What I do with OCRI

I volunteer as an industry mentor in a pilot program called the Ottawa High School Technology Program. The goal of the program is to raise high school students’ interest in pursuing careers related to technology. In particular, enrolment rates for technology-related degrees at the post-secondary level in Ottawa have been very low in recent years, and this is expected to lead to a skills shortage in the near future. The program was started as a means to reverse this trend by bringing industry representatives to local high schools to show the students what a career in high tech is really like.

More About the Program

The main idea behind the program is to bring industry representatives to the classroom and help the students build real, working software for the XO laptop.

It’s run just like a real project: The students are introduced to the XO and its unique role in education in third-world countries. They research the environment and the context in which the XO is used, as well as their target market. They come up with their own ideas (which we help them refine) and present their concept to their peers and a panel of judges.

Once the concept has been approved, development begins. We tend to favour agile methodologies — we push for short iterations, flexible scope and getting something working as early as possible. The students are expected to have some programming knowledge, but the mentors (that’s me) are available to help them plan their approach and solve any problems that come up.

When development wraps up, there is a showcase event where the students demo their software to teachers, parents and local media. It’s always a lot of fun, and it’s often incredible to see what they’ve created — in the past, we’ve had groups perform at the same level as university co-op students.

What I do

As a mentor, I have a lot of responsibilities:

  • I’m the technical guy: Any problems they run into while coding, I can fix. Any questions they have about software development, I can answer.
  • I’m the sanity check: It’s my job to raise a flag if something isn’t feasible, whether it’s for schedule, complexity or performance reasons.
  • I make sure we deliver: Every group’s project must be demo-able and working on the XO in time for the showcase. If a group falls behind, I find out why and help them catch up.
  • Passion is key: Throughout the semester I ensure the students are engaged. In addition to passing on technical skills, I try to spark that drive to get them really interested in software development.

The sessions we do at the school range from an hour and a half to a full six hours, depending on the semester. Obviously if the sessions are longer, they’re less frequent; it generally works out to about 40 hours per semester. There’s also some overhead coordinating with the program organizers; occasional emails and the rare meeting.

The average session involves a quick spiel at the start of class to explain what we’ll be focusing on that day, then rotating around to check in with each of the groups for the rest of the allotted time. I try to work out attainable targets for each group to handle in that session, then check up on them every once in a while to make sure they’re on track. If any issues come up, I help resolve them, and I proactively make sure the students are developing good coding habits.

During the in-between time, there’s some chatting too. The classes we attract are usually somewhat tech-savvy, so the students are often up-to-date on the latest gadgets and memes, which makes for some fun conversations. The atmosphere is always very good; lots of excitement and energy make this a great time for everyone involved.

Why I do it

It’s not often that technical skills in software development can be put towards a good cause. This program gives me the opportunity to take some of the knowledge I live and breath every day and use it to help high school students learn about technology and really get involved in the community. In turn, more students will look at careers in high tech, and the software we’re developing for the XO has the potential to restart this learn-participate cycle in the 3rd-world countries we’re trying to help. It’s such a far-reaching program with so much potential to help so many people — I’m proud, excited and grateful to be a part of it.

Feelings aside, there are more tangible benefits for me as well:

  • I get to meet a lot of interesting people: School representatives, the program’s organizers and sponsors, the other mentors; these are all outstanding people that I have learned a lot from.
  • I get to do fun things: Because of my involvment with this program I’ve been interviewed for a student project, televised on a local news station and a speaker at a conference (my first time ever).
  • I get a great story: I can talk about my involvement with co-workers or at networking events, it looks great on my resume, and gets traffic on my blog.

Where you can Learn More

The program is run by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI). The website for the Ottawa High School Technology Program contains information about past semesters, including a few videos and posts from the students involved. And of course you can always contact me via dan at dan-menard.com — I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have and point you in the right direction should you wish to help out.