A few weeks ago, one of our clients, the KIPP Harmony Academy of Baltimore, approached our company and asked if there were any male volunteers for career presentations. Their focus was to show the students that they didn't necessarily have go into an art career in order to use artistic skills in their jobs and daily life.
One of our Account Executives, Andy, was excited to go and talk about his work as a marketer and how we have to arrange things to be appealing to the clients. He put out a call to the rest of us. I was convinced that it would be a fun opportunity for me, too, and signed up.
Thursday morning we head up to the school near Cylburn Aboretum and Pimlico Racetrack in northwest Baltimore. It is really a beautiful place. The walls are clean and the students are amazingly well-behaved. As the woman we met at the door remarks, it doesn't look like all that much from the outside, but on the inside it is amazing. I'm certain there's a wonderful metaphor in there somewhere.
Andy and I are separated so that we can speak to different classes at the same time. I am escorted to a second floor classroom and along the way we walk through a big computer lab and open play spaces. I got to one of the college-themed classrooms and appreciate the high tech projection screen and six new-looking computers in the corner of the room.
The teacher gets the kids to their assigned spots on the multi-colored carpet in the middle of the room and says, "We are very lucky to have a special guest, Mr. Carlson who works for the company that did KIPP's web site."
That's it. At this point, I'm left entirely to my own devices to tell the kids what interested me about computers and how I got into them and then how my education experience helped me get there. I have not planned at all for this, as I thought Andy and I would be able to play off each other, but I do my best.
I tell the students a little about my job in marketing, and then go all the way back to what inspired me to get into this career in the first place. When I was their age, I say, I played games on the computer but after a few years learned that I could tell the computer how to do things and tried to write a game on my own so my friends could share it, too.
"Who here likes the computer lab?" I asked the collected students. Always good to open on an applause line, I think.
I expected them to shout "Me! Me!" and dance around a little. Instead, 30 polite hands went up nearly in unison. I'm not in the Kansas of my youth anymore. These are some amazingly well-behaved kids.
I finish up my introduction by talking about some of the places that I've worked and some of the fun projects I've been able to work on since finishing college, and how I have to learn something new about someone else's work (civil engineers, lawyers, factory supervisors, doctors, and teachers to name a few) with every new project.
As I finish up, I realized that 25 pairs of eyes had glazed over at the word "computer games" as they internally formed their questions for me. I open the floor to questions, and point to a quiet-looking kid on the second row right.
"How would you make a football game?" he asks.
This is little out of my expertise, but not much different from one of my friend’s favorite interview question where he asks prospective employees to explain complicated technology to him as if he as a six year old.
"Do you know the rules of football?" I asked him.
"Anybody here know the rules of football?" Two small hands in the first two rows go up, and I point to those kids.
"Well, first you'd ask these guys to tell you everything they know about the rules, so you can explain it to the computer."
The football experts nod sagely, so I pick one of them and say "How many players can each team have on the field?"
The first student says ten, which I'm vaguely certain isn't the right answer. So I ask the next one.
"Six," he says confidently.
Several students around him nod their heads and quietly say "Yeah, six."
The class consensus comes to six.
"Okay, so if both teams have six players, that's 12 different football players that all go different ways depending on the play. So if you wanted to know how to tell the computer which way they'd run, you'd have to watch some real football games really carefully and pay attention to what they do on the television."
I talk a little more about how they'd have to watch someone throw a ball to figure out how fast it went and what shape of a line it follows with math, because the computer doesn't know any of these things. The class starts to get antsy after a minute, so I figure they've got the point. I take the next question.
"How do you pick which button throws the ball?"
Apparently they are getting this. A girl in the back says quietly but with authority, "The A button." I grin.
"How many of you think it should be the A button?" Half the hands go up.
"What if it were the X button, on the bottom? Would that work better?" A third of the hands seem to see the logic in my selection.
I turn back to the student asking the question, "So, you'd probably ask all your friends and classmates, and it looks like they like the A button better. But then if they tested it out they might not like it and you might go back and fix it for the X button, which is something we do all the time."
If only they knew. I take the next question.
"How would you make a racing car game?"
"Do you have a racing game you like?"
"When you turn too fast, what happens?"
"The car goes off the road."
"Right, so to start you could watch some car races and see when the cars run off the road and what the drivers do. If you're really lucky at your job, you might be able to try driving in a real car and see how much you have to turn the wheel in a real car so you can make it feel the same in the game."
I gradually realize that my experience of breaking down complicated processes into their component parts is exactly how I need to explain things to a grade school student. It’s like my whole career has been practice for this. It's at exactly this point that I make a rookie mistake and call on the same kid twice.
Every student with hands upraised within a two-kid radius gets a look on their face like I've just broken a commandment, and the discipline evaporates. The teacher sees this from her desk overlooking the students and says firmly, "Focus up!"
Suddenly 30 kids in unison clap their legs twice, their hands once, every back straightens and every pair of eyes come dead focus on me in complete silence. I nearly soil myself in surprise, but feel like I recover fast enough that nobody notices.
The rest of my time goes pretty quickly, with some general questions. One asks how a computer gets built, on which I try to impress on them how they're so complicated that lots of different people have to know lots about the different parts, and then hundreds of parts have to come together to put it together. The explanation seems to go over well.
Another asks how a computer prints things. My practical knowledge of how printers work ("Dark magic, when they ever do") seems inappropriate here, so I muddle through an answer about how the printer only knows dots and the computer has to take each letter like they do and divide it into a bunch of tiny little dots to put down on the paper as it passes through.
It's a generally clumsy ending, but the kids and the teacher don't seem to mind, and I'm given a collective KIPP School thank you by the class and the teacher in song. As I leave, the teacher thanks me again with an aside that every one of them will probably have "Computer Programmer" on the top of their career plan list for the next two weeks and she will be doing her best to answer all the follow-up questions they have about game design.
I wish her the best of luck. I'm exhausted after 25 minutes, and wouldn't trade jobs with her for anything, but I'm glad she does it. It's reassuring to know I'll be working for such smart kids one day.
A version of this post was published on the author's personal blog. It is re-posted here with permission.
We’ve done it! Inspired by some of the great podcasts out there we’re now producing our own – we’re happy to present the first ever EUROCAST, recorded live at our office here in downtown Baltimore.
Our spin on the podcast covers top digital marketing, advertising & technology news from the week & our insights & analysis as an interactive marketing agency. We’re always looking for new ways to help advance our client’s marketing goals & performance.
This week we are joined by Shannon Spero (@shannicole), Account Executive, Sam Armacost (@samanthasquared), Front-End Web Developer & Carolyn Hammock (@chammock), Account Supervisor, to discuss SXSW Interactive 2012, the launch of Dollar Shave Club & the first reviews of the 3rd generation iPad. Click play on the SoundCloud player below & enjoy.
Let us know your thoughts & topics you’d like us to discuss below!
Headline news – Apple launches the new iPad on March 7, 2012. This quick turnaround on the mobile device came as a surprise to some. About a year ago, Apple came out with the second round of product updates; adding in two camera capabilities, thinner and lighter, and a dual-core processor to name a few. The growing sensation for the tablet shows in outstanding sales, but was version 3 the game changer? I decided to use my iPad 2 to record some Euro Discovery advertising agency’s mobile tech users; they talked about different topics on the new iPad mobile device. Interesting questions followed by insightful answers is what I gathered from these guys.
Is a better and more improved resolution display and operating system worth the investment?