Came for Pizza, Stayed to Make Change

Chris Bohl

Christopher Bohl is a web developer and recent graduate of Dev Bootcamp Chicago. He is a founding contributor to RideW/Me, an open-source project co-created with Mozilla Hive Chicago that makes it easy for high school students to find educational opportunities and reach them safely with their friends.

It was probably just the promise of free pizza that made me trek over to the Merchandise Mart for Chi Hack Night after another challenging day at Dev Bootcamp. After listening to a talk on civic hacking and open-source data, I wound up in the transportation breakout group listening to people pitch a variety of ideas for projects… we could visualize bus statistics, create reviews for L train rides, or map parking meter costs. There were lots of interesting ideas. But one pitch got me excited in particular, and that was RideW/Me, or what was then still Wagglers, an idea that emerged from Hive Chicago’s community of educators.

One comment really tugged at my heart strings. “I know kids from Chicago’s Southside that have never seen the lake,” one former teacher in the group said. I learned about fantastic after-school programs that struggled to secure enough students to fill their learning experiences. We brainstormed how we could help students become aware of the opportunities around them and we discussed how to get them to those program locations safely.

Apps Challenge Storyboarding

Jeffrey Subbarao, Chris Bhol, and Tim Choh translate early storyboards into code during an apps challenge.

Two weeks later, I was up at 4am, the screen of my laptop illuminating my exhausted face. Tim Choh, a rising sophomore at UIC majoring in Computer Science, pulled together a RideW/Me prototype with me for the CNT Urban Apps Competition. Jeffrey Subaru, a rising Physics junior at Case Western assembled our database seeds from program data provided by the Chicago Park District, and later proved to be an asset working with the Google Maps API. Marina Malone, a Chicago Public School student was designing our storyboards. After a brief sleep, we awoke and pitched our project to a panel of local technology and business leaders with Robert Friedman from Hive Chicago.

After another few weeks, I was co-leading the RideW/Me breakout group at Chi Hack Night. I was working alongside developers, educators, concerned citizens, and young learners. I was explaining the mission of RideW/Me to a room filled with a dozen young amateur programmers and helping them setup their environments. It had been barely 8 weeks since I even learned how to do that for myself. In the room was Kevin Yaroch, a network administrator for an ISP, with little experience with Ruby on Rails, but who would later prove to be a natural at back-end programming and a major contributor.

Collaborating at Chi Hack Night

Chris Bohl, Uchenna, Paul Caimi and David Bild discuss service provider views at Chi Hack Night.

A few weeks after that, I visited BLUE1647 in Pilsen for a mini RideW/Me hackathon/sprint to complete a user-ready release for testing. A week later, I visited the Chicago Southside Mini Maker Faire at the Ford City Mall to help get young people excited about the possibilities with apps like RideW/Me, user test the app with them, and take diligent notes on their feedback for further development.

When I finished the intense experience of Dev Bootcamp, I faced the new and intense challenge of finding a job. My days went from 12 hours of coding surrounded by others to a dedicated job search with many of my hours wide open. This process typically takes several months for students of coding boot camps. This was not an easy adjustment, but RideW/Me allowed me to keep up with coding and keep advancing my skills as a software developer.  While many students fill up these hours with online tutorials, I was able to to work with a team on a tangible product and share what I was learning with others.

I never expected when I first went to Chi Hack Night that I would soon be pitching an idea to people I had never met before in the Southside of Chicago. I didn’t know I would find myself embedded in Hive Chicago’s city-wide network of educators, makers and youth as a volunteer leader. I did not expect that I would soon be the most experienced Rails developer in a room and managing the development of a sizeable application. But RideW/Me provided these opportunities.

Volunteer Developers collaborating at Chi Hack Night

The RideW/Me volunteer developer team collaborating at Chi Hack Night.

Groups like Chi Hack Night, the Hive Chicago, and RideW/Me all share three things that many recent coding bootcamp graduates would love:

  1. A healthy amount of idealism
  2. An opportunity to expand on web development skills
  3. A chance to develop communication and leadership skills

Fortunately, there is already some cross-over between coding bootcamps and these organizations. For example, Dev Bootcamp already sponsors Chi Hack Night by providing pizza every few weeks. But I think more students could benefit from getting involved with these organizations upon graduation. And I hope they do, because projects like RideW/Me could use them, too.

For more about the the co-development of the RideW/Me app, check out high school student contributor, Marina Malone’s story: How I Got Onboard With RideW/Me.

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