Grand prize winner Theo Patt with Chris DiBona, director of open source at Google.
Ever known a kid who’s itching to grow up and make changes in the world? Fourteen-year-old programmer Theo Patt roots for those kids because he can identify with that restlessness. Now he’s finding the chance to make an impact comes around almost as frequently as updated software.
Even at age 10, Theo was ready to get on with more important grown-up activities. Whenever Apple staged a product rollout, he listened to co-founder Steve Jobs’ presentation. He soon realized a Wikipedia article lacked content on his hero, so he added information about the company’s dividend announcement. “It was a powerful moment when I realized that I was making a difference to the Wikipedia project,” he says.
The next year, Theo moved from editing content to helping Wikimedia (Wikipedia’s funding arm) with programming and robot issues. No one in the volunteer community guessed his age, and he found freedom in being valued for his contributions.
Then last year, the rising White Station High ninth grader ran across an email describing the Google Code-in 2013 contest for teens ages 13 to 17. That’s when being a Millenial kid could only be a plus. “The grand prize is a trip to Google headquarters?” he said. “Sign me up!”
The search engine giant offered the international contest to get teens engaged in open-source coding. Google picked 10 open-source companies, including Wikipedia, to work with contestants. Each organization evaluated student work and chose two grand-prize winners. Twenty winners would receive an all-expense paid, four-day trip to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Last November, Theo plunged in, along with 336 other teens from 46 countries. For seven weeks, he solved bugs and programming problems for Wikimedia. His digital thumbprint shows in a tool that connects mobile phone users to content in their own languages. “One of my favorite tasks was revamping the ‘other languages’ feature on the mobile Wikipedia. I added features and noticeably reduced page load time.”
Theo’s work was rewarded with the grand prize, and he flew with his mother, Annabel, to California in April. Call it the ultimate fantasy trip. He was struck by the “massiveness” of the office compound, projects-in-development, and cuisine at on-site cafeterias. “We saw their self-driving car. I met with engineers and with my mentor from Wikimedia. Google put a lot of care into the whole thing.” He returned home with a Chromebook laptop, Nexus 5 phone, and bags of T-shirt swag.
International winners of Google’s Code-in 2013 contest at company headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Winners came from the U.S., Poland, Australia, and India. The teens explored San Francisco on Segways, indulged in some playful Wi-Fi hacking, and hatched projects together.
Theo and his mom also took a side trip to Wikimedia Foundation, where he met employees he had worked with on past projects. “It’s great to make a difference in the world, for the billions who use Wikipedia and its software, and to contribute to the world’s knowledge.”
Theo’s also a bit of a math wunderkind, having already completed Algebra II coursework. Though a standout in math and programming, he hopes to avoid being pigeonholed. “I don’t think you should do just one thing and have that be all you do. I’m doing a whole bunch of things because I think that’s what being a kid is all about.”
Recently, he directed a school play and often practices viola. He credits his family with allowing him to explore new interests. His father, Iddo, is a filmmaker; Annabel, an educator and writer. The family also includes Theo’s 11-year old twin sister and a brother.
From a work station in the family room, the teen launches programming adventures, works on film projects, and corresponds with friends around the globe. He’s even delving into philosophy and “puzzling over the definition of happiness.” Starting with one edit to a Wikipedia article, this Can-do Kid has come a long way. And his explorations have just begun.
THE REAL SCOOP
MUSICAL NOTE: Plays viola in school orchestra
TOP SECRET: His new, user-friendly tool debuts soon
FAVORITE SNACKS: Bagels and pickles
— Stephanie Painter is the author of Liz Tames a Dragon (and her Anger), a picture book for children ages 4-8. • brightkidsbooks