him what he wanted to do for a living. The kid’s response was he wanted to be a car mechanic. My friend was a little baffled because he knew this kid was smart enough to be anything in this world. He told him that was a noble profession but as smart as he was, why did he choose a mechanic. The kid’s response, “that’s the only positive thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.”

That story will stick with me the rest of my life. The biggest problem today’s generation of youth face is lack of exposure to what’s possible. Far too many of them don’t spend much time outside of their neighborhoods. They have no idea what goes on inside the walls of Fortune 500 companies that are just miles away from them, because they don’t know anyone who works there. They don’t know engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. and thus have no idea what it takes to become one. What they do know though is if they spend enough time with a ball in their hands they “might” become the next Lebron.

That’s a fundamental failure by us as adults, and it’s why mentoring is so important. We must do a better job of showing kids all the possible paths they have in this world, because even one day Lebron will have to retire, and he will still hopefully have a lot of life ahead of him left to live.

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