Olivia Ross teaches young girls how to code while making her mark in the world of Technology.

Nov 22, 2016 · 5 min read
Olivia Ross · Sophomore · Phillips Exeter Academy

“I first learned to code during spring break in 6th grade. I was fiddling with my computer and accidentally clicked “View Source” on a random webpage. It looked like alien text — I thought I broke the computer, because seriously ‘Hypertext Markup Language’? However, after a quick Googling, I taught myself how it was used on Khan Academy and W3 Schools. It’s a bit like in the Wizard of Oz, when Toto reveals the wizard controlling the machine behind the curtain. Once I understood what was happening, it wasn’t as mysterious as I thought it was.”

“In the summer after 8th grade, I attended Make School, an 8-week summer program that teaches students how to build software for iOS devices. The camp was divided into two tracks of instruction: game development and development for mobile applications. I was the only girl in the “games” track and I sometimes felt odd for choosing to work on games instead of an app that would help better society. Girls are often pushed into these ‘nurturing’ type projects, but I’m glad I decided to pursue my passion for game design. Even while people are recreating the boundaries of what it means to be a ‘game’, they still evoke the same feelings of wonder and excitement. Compared to other mediums, video games, board games and other forms of interactive media are only in an infant phase — there is so much to do! I went to the Different Games 2016 Conference a few weeks ago, where there was lots of conversation (and plenty of examples) about games as art, as expressions of human emotion, or even vehicles for social change. Being in that atmosphere really solidified game design as a potential career path, and one I wanted to proudly pursue.”

“At Make School, I learned how to use Swift and Objective-C to write and publish my very first completed game: Superblock. Here you play as a little rectangle, jumping high over fiery red obstacles until you tap right and — “BOOM* — you’ve become the big and powerful Super Block, crashing through walls of icy blue. Superblock is a pastel parallelogram paradise, fit with funky background music and relaxing art effects. Making Superblock was a really important journey for me, as I had spent the first initial weeks working on an entirely different game. It was a puzzle adventure game where each level sat on top a moebius strip, a topological strip with only one-side, rather than a back and front. It was a great idea at the time and I’m hoping to finish it in between all my schoolwork, but designing levels and thinking up new mechanics turned into a huge time-sucker. Even eight weeks wasn’t enough time to produce a demo and suddenly, I had two weeks left and a game that was barely playable. Scrambling for a new idea, I came up with the ideas for Superblock over the weekend. Reaching a playtest-able demo in a week, by the end of the summer I had a polished game in the App Store that was not only fun to play, but had won Make School’s Industry’s Choice Award in the East Coast.”

“My favorite pastime now is watching other people play my game. Sometimes I hear my mom playing it and it immediately sends a warm feeling, because I know she’s playing it because she’s having fun, not because she’s my mom. Now, I’ve been busy like a bee, working on-and-off on a few games in HTML5 and Love2D.”

“Whenever I run into challenges, my rule is to just keep going with them. Even Einstein said it: ‘I’m not a genius, I just stick with problems longer.’ No matter how slowly you’re moving, if you don’t stop, then you’ll get there eventually. When you start out programming, it looks super simple, like anybody could do it. As you get further along, though, it’s easy to become discouraged and think computer science just isn’t for you, especially if there’s no one around to push you. Learning to program is easy, but learning to be good at it takes longer to learn than you may expect. Remember that you haven’t gotten ‘dumber’ or less intelligent; the problems really are getting harder. It’s ok to adapt. This is how you learn.”

Oliva volunteers with Black Girls Code and most recently was a mentor for their “Build a Game in a Day” workshop, where the girls were taught to use Scratch, by MIT. “People underestimate Scratch, but I’ve always loved it, even as a little kid. It was fun getting to expose the girls to it. Black Girls Code was a huge boost of confidence for me. When I started out in programming, I was very isolated most of the time. I didn’t really mind being alone, because I had space to concentrate and recharge, but I was very embarrassed talking about computer science in front of my classmates. No one else understood what I was saying and laughed it off as ‘nerdy Olivia’ with another soliloquy. Despite the prevalence of the internet, not a lot of people at my school, or even my family, knew much about the ‘computer thing’ I was always doing. Eventually, I’d try to hide it from other people, not wanting to seem arrogant. Black Girls Code showed me that it was OK to own up to my talents. They organized the first hackathon I ever went to and, after my team won, invited me all the way to Louisiana to mentor girls at a hackathon in New Orleans.Suddenly, I met a group of people who wanted to embrace silly young black girls with laptops. Successful women who looked like me thought that computer science was not only worth pursuing, but that more girls should be involved. Now, I have the strength to ignore people who pretend I don’t fit in or ask “What’s a girl like you doing here?”

Olivia is a MAKERS woman and is also a part of the student-led group, The Young Hackers, that works to bring together high school students from diverse backgrounds in collaborative events to learn, connect and build with technology. 2016 Maker’s Conference presented her project on stage with Megan Smith, the CTO of the United States.


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