While most teams last weekend at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise CodeWars 2019 in Houston competed under the banner of their high schools, two teams of three girls represented the Rio Grande Valley. The trip to the national coding contest was organized and funded by CodeRGV.
“It was something so extraordinary,” said IDEA Donna junior Angie Rocha, who admitted the teams didn’t know what to expect at the 800-student contest. “I had been interested, but seeing everyone meet up made me even more thrilled to be part of coding.”
The girls all had “little-to-no” coding experience before applying and spent five Saturdays with Brownsville Rivera Early College High School teacher Della Cooper-Benavidez and UTRGV computer science junior Cynthia Rocha.
“A lot of these girls don’t get the opportunity to go to a competition,” Cooper-Benavidez said. “We enable them and give them the opportunity to feel comfortable where it’s all girls and we talk about role models in computer science, and foster that love for it.”
Last year, CodeRGV co-founder and president Drew Lentz attended the event as an industry influencer blogging about the event.
“It was mind-blowing, the way some of these kids work,” he said. “I started to look around and I noticed there was no one there from the Rio Grande Valley.”
His goal was to field a Valley team and expose them to this level of competition.
“If we’re not getting our students comfortable competing at a national level (for) when they go to apply for a job or write a segment of code in a class, how is that fair?” Lentz said. “They aren’t going to have the same experience these other kids are going to have.”
The event is dominated by schools that pour resources and attention into preparing students to apply the coding skills they learn, Lentz said.
“This is what they’re teaching their kids, and you come down to the Rio Grande Valley and we aren’t putting this emphasis on it,” he said.
CodeRGV opened up applications last year and it worked out that most of the applicants were female, he said. This was encouraging because of the lack of women and minorities in the STEM fields.
And this was something the girls noticed immediately at the contest.
“We need more girls in computer science, coding and STEM in general,” said Harlingen High School senior Arlette Mcclain. “You walk in and all you see are boys.”
Hewlett Packard Enterprise chief technology officer Mark Potter and chief information officer Archie Deskus took an interest in the team and talked to the girls throughout the event.
She would check up on the team, inquiring about how they were doing, they said of Deskus.
She told them they shouldn’t be afraid to speak up for themselves and that they could accomplish anything they put their minds to, they said.
“She told us to always be aggressive, and that would be the only way we would reach the top,” Rocha said.
She said that her school doesn’t offer coding hopes more schools will offer training on the subject.
“It’s very crucial,” she said.
IDEA North Mission freshman Victoria Acuña agreed and said her school offered a coding class after students advocated for it.
“If schools support it, then they could set more career paths for students who wouldn’t otherwise get into coding,” she said.
For Lentz, pushing coding is about economics. He spoke of a coming future where these skills will be more necessary to break into medium-to-high-paying jobs.
“It’s either going to be that you know how to do this, or you’re absolutely not cut out to do anything above a certain level,” he said of tech skills. “Without Region 1 setting the precedence or the districts coming in and saying this is something that we truly need to focus on, it’s going to be up to people like CodeRGV and all of these out-of-the-classroom job training and fundamental readiness (organizations).
“Because if the schools aren’t doing it, and they know that we need it, I don’t want to see our community fail because we’re not adequately preparing them.”
Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that the CodeRGV teams were not the first from the Valley to compete at CodeWars.