All articles are written by YJDP Student Correspondents and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
Matthew Podwysocki, a software developer for Microsoft, still remembers his first computer.
It was a Commodore 64 and he was just 7-years-old.
“It came with Basic, and she would buy me all sorts of books,” he said in a telephone interview of his mother who was a programmer. “And so while all my friends were playing video games, my mom strictly forbade me to do so and said to start writing your own games.”
While technology has evolved, today’s teens are not much different from the young Podwysocki. Surrounded by technology and using social media 24/7, they’re more than ever are embracing the code that lies right beneath their fingertips, and are exploring career paths in the digital space.
With so many resources available – and free online lessons on websites like Code.org, Khan Academy and GitHub, learning how to code is easier than ever. But the question remains: how can a teen get serious about computer science to make their dreams a reality?
Although Podwysocki grew up with computer science, he felt his high school did not offer a real-world experience in learning how to program from professionals.
“I did my own stuff at home and through college,” Podwysocki said.
Winward also took computer science in high school and connected his love for math and science to programming.
“Growing up for me, I always knew I was pretty good at math and science, but I never knew what I could do with that,” said Winward, who went to high school in Fairfax County, in a telephone interview.
“I knew I really enjoyed the problem solving aspect of it and the creativity that was involved with it,” he added.
Winward quickly came to understand the power and value of computer science through research projects in college – one of his favorites was a facial recognition algorithm, which in 2006 had an impressive accuracy rate of 60 percent.
Now at Microsoft, both Podwysocki and Winward see the immense demand companies have for computer science solutions. Podwysocki is currently working on a project called the Reactive Extensions, a library for transforming, composing and querying streams of data which runs on all platforms.
“They usually come at us with the hardest problems that they have,” Podwysocki said.
With 16 years of experience, Podwysocki says one of his favorite parts of being in the computer science industry is diversity in the teams he works with day to day. His teammates specialize in areas such as graphic design or interface development and he said recent college graduates focus on areas of programming such as video game design.
“What we’re finding is that there’s a wide array of what people are coming out with. I’ve seen people come out with graphic design backgrounds or video game programming backgrounds and they’re much better at programming user interfaces,” Podwysocki said. “The diversity in computer science is quite unique in a way that you can start with the low level stuff to the high level stuff in terms of algorithms to writing an operating system.
With programming tools and education being free and cheaply available, Podwysocki and Winward encourages teens to go out and take advantage of what is immediately in their reach to gain skills as fast as they can through free services online and inexpensive hardware such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi.
“If you’re interested in programming you can just join an open source project and contribute to it,” Winward said. “The other thing that’s really neat is that there are these massively available online courses where you can take computer science courses for free through MIT and some of the other really top notch computer science programs around the world.”
Podwysocki has a teenage family member who is severely disabled and said one of the things that speaks to him as a programmer is helping him communicate and live a better life through technology.
"In computer science you can do a range of things in volunteer work or working for a specific industry you care about, whether its robotics, big data, creating the next Twitter or Facebook, it's definitely wide open,” he said.
“The one thing I would say is find something that you’re passionate in,” added Winward. “A lot of people these days are very much driven by the money associated with the computer science industry, but when you’re building your portfolio in college, find something that you enjoy.”
“It could be data visualization, web application development, or writing a web app for a non-profit organization,” he said. “The passion can take people very far.”