OMGineer Highlight: Phil Hatton’s Software Engineer Journey + Giving Back to Young Coders

By Phil Hatton on 10/15/2021

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With a large part of our day-to-day spent working with some form of software or computer program, computer science jobs and degrees are in higher demand than ever before. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were approximately 1.4 million software engineering jobs in 2019, and it’s expected to increase 22% by the end of 2029. That’s crazy! The engineering Team at OMG (aka the OMGineering Team), definitely understands this Рsoftware is what we do.

However, despite the large demand for software engineers, access to computer science courses and materials in grade school (K-12) is not as commonplace as one might think. We spoke with Phil Hatton (OMG’er #56) about his early experience with software engineering, and how he got involved with the mentorship program, Bold Idea

 

What was your early experience with software engineering? Was it positive?

While some high schools offer AP Computer Science courses, the majority of high schools in Texas do not offer any kind of formal computer sciences course. My high school in San Antonio, TX did not have computer science classes when I was attending, and this created some difficulties for me when I pursued an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering (EE).

At Texas A&M University, EE students are required to take a programming course in C++. I had never done any sort of programming in the past, and had no idea what to expect. After a few weeks of going over syntax, basic programming concepts, and how to build/run C++ programs, we were given a project: create an “online” store. I couldn’t believe it! I had no idea where to start. We had learned the bits (ba-dum-tss 🥁) and pieces of programming, but there wasn’t much explanation about how it all fit together. Typical college course.

After fumbling my way through that class the rest of the semester, I hated programming and swore I’d never do that for a living. Programming is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around at first, and essentially being told to just “figure it out” isn’t a good way to get anyone excited about programming; it ultimately turned me off from that as a career choice.

 

What brought you back into software?

It happened a few years later in my junior year when I was looking for a summer internship. I was fortunate enough to have an offer from a company I had done a co-op with the previous year, but I wasn’t excited about it РI wanted to learn something new, but I didn’t have any other offers… yet. In May of that spring semester, I got a call from Tinker Air Force Base (AFB) in Oklahoma City, OK asking if I would like to be an intern with their Software Maintenance Group. Although I was excited for a new, different opportunity, I was really nervous about taking a software-based internship given my previous experience (and partial hate) for programming, but I knew it’d be a good learning experience and I’d get to work with the software that runs the aircraft for our military. It was a chance I didn’t think I would get again, so I nervously accepted the offer.

After the internship was over, I was convinced that I wanted to be a software engineer for my career. During the eight weeks of that internship, I got to work with and learn about the software that runs the B-2 Spirit, B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress, and the NATO E-3A (AKA AWACS) aircrafts. It was amazing how much software is involved with those aircraft, and I got to learn about it from very patient mentors who were always willing to answer questions and provide insight into the real-world applications of the software they work on. That internship was the reason I fell in love with writing code, and I’m very grateful to those who taught me along the way during that internship. Shout out to our intern coordinator Justin Thomas, if you ever see this!

 

That’s awesome!! So fast-forward to today: you’re a rockstar engineer at OrderMyGear getting to work on critical software for our customers. Tell us about your work helping others, like yourself, get interested in programming.

After I graduated college, I pursued a career in software. I had heard about this awesome Dallas-based non-profit called Bold Idea that provided computer science education for (mostly) lower-income students in the Dallas area. Given my previous experience as a mentee at Tinker AFB during my internship, I knew how valuable this experience would be for myself and for younger students interested in computer science. During the summer of 2021, I and two other engineers at OrderMyGear (Stephanie Cheng and Christian Ayala, who had volunteered in previous years) signed up to be mentors for seven weeks, with two sessions per week at two hours per session. Bold Idea mentors are typically software engineers who work in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area, but you do not need to be in DFW nor do you have to be a software engineer to become a mentor! You do, however, need to have a passion for computer science and for mentoring younger students.

 

So how does it work?

Previously, Bold Idea hosted on-site Coding Clubs at schools in DISD or at other locations where students could be dropped off. The emergence of COVID-19 forced the mentors and mentees to go virtual. Despite having moved to a Zoom-based experience, the structure of a Bold Idea Coding Club has remained largely the same. There are several different courses students may choose, ranging from working with Scratch (a high-level block-based visual programming language) to creating your own 2-D game in JavaScript. Bold Idea has developed specialized material for each course where students begin at the basics of the language, with a small coding challenge for each new concept, and then slowly transition into working on their final project. While the students are working during their session, mentors are not teaching them – they are mentoring them. The distinction between teaching and mentoring in this context is that when students have questions or run into issues when working on the course material, mentors are NOT supposed to give them the answers: they are supposed to ask the students open-ended questions to help guide the students to the answer. This is a great way for students to develop critical thinking skills while working with technology at an early age.

Each Bold Idea Coding Club meets for a number of sessions, with the frequency ranging from once per week during the school year, and twice a week during the summer. Regardless of the session’s frequency, each two-hour session is structured the same way:

  • Icebreaker question (~10 minutes)
  • Course Roadmap work (~45 minutes)
  • Brain break (~15 minutes)
  • Course Roadmap work continued (~45 minutes)
  • Post-session huddle (~5 minutes)
  • Mentors only post-session huddle (~5 minutes)

 

Sounds like a great way to give back to the community!

It is! The structure of Bold Idea sessions is designed to give students an opportunity to learn programming in a fun, safe, and low-stress environment, and also allows mentors to build relationships with each other as well as with the students. Learning to program is a daunting task, but having a mentor available makes learning this skill much more accessible and sometimes even fun!

Bold Idea is always looking for more mentors and more students! If you know anyone who is interested in becoming a mentor or being a student, check out the Bold Idea website: https://boldidea.org or email info@boldidea.org.

 

Phil Hatton, Software Engineer (OMG’er #56)

Connect with me on LinkedIn

 

About OrderMyGear

OrderMyGear is an industry-leading sales tool, empowering dealers, distributors, decorators, and brands to create custom online pop-up stores to sell branded products and apparel. Since 2008, OMG has been on a mission to simplify the process of selling customized merchandise to groups and improve the ordering experience. With easy-to-use tools, comprehensive reporting, and unmatched support, the OMG platform powers online stores for over 3,500 clients generating more than $1.5 billion in online sales. Learn more at www.ordermygear.com.

About Bold Idea

Bold Idea helps students discover computer science through hands-on learning and mentoring by industry professionals, building critical thinking skills and equipping students to succeed in the careers of the future. The students—equipped with crucial interpersonal and technical skills—are better prepared for the careers of the digital future, can compete for higher paying jobs, and gain increased economic potential. Bold Idea partners with Dallas ISD and north Texas companies to create more equitable access to computer science education and ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn computer science Рno matter their family income or zip code. Learn more at boldidea.org.