How Not To Build A Robot

Our team scoured the area for parts and we assembled them in the middle of the table. That this idea might not work, was a possibility that did not cross my consciousness. Until that precise moment, I still believed that anything I dreamed of was possible.

It was my grandest idea to date. After enlisting the help of my little brother and a neighbor, I convinced them that we could absolutely build a robot. I was 5, Jay-R was 4, and Monique was 6.

My brother and I were spending time with my grandma who lived in the same neighborhood as Monique. The plan was to get all the parts we needed from around my grandma’s house. When I realized she didn’t have enough stuff, we made made the trek to Monique’s house to search her backyard.

After gathering a pile of odds and ends, we stood staring at them. Then I heard, “What are we going to do now Buffy?” For the first time in my five years, I realized that I had no idea of what the heck I was doing. This wasn’t like drawing or painting where I could create whatever I imagined. It was my first taste of failure. I never forgot it. Or my dream to build a robot.

I don’t know where, when, or how I developed an interest in technology. When I was 10 my mom opened a boutique in a local mall, right around the corner from a gadget shop. When not helping my mom in the store, I existed between the bookshop and gadget shop. Staring through the window at the new electronics in stock one day, I saw a flyer for a computer camp. I convinced my parents that I needed to go.

That summer I rode the bus from Spanish Town to Kingston every day and had an amazing time. We learned MS-DOS, COBOL, Pascal…we used dot matrix printers, ate corned beef sandwiches, and drank watered-down Quench Aid for lunch. I was 13 and I was ecstatic.

By the time the school year rolled around, I found out about a GSCE computer science class at local high school, and convinced my parents to send me to that too. We didn’t work on any computers in the class. It was all textbook and theory, so I got bored and skipped class. A lot. At my high school we had two computers, and on the rare occasion we got to use (fight) for them, I was truly happy.

In college my first computer science professor came to class one day super-excited, talking about a mythical interface that would enable us to see pictures on a colored screen. No more green screen and text? It was 1995 and Microsoft had not yet launched Windows. I sat spellbound while he told us about it, and eventually came to love the graphical user interface.

A few years later, after bemoaning a marathon library research session to a friend, she said something that changed my life: “Buffy, there’s this thing called the Internet, and you can do your research much quicker than looking up everything in the books.” What?! Show me how. Right now. Until that point I only went to the computer lab to type papers. I will be forever grateful to Kimar for taking me on my first ride on the information superhighway. When my parents came to visit, I hauled them to the computer lab and showed them how to get on the internet too.

In law school I made the second major purchase of my life. The first was my car. (Big up Betsy, my 2008 Camry.) My laptop was from the cow company (because I had a serious cow thing). Then I bought the first jump drive on the market by IBM. No more disks! Eventually I started troubleshooting my own issues, before tech support on the phone could even figure it out. On more than one occasion they logged my process because they had personally never dealt with the issue before.

In law school I also took the first Cyber Law course offered, and my final research and writing paper was on Napster and the convergence of law and technology. When the professor reviewed my draft she said, “I have no idea what Napster is or how it works, but it sounds interesting.”

After my laptop it was mobile phones, Palm Pilots, wireless headphones, and any electronic gadget I thought would make my life easier. (Yay for scholarship funds!) While at school in England I saw a teeny-tiny mobile phone in a shop and had to have it. I’d never seen a phone that small in the States. It was the size of two fingers. That phone ended up becoming a lifeline home for all my flatmates in the dorm.

There are many times I considered a career in tech, but my Math block always held me back. The (clearly irrational) fear that my inability to solve equations would prevent me from learning more than the little I knew about computers.

When I got my first teaching job at a high school, I started an after-school coding club. I had no idea what I was doing, but I convinced myself that I would just figure it out alongside my students. More times than not, I learned the lesson hours before they did, them turned around and walked them through. Somehow it worked. I also attended every tech-related professional development course I discovered, and utilized every software program that I thought would help my students.

Over the years I’ve researched Microsoft and Apple certification programs, but every single time I’ve stopped short. Last year I went as far as to register in a degree program. Then the realization that I already have 4 and a half of those made me not want to go through the drudgery of adding another degree to the list.

Last week I came across a random tweet about free coding resources online. There was something different about this one, unlike the gazillion learn-how-to-code websites I’ve visited before. The thought to have another go at computer programming entered my mind, and that was it.

Before I had a chance to blink, I fell into the computer science rabbit-hole and started researching every website that taught beginners how to code. My interest was sparked. Again. Right now I’m working through a couple free courses online, as well as reading books on programming. This time I will not allow crushed robot dreams and unsolved equations to hold me back.

Wish me luck!

~Loi