A few weeks ago, I was appointed to the board of trustees of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the state-funded residential high school I attended in Aurora, IL. This was a huge deal for me. I’ve always credited IMSA with giving me my start – I had my first significant experiences in computer science and the web, but also in customer service and responsibility there. Lessons like these are hard to come by, especially when you’re 15.
IMSA truly transforms student’s lives. It opens up the world for kids like me who had knowledge and interest but was lacking the resources and community to help me take it to the next level. Before IMSA, I knew one or two people at my local high school who were into programming. It was kind of a black art, and no one really understood what was possible. When I got to IMSA, there were dozens of others who shared my interest and we had about six courses in computer science and related topics. And because IMSA students live together in residence halls on campus, we could help each other, and we formed a tight knit community around our natural curiosity and passion for discovery. We even ran the computer network on campus, and it was during that time that I got to experience firsthand what it meant to be responsible to users.
IMSA gave us Wednesdays off and matched us up with labs for mentorships so we could do independent work with real engineers and scientists. At my mentorship at Fermilab, they had me building web servers and evaluating browsers before most people knew what the Internet was. And I even got to sit in the server room to do my work occasionally, and watch as all the physics experiments got their results from farms of networked, low-cost UNIX workstations, a computing trend that would soon be called ‘grid’ or ‘cloud’ computing. Today’s internet seems so interactive, but the reality is that a lot of what happens on the web is still processed in batch by this type of system, and you only interact with the results of the work done by farms of low-cost hardware that pre-compute every answer before you’ve even asked the question.
Students touched by IMSA have done such tremendous things, it’s truly humbling. Friends like Russ Simmons, who founded Yelp, Steve Chen, who founded YouTube, and Dan Huddle, who founded Xanga come to mind, but there are so many others doing great things in biology, medicine, business, and the humanities, that it’s sometimes hard to keep track. Good thing we have Facebook and Linkedin.
I had my first IMSA board meeting last week, and we voted on some important new programs I am really excited about seeing come to life. It is truly satisfying to be directly involved in IMSA’s future, since it was such an important part of my past. Given this week is the American Thanksgiving holiday, I think it’s a great time for all of us to think about all the places and people who’ve brought us to where we are today. Thank you IMSA.