Learning to Code at 35 years old

Learning to Code at 35 years old

Categorized under: coding education for kids

Throughout childhood, I enjoyed learning especially about any and all things electronic. From remote controls cars to VCR’s, I just had to take them apart and learn about what was inside. This of course led to many broken electronics around my home because while I was skilled at taking things apart, I wasn’t so great at putting them back together. Thankfully, my parents didn’t impede my learning by restricting my access to the inner workings of these devices. As I got older, I began to play around with our computer using Microsoft QBasic.  While I enjoyed messing around with the video games, I never got much beyond the tinkering phase.

As I began to think about what I wanted to be when I grew up as a junior in high school at the young age of 17, I chose mechanical engineering. I reasoned that this would facilitate my development into a career within the automotive industry. A few years later, I matriculated to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and began my freshman level coursework. Intertwined within the class mix of math and science was an Introduction to Computer Science course that was heavy on theory and limited on practical applications. I hated it. I knew at that point that computer programming was not for me.  Or so I thought.

While at Ford Motor Company, I was fortunate to work on hardware and software based projects. For a mechanical engineering major, this was a huge benefit. I was able to see the practical applications of software through the development of algorithms that analyzed vehicle deceleration, velocity and displacement to deploy life-saving technologies (airbags, pre-tensioners) that protected occupants from harm during an accident. The initial seeds were planted.

After deciding that I needed to round out my skills, I pursued my MBA. During my graduate studies, I became enamored with entrepreneurship as a way to solve difficult problems. One such problem that peaked my curiosity was the asynchronous interaction between college students and employers during recruiting. While at Ford, I was asked to lead recruiting for all undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Engineering & Business. Despite significant spending and additional resources invested, we were not getting a sufficient return on investment. So, I set out to build a web-based solution that would enable a consistent touchpoint with students and enable employers to build a relationship with prospective students before they ever stepped foot on campus. The only problem is that I didn’t know how to code. I didn’t imagine this to be a problem since there were many developers who could build the solution I envisioned.  Little did I know, this would be easier said than done.  Eventually, my partners and I hired a lead developer who managed a team of offshore resources to build our platform. Despite significant investment in time/resources, the site never worked. It was buggy and would often crash requiring a daily reset of the server. It was incredibly frustrating. My 1st swing at entrepreneurship was a strikeout.

Following my 1st entrepreneurial failure, I returned to the corporate environment to help identify investment opportunities to help accelerate the next phase of growth at Redbox. I was fortunate to work with a talented team of high performing individuals who were tasked with finding the next big thing. While the work was interesting, I wanted to build a business in an operating capacity. So, I accepted a role to join one of the early-stage startups that was developing an all-new sampling solution for the cosmetics industry. Imagine a former automotive engineer and failed entry-level recruiting company co-founder now being tasked with developing a business for the cosmetics industry. In reality, my prior experience in hardware and software development combined with my business experience enabled me to make a big impact as the head of product and operations for this emerging business. Working with the engineering team to launch kiosk hardware, software, business intelligence dashboards and mobile applications was an amazing experience. While we made great progress, we ultimately didn’t develop the business fast enough to cross the chasm.

Seeking to combine different elements of things that I’ve enjoyed – working with kids, developing innovative technology-based solutions and building early-stage companies, my partners and I eventually launched Digital Adventures. However, unlike my 1st at bat, I was insistent that I would be the one to develop the initial version of the website. Yes, at 35 years old, I decided that if the business was going to work, it would require that I understand computer programming at a fundamental level. So, I jumped right in. First I started reading about HTML and CSS on sites like W3 Schools. Then I progressed to going through tutorials on CodeCademy. I was gaining knowledge of the mechanics of development using html and I was enjoying it. Eventually, I knew I had to move from just reading and completing tutorials to actually developing a site. Since I knew from my prior experience that one of the key elements to learning the viability of a concept is to get it in front of customers, speed was of the essence. After looking at a few of the template based solutions, I decided to build the initial version using Squarespace. While there were some limits to the capability of a template-based solution, it enabled us to get the concept in front of parents and the site had enough functionality to get the business started. When we needed to add capabilities, I would spend hours learning about different feature s and then working to get them incorporated into the site. Sometimes things worked as expected, sometimes they didn’t. I began to learn how to debug lines of code to figure out where I went wrong when developing the logic. It was an amazing experience when I finally realized what I did wrong and remedied it in order to get the desired outcomes. 

As the business continued to grow and we considered opening additional coding for kids learning studio, I realized that while my rudimentary programming skills were enough to get us started, we really needed someone well versed in development to take us to the next level.  And because I had jumped in and done the initial development work myself, I knew how to screen for this key team member.  Ultimately, we found a great partner and head of product that has moved us completely away from a template-based solution to one that was built from the ground up to meet the needs of our customers. While I missing digging into the code and building, our business has been able to grow much more quickly with an experienced developer in charge. It has also given me a firsthand appreciation for just how important it is for our instructional team to come alongside these students on their journey.

The kids who are coming through our program are at a distinct advantage when compared to what was available to facilitate my discovery and learning about computer programming. There are a host of great hardware and software products that have amazing user interfaces that are focused on stimulating their interest in learning about these topics. So, while it took me 35 years to develop my 1st website, your kid doesn’t have to wait that long.

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.