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Coding cracked Why these Chicagoans of all ages decided to dive into code

Im a believer in technology, said Kerwin, of Woodlawn, and Im a big believer that my child will definitely not be left behind.

It felt so good because I was in the spotlight, Skylar says.

He has a background in writing scripts and spreadsheet macros in high school and in computer science courses at Stanford University, but Carter, a managing partner at Kickdrum, a custom software development company, continues teaching himself to code.

Earlier this year, during Black History Month at school, Skylar said she was asked to code in front of teachers and students, kind of like a modern-day Katherine Johnson, the NASA math guru made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.

Coding, cracked: Why these Chicagoans of all ages decided to dive into code

For Tom Carter, the secret to learning how to code has been to set tasks for himself.

The first Saturday Skylar Spratt ambled into a TechGyrls class three years ago, so many girls wanted to learn, she thought she would be unable to sign up.

Teresa Elmore wants to master Python. That would give her 11 coding languages in which to program exercises for her students, as well as add to her repository of knowledge.

In his 40s, the Downers Grove resident dove into Amazon and the cloud, learning its web services, spinning up servers and studying low-level Linux security. More than that, he created projects.

That made for both the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.

Still, he pushed forward. If he needed a way for users to log into the Rentalutions platform, he would teach himself how to build it. If he needed to secure user passwords, he watched videos and created that function, too. After six months, Jankelow and his co-founder, Ryan Coon, ended up with a minimum-viable product that we pushed out to customers, and our customers loved it.

Jankelow, who lives in Wrigleyville, says he started with extensive Googling and came across tutorials online. He followed a tutorial for Ruby on Rails, and after two weeks, he thought he had enough learning to start building the companys app, but I realized pretty quickly after I started coding that I actually really didnt know how to code.

Laurence Jankelow taught himself to code out of startup survival. Five years ago, he made a giant job pivot, from investment banking at Goldman Sachs to co-founding and launching a tech company called Rentalutions, a platform for a do-it-yourself landlords based in River North.

The instructors agreed to let Skylar try the class on the trial basis, and shes been in it for three years, making her own reality games, coding apps and learning programming languages.

I read books on programming; I read articles online all the time, says Carter, but where I learn the most is actually playing with things, actually trying to do something.

Theyd start with the basics What is a computer? and progress to full-on coding.

Skylars father, Kerwin Spratt, figured it would be fine, especially if she showed little interest after class. But after Skylar had spent three hours programming drones, punching in commands that would make them turn over and fly, she bounced out of class, saying Daddy, I loved it! I cant wait to go back.

Hes also catching up to one of his older brothers, spending the last two summers as an intern at M1 Finance, a digital investment platform where his brother works. Hes spending this winter as an intern at M1, as well. At M1, hes learned how to code in a language called Scala and applied what he learned to real-world situations.

A lot of times people have this perception that everybody else knows more than they do, she says, and thats not necessarily the case.

Laurence Jankelow, 33, of Wrigleyville

During his last couple of years at Purdue, hes learned more technical languages that everyday companies are using, definitely Java and C++.

Coding, she says teaches you how to think critically and problem solve. I feel like almost everyone is going to need to do some sort of coding in the future, because everything is being automated and computers are involved in every industry.

I saw my first computer in college, she says. I just thought it was so cool that I could code the computer to do something. It was a very empowering kind of thing.

Skylar Spratt, 9, learns how to program and fly commercial drones during the TechGyrls coding class at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago.

There was the feeling that I didnt want to be left out, said Lam, who lives in Bridgeport and is a junior at Purdue University. There was also an air of competitiveness. I wanted to learn to show them I could do what they were doing, too.

Jankelow and his business partners were both finance majors, and so we looked at, Should we hire someone to code for us? and honestly, we couldnt find someone with the right skills with the price we were willing to pay, which was zero. And so, we said, The only way we could make this work is if we learned how to code ourselves.

They learned themselves for myriad reasons: necessity, curiosity, challenge and fun. Theyve used their coding skills to run a startup, build apps, teach, create virtual worlds and make drones fly.

The TechGyrls classes, Skylar says, have influenced her career aspirations. Right now, she says, she wants to be either a programmer, an engineer or a doctor. Most of all, she wants her coding skills to help people, influencing boys and especially girls to explore science and technology.

Teresa Elmore, 53, of Hoffman Estates

She majored in math at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but took as many computer science electives as she could, learning Fortran, Pascal and BASIC.

She later learned another language at her job at Synon before pivoting to education and starting by teaching high school students C++, Java, JavaScript and Alice, a programming language for building animation and games.

He says even if you dont use programming as a direct necessity for work, its worth it to learn how to code, if only for deeper understanding.

Read on for their coding stories, plus their best tips for you.

Heres the thing: Once you know a couple of programming languages, you can kind of figure out other ones, she says. You can learn them by exploration and just using online resources.

During the summer leading up to M1 Finances public launch, for instance, Lam and a fellow intern were tasked with figuring a way to be able to monitor client accounts, order and trade activities and all the money thats moving around. They built a tool presenting that kind of information for the non-savvy tech people in the company, so they wouldnt have to ask engineers to dig around a database every time they needed the information.

Last year, when she learned JavaScript, she did it through , and also took two intense, weeklong workshops in Chicago and Salt Lake City that taught teachers like her how to teach the programming language.

Skylar Spratt, 9, learns how to program and fly commercial drones during the TechGyrls coding class at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago. (Kamil Krzaczynski / Blue Sky)

I feel like coding is like everyday life, Skylar says. Everything in life has something to do with math, science, reading or something with technology.

Perplexed, Kerwin, contacted everybody in the world, saying, I want my daughter in this program.

Elmore has experienced a lot of technology adaptation since growing up as a teen in the tiny town of Ogden, just east of Champaign. Her high school, she said, didnt have a single computer in the building.

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance writer.

At the time, she sidestepped education degrees or certification, in part because a high school guidance counselor told her she wouldnt make any money as a teacher, and upon graduating, she took a job with Apple at their old distribution center in Rolling Meadows. She worked in the information technology department as a business analyst, and learned RPG, an IBM language, on the job from other programmers.

Defining some big-enough task that forces you to get into the depth, I find that one of the best things, says Carter, who estimates hes learned about 20 programming languages, including SQL. For what its worth, my server did get hacked, I did have random spammers posting crap on there that I then had to clean it up because I really wasnt on top of things.

Id be throwing my pens across the room because its something that should be simple, and itd be eight hours, and youll just be driving yourself nuts, says Jankelow. But when you figure it out, its the best high, and you feel great that you persevered.

Now, as Jankelow leads the technology team at Rentalutions, he codes every day. He has learned about nine coding languages, including JavaScript and Git. He says he appreciates his self-taught path to coding because if he came across obstacles, he had to hurdle them himself.

Im always learning new stuff, says Elmore, the sole computer science teacher at Libertyville High School. I love learning. A lot of teachers take summers off, and I spend my summers working, going to classes and trying to stay ahead of the kids.

When his brothers came home, theyd show Lam their computer projects, but he didnt really understand.

It was at Whitney Young Magnet High School that Lam had his first chance to dive into computer coding, spending his junior and senior years learning in classes and exploring on his own at home.

He warns against relying solely on an online class for fear of losing focus when blithely following instructions. YouTube videos, he found, were a useful supplement to in-person class lectures, which he said were far more useful than just doing a class online.

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He started a website, , a recipe compilation site, determined to build every piece of it. He did the security, the server and made it mobile-friendly.

Terry Lam felt a little bit of envy toward his two older brothers, as any youngest child in the family might. He was in middle school, and his brothers were off at college, studying computer science and computer engineering.

They explained what they wanted us to do, but they gave us almost total freedom, Lam says, adding he hopes for a career in finance and technology because money and computers are the two biggest things in this world that influence everything.

I absolutely believe even if you dont want a career in coding, its worth it because these days, everything runs on technology. If you dont teach yourself anything, you will be the person where the VCR is blinking 12:00, and you dont know how to set a time, Carter says. Programming is about trying to be logical. When you have a fundamental understanding of what programming is, it makes you better able to deal with things.

Still, the coding instructors from the YWCA invited Skylar, then 6 years old, to stay for class but told her dad she would likely have to wait because of capacity and because of her age. (It had been designed for girls 9 and older.)

But if coding is something you think reigns only in the realm of computer science classes, if you think the opportunity has passed or its too complicated, we found five Chicagoans spanning five decades who tell us thats not so, that coding is something everyone should try.

To the uninitiated, coding can seem mysterious, futuristic, reserved for numerical whizzes.

While she calls learning how to program a little intimidating at first, Elmore says her perspective changed as soon as I got to write code and make things happen, a feeling she often sees mirrored in her students.

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