One of AGT’s most important and growing initiatives is contributing to nonprofit organizations with causes we are passionate about. AGT’s latest passion project is The Vine City Code Crew, a course-based initiative launched by former AGT‘er, Jeremy Harms. Based out of the Vine City neighborhood in Atlanta, The Vine City Code Crew teaches the basics of computer coding to inner city youth.

Knowing we wanted to contribute in any way we could, we contacted Jeremy and AGT quickly became a corporate sponsor of The Vine City Code Crew, providing a donation to help fund expenses associated with conducting the program’s very first course.

In addition to monetary contributions, AGT looks forward to supporting the initiative in many other ways, such as hosting a field trip and getting involved with future classes. We also want to help bring awareness to this initiative, which is why we recently spoke with Jeremy about the history and mission of The Vine City Code Crew.

Q: Tell us about The Vine City Code Crew.

Jeremy: The Vine City Code Crew is an initiative to teach the basics of computer coding to inner city youth. The historic, resilient and rightfully proud—albeit, under resourced—community in the heart of Atlanta known as Vine City is nestled in the western shadows of the Georgia Dome. 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.

A group of 10 Coders (in high school, ages 14-18) from this neighborhood committed to the class for six Wednesday nights in a row to gather to learn coding basics in a language called Python on a little credit-card sized computer called a Raspberry Pi. We teach them how to write simple programs to control objects in the real world around us like programmable LED lights, toy motors and little robots! The initiative was created in hopes to encourage and inspire kids to pursue continuing education in STE(A)M 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. The Coders who complete the course earn the Raspberry Pi computer, Python lab manual, monitor, keyboard and mouse to keep to continue their learning on their own after the course concludes.

Q: What prompted you to launch this initiative?

Jeremy: Just over a year ago, the idea for the Code Crew began to take shape. Something stirred deep inside me last fall to give to these kids in Vine City. I was moved and inspired by a pastor friend of mine, Drew Henley, who relocated there over six years ago to become part of this town and help plant a community church. But there was really nothing, I thought, that a suburban tech guy like myself could do to make any real or meaningful contribution for a community that I lived far away from and had no real way to engage with. I asked Drew if there was anything I could possibly contribute to become part of what they were doing down there. So the challenge was to marry the passion of what I had felt awakened in my heart with something I knew how to do—or could at least learn to do—with my head. We came up with our idea: the credit-card sized, fits-in-a-cup, $35 Raspberry Pi computer would tackle the job and be our vehicle to deliver the class; a class to teach boys and girls the basics of computer programming.

One of the inspirations we had around why this class was so important in general, is really best summed up I feel by the likes of rockstar will.i.am, NBA star Chris Bosh, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and one of the wealthiest philanthropists and tech icons in the world, Bill Gates. If you’d like to hear their take on why teaching kids to code is so important, check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKIu9yen5nc.

Q: You used to work at AGT. Can you share your background and experience at AGT?

Jeremy: AGT was the first ever tech job I had, right out of college! I helped out on the managed services R&D team right at the beginning of an AGT product called Fathom — developing an appliance box to test H.323 video traffic on a network to record stats related to jitter, latency and loss. It was a fascinating project to be a part of right out of school – it was a blend of fabrication (for the appliance box itself), hardware and software; a really fun and neat team to have been a part of at its inception!

But my days with AGT go way back long before I moved to the southern jewel of Atlanta. Barely out of high school in Satellite Beach, Fla., I was in a calculus class at Brevard Community College when I made friends with a man named Tim. He asked me if I’d like to work with him at a video conferencing technology company in town. I was the shipping do-boy, and boy was I proud of the work I did! I once wrapped a packet of little electronic pins in enough bubble wrap that the techs on the receiving end thought it was a video unit… Another time, Mark Cray (now the CEO!) gave me a hand to help me pack a pallet of 20+ video conferencing units that must have been six feet high and eight feet long. We had that thing so tightly wound that you probably could have airdropped it successfully from the back of a military cargo plane. During summers off from school, I came back to AGT multiple times for software internships where I began writing code. I earned a Computer Science degree from the University of Florida, and AGT co-founder Ben Atha (“Mr. Ben” to me, as I always called him) told me he’d have a job for me when I graduated. So I moved up to Kennesaw, Ga. and began my career in technology. That was it — I didn’t even bother with a job search; that was the company I wanted to work for.

Though new opportunities in my career arose and I eventually moved on to a career in technology consulting, I always thought fondly of my time with AGT and remained friends with my colleagues still there. I’m forever grateful for the start AGT provided me.

Q: Tell us about some experiences from your IT and coding background that have prepared you to instruct the youth in your program.

Jeremy: As a developer on the R&D team, I was tasked to play around with the LCD (little blue display) on the front of the Fathom box to program messages about the status of the device. Believe it or not, I’m actually working on a lab right now for the next Code Crew where I’m soldering pins for a LCD just like the one I used before, and will stick it on a breadboard to teach kids how to display their own messages to it! As far as my background helping prepare me for The Crew experience, obviously the core concepts of what I learned in programming and software development have benefited me tremendously. It helped me think through the six-week introductory curriculum that I wanted to come up with to expose the basics of coding to these kids to help them get a foundation underneath them. But more than anything I think, 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. When I had the idea for the Code Crew, I literally didn’t know how to program in Python at all (it was a language I wanted to learn), and I had never used (or even held) a Raspberry Pi before, but knew it was the device I wanted to use. And I had never taught a class before, but I figured if I prepped enough and practiced enough, I could do the best I could to communicate these code ideas to the kids. So over time, I’ve learned how to learn in my career, and that has been one of the most empowering tools to allow me to try and experiment in new endeavors.

Q: What changes do you hope to make in the minds and lives of the youth in your program?

Jeremy: If any of the Coders decided to pursue a tech career as a result of having fun and being inspired by their time in the Code Crew, then obviously that would be fantastic. But to me, it’s not really just about that. If anyone in The Crew decided to take that hard math course, or that computer class, or that seemingly meaningless science class because they gained an appreciation for these things as a result of their being a part of this experiment, then it would have all been worthwhile. I really want these boys and girls (especially these girls – since they are drastically under-represented in engineering disciplines) to see value in STE(A)M education as a way to fundamentally improve who they are. Not just to get a great high-paying, in-demand job; though that alone would be fantastic. But learning to code teaches you how to problem solve and how to think, as Steve Jobs so famously once said. And learning to do that will help you tremendously no matter what endeavor you choose. Hopefully, if nothing else, these Coders will have gained a self-confidence in knowing that even though they didn’t know how to do something before, and perhaps it seemed a bit daunting and impossible on the surface, by dedicating time, thought and persistence to it they could figure something new out that they didn’t know how to do before. I know for myself and my involvement with the Code Crew, this has absolutely been the case for me!

Q: Where do you see The Vine City Code Crew in 5 years?

Jeremy: 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. Last March, I took my three year old daughter Evelyn to go see the First Robotics Competition’s Peachtree Regional event at the Georgia World Congress Center. If you like robotics or anything geeky tech fun, you really should go see these high school kids compete. I think over time what we will learn from coding, blended together with what we will do next in a “maker class” would be fully realized and culminated in the world of robotics. To me, robotics seem like the ultimate blend of software, hardware, engineering, and MacGyver-duct-tape-hackiness that could teach us all some really amazing concepts. I don’t know that we’ll ever get there (it would take a lot of time, resources and dedication for all parties involved), but I think it would be totally rad if we do it one day. And I don’t know the first thing about building robots at all – so more learning for me! The following documentary really got me thinking about it; I highly recommend checking it out. www.underwaterdreamsfilm.com

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your involvement with The Vine City Code Crew?

Jeremy: I’m not exaggerating when I say that my involvement with the Vine City Code Crew and these Coders has been one of the most fulfilling and life-giving seasons of my life… Seriously. I’ve never taught anything before, and I’m beginning to realize the joy and satisfaction that must keep teachers going in spite of all the difficulties they face. By far, the most rewarding part of my experience in The Crew has been the interactions I’ve had with these Coders. Like that time at lunch at The Varsity (over by Tech) after our field trip to MailChimp when one of the girls told me, “I know what I want to do when I graduate. I want to work there.” Or when our youngest coder first sat down to play with the littleBits circuits and said in a hushed, almost reverent voice as he put the glowing little pieces together, “I really like this…” – as an enormous toothy grin spread across his face. 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 late nights at 3AM when I’m preparing for the class.

Q: Where can people go to learn more about The Vine City Code Crew?

Jeremy: I’ve been doing my best to blog about our experience here: https://bit.ly/1BcIkB3. I’ve been a little behind in being able to keep up the pace that I would like, so I’ll be blogging about our first Code Crew up until the early part of the new year. After that, I’ll start writing a little bit about the next class to come, “The Code Crew, Part Two” – or whatever it ends up being called! They can also follow me on Twitter @jeremyharms or drop me a line at jeremy.harms@gmail.com if they’d like to find out more about how they too can help donate to support The Crew!