photographs by Heather Simmons
Inquisitive and eager, Keith Mattix II is the first to arrive for a web application development workshop at TechCamp Memphis. As he unpacks his laptop, professional computer programmers much older than he stream into the classroom at Southwest Tennessee Community College (STCC). Programmers and enthusiasts have come to learn about Ruby on Rails, the programming language used to build Twitter.
Once the seats are filled, the ninth-grader stands up and takes a deep breath. Finding his mother in the audience, he has a surge of confidence. Then, he spearheads a 45-minute presentation that answers many of the programmer’s questions. Though Keith is the youngest presenter in TechCamp’s history, he is also a Ruby on Rails web developer and a Java programmer.
“I didn’t think I would be selected because of my age,” says the 14-year-old. “I felt privileged that they allowed me to stand at that level and share the knowledge I have with the business community. Lots of employers are looking for Ruby on Rails experience.”
Because of his expertise, Keith’s reputation is growing in the Memphis tech community. “I attribute my learning Ruby on Rails to people I’ve met in this area, particularly Gerald and Julia Lovel. The Lovels, who ran Memphis Tech Corner workshops, took me by the hand and gave me great resources.” In fact, they later hired Keith to do testing and server work for their software company, Custom Ware Solutions.
Since age 8, Keith has seized every opportunity to learn about computer programming, investing some 1,500 hours in studying or creating code. He regularly attends Java, Python, and PHP user groups and is currently majoring in web application development at STCC. He also works part-time for Custom Ware, all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA at Germantown High School.
Keith’s bedroom is a no-nonsense haven for productivity. Shunning teen posters, his walls instead are covered with a whiteboard and chalkboard. He logs a 10-hour work week from here, using three computers and two laptops.
No kid is an island and he couldn’t have come so far without his parent’s support. A science teacher at Arlington Middle, mom Brenda drives her son to user group meetings in the evenings. Keith tackles calculus with help from his father, Keith, an electrician at Southwest Tennessee Community College and a “math genius,” says Keith.
Frustration led Brenda to open the door to programming for her son. He spent hours playing video games, so she challenged him to “figure out how the games work.” She printed out binary code, which he soon memorized; he learned HTML by age 10. “We saw that he had potential,” says Brenda. “So when he was 12, we hired a FedEx software engineer to coach him.” The tutor couldn’t keep pace, but Keith kept growing.
“When I get into my programming mojo, it’s hard for me to stop,” Keith admits. “I do projects on the side to keep myself abreast of new things that come out in terms of programming.” Now he is developing a social network, ventcenter.com, to give folks a chance to vent their frustrations. Eventually, he hopes to become a corporate lawyer specializing in software copyright law.
With vision and energy, Keith joins others in “raising the tech tide.” That’s the slogan GEEKMemphis uses to promote tech awareness. “Memphis has the potential to become a technology powerhouse. It’s not just Silicon Valley,” says Keith. “I don’t think people realize all the different resources available here to people who are trying to become programmers.”