Giving Back: You Have More To Teach Than You Think

Michelle Sun is a former investment banker that became an entrepreneur, and is now working as a software engineer at Buffer. She pivoted her career from banking to technology, and continues to find tech challenging and rewarding. Yes, she worked hard and hustled.By Michelle Sun (Buffer growth engineer & Hackbright alum)

When I look back in my career so far in technology, community played a big role in my learning, transition, and growth. Each step along the way, people gave advice, shared experiences and opened doors to allow me to be where I am today. This summer, I launched AppJamming in my hometown of Hong Kong to encourage more young people’s interests in STEM. It made me realize the power of starting a local community and how rewarding it can be.

Here I share how I did it, and how you can (and should) do the same.

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder” – Sheryl Sandberg

I cannot agree more. I pivoted my career from banking to technology. Two years later, first as an entrepreneur and now as a growth engineer, I continue to find my role as challenging and rewarding. Along the twists and turns, yes I worked hard and hustled – as we are told as women to own our achievements. But truth is, multiple people took a chance on me and opened doors to opportunities.

Mentorship and community played a big role in my career in technology. I met my co-founder at my previous company over a few front end development tutorials. I did countless co-working / coding sessions on weekends and weekday evenings with fellow developers, professional or aspirational. I attended the inaugural class at Hackbright Academy, a 10-week intensive bootcamp, from one of my favorite blogs, Women 2.0. I drew inspiration for my own path from meeting fellow women in STEM at Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, Women Who Code Hack Nights, PyLadies meet ups, to name a few.

When I returned to Hong Kong this spring, I longed to see this same sense of community and awareness of tech as a fun career to local teenagers, especially girls. That was how AppJamming was created.

The goal is to encourage teenagers to be creators using technology. AppJamming started off as a one-day workshop. Using App Inventor, a visual programming language maintained by MIT, we went from a “Hello World” tutorial to having the teenagers make their own apps toward the end of the workshop. Our first workshop hosted 30 students, with 12 professional developers as mentors.

Over 30 students attended our AppJamming workshop 2013 and made their first mobile app that day.

Why Start a Local Community

#1 – Pass the torch.
One of the mentors told me when he went through the algorithms with his 12-year-old student (our youngest that day), she exclaimed “Oh, I love coding!”. When I think about the early programming experience, I remember having fun manipulating the turtle on my first computer. During the formative stage of choosing universities and college majors, teenagers can really benefit from the additional exposure to a field they otherwise would not have opportunity to.

#2 – You have more to teach than you think.

When I started toying out the idea, I could hear the self doubt. Who am I to teach programming? I was glad I went with it despite the doubt. With the workshop, I find my experience in learning programming in a classroom (comparing to many others who are self-taught programmers) proved valuable. Coming from a public school and private universities, I related to the learning styles of my students both from public and private schools. Professional developers come to volunteer their time regardless of their experience in mobile app development. In fact, most of them never came across AppInventor before the workshop. Yet by showing up, they shared with the students about their career, passion in the field, on top of computer science concepts. I believe everyone has something to teach, given each of our unique experiences.

#3 – Move from spectator stand to the arena.

I have been a participant – attending community events and learning from other professionals in the industry. Moving into the arena is a tremendously rewarding jump. My co-organizer and I discussed many experiences in attending community events and cherry-picked what we liked to the workshop.

#4 – Connect with individuals who believe in the same cause.

The biggest unexpected benefit from starting AppJamming is the individuals that we met through it. From government, local angel investors to executives whose daughters are interested in coding.

How You Can Have Community Impact

#1 – Start small.
AppJamming launched as a one-day workshop. Through posting on Facebook groups, emailing friends for introductions, we stayed “lean” and minimized initial capital and time input to gauge interest in the community. This is especially crucial if you, like my co-organizer and I, are committed to a full time job and starting an initiative on your weekends.

#2 – Share something you already know.
I volunteered at the Technovation Challenge hack day, which inspired the format of AppJamming workshop. That helped immensely with the preparation for the workshop.

#3 – Engage sponsors.
When my co-organizer Jennifer first approached Google, it was a far fetched idea with a cold pitch. It turns out the initiative aligned well with the launch of their network Women Entrepreneurs’ Online, and we were able to secure funding to cover the cause. It is a good exercise to reach out to banks, corporates with social responsibility programs or technology companies with branches in the region. The sponsorship also opened doors to venue options and local press.

#4 – Follow up relentlessly.
Make sure to keep tab of feedback and next steps with all stakeholders. The added benefit of staying lean in the launch is to gauge feedback and improve.

Next time you plan a trip home or visit, think about a topic that is top of mind for you and share it. Teach a short workshop, share a recent lesson on what you learn managing a team, drop in to a local high school or university for career sharing. You will be surprised how much you learn out of it, and on top of that, helping someone along the way.

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post.

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