Future Leaders in Tech: Chicago Tech Academy Prepares Students for the Digital Economy
I had the pleasure of speaking to the students at the Chicago Tech Academy (CTA) this past week about my career in design and preparing themselves for a future career in design or tech. The school was started two years ago with generous private sector funding from local organizations, including the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) and CompTIA along with support from businesses like Microsoft and Cisco. The goal of the school is to help prepare students for success in college and technology-rich careers through an immersion in the entrepreneurial and tech business communities. The program also includes a double helping of English and math courses and active community involvement from industry leaders in the form of internships and mentoring programs.
Wedged between Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Italy Neighborhoods just southwest of the Loop, the neighborhood feels like it is in start-up mode as well. Bearing the scars of empty lots once home to burgeoning factories and stock yards, in recent years Pilsen has begun a resurgence—but the recent downturn gives the impression the neighborhood is on hold. The building CTA occupies was an old elementary school, and when the next freshman class begins this fall the CTA will soon outgrow its facilities.
The energy in the school feels different than any other inner city school I have ever visited. The students are actively engaged in their own education, and despite many of them having challenges at home, most bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the school each day. I was greeted by about eight or nine sophomore boys (CTA’s first graduating class in 2013) who took me to a classroom to get better acquainted. I was really impressed by their interest in web design and technology and by their thoughtful questions. We spoke for about 30 minutes about creating a career path in design and, of course, a bit about the Chicago Bulls chances this year as well as the incomplete feeling we all share after the Bear’s disappointing loss to the Packers this past January.
After the short “meet and greet,” I was taken to the assembly to give a presentation to the school. I spent about 25 minutes talking about the company I work for and took the students through a variety of our most recent projects. I ended the talk by sharing six pieces of advice I was given along the way, but would have loved to have had back in high school when I was thinking about going to college to get a degree in architecture. This advice can apply to almost any student beginning a career in design, or really any field for that matter:
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Living in fear of making mistakes prevents you from taking chances. If you don’t take chances, you never learn what works and what doesn’t. If you want to learn something about yourself and what you are capable of, you have to realize that making mistakes is part of the process and often times is the only way to learn.
- Don’t edit yourself
In high school, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remove what is unique about you, fit in and be just like everyone else. If you look at some of the greatest leaders and innovators in the world however, the one thing that stands out most about them is their uniqueness. Don’t be afraid to be different than other people; it is that difference that makes you unique and is what will make you most valuable to other people as you become an adult.
- Get away from the computer!
It might seem counter-intuitive when you are learning how to use computers to create websites and apps, but it’s important to keep in mind that the computer is just a tool. Like any tool, it has its limitations. Often times when you are trying to solve a problem, your solution might lie away from the computer. Keeping a sketchbook is one of the best ways to start problem solving away from the computer whenever you get stuck. It doesn’t matter if you are sketching, taking notes or pasting in clippings of things that interest you, a sketchbook is one example of a tool, like the computer, that can be used to help solve problems.
- Keep it simple
Probably one of the biggest challenges as a young designer is keeping your ideas simple. It’s easy to start throwing in every bell and whistle, but it’s important to keep in mind that if you want an idea to stick, if you want people to remember it, you need to focus on what is the most important aspect of your idea and subtract anything else that diminishes from its clarity.
- Find inspiration
Chicago is one of the world’s greatest cultural destinations. From world-class museums, architecture, music, food and cultural events, there are countless ways to find inspiration a short walk or bus ride from the school.
- It’s the “why”, not the “how” or “what”
Credit for this piece of advice goes to Simon Sinek, one of my favorite speakers at TED. Sinek talks about how great leaders lead and inspire others. I modified this piece of advice to be more about how to realize your own goals and better direct yourself by following one simple idea—understanding why we do something is infinitely more important than how or what we do. If we can tell people why we’re creating a new business, product or website, people will be more likely to follow our ideas than if we explain the “how” or “what” instead.For example, Apple started out as a computer manufacturer like many other companies, but why has Apple been so successful at creating new products outside what once was its primary business, when the likes of Dell and Gateway fail? It’s because when Apple creates a new product we know why they are doing it. They believe they can make a product better by challenging the status quo and delivering a new vision for how a product should look/feel and function. Does anyone remember Dell’s MP3 player or Gateway’s HDTV? Those products failed not because Dell and Gateway weren’t capable of making them but because they never explained why they made them. As you start thinking about your next project, or even what you plan to do after high school, always think about the “why” first. If you understand the “why,” the “how” and the “what” will come naturally.
- Find a mentor
I didn’t find my first mentor until I was 27 years old, but it wasn’t too late. I had teachers who made a great impression on me, but I never consciously thought about finding a mentor until he found me in graduate school. John Brumfield was a successful ad man back in the days when Madison Ave ruled the advertising world. He was not particularly adept with computers (I taught him how to use ‘cut and paste’), but I met him while studying my MFA in New Media Design at Art Center College in Pasadena. John had a wit and eloquence that could keep a classroom of art students on the edge of their seats while he dissected the symbolism behind visual language. John taught me how to think more critically as a visual designer, and I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am today without him. Mentors are hard to come by, but it’s important to actively try and seek someone out who is perhaps 10 or 20 years ahead of you on the career path you would like to follow.
After the presentation, the students peppered me with more great questions about getting into the design field and finding internships. I am looking forward to seeing the school grow as it adds its next freshman class this Fall, and I am excited to work with these students, help them find a place in the design field of their choice and watch them grow into our future leaders in design and technology.