Foothill Technology High School

Opportunity takes Blake McAlister’s computer science to England

Senior Blake McAlister has always been interested in technology, since the days he spent disassembling alarm clocks to discover their components, only to further develop his passion when he was accepted into Foothill. Then when opportunity presented itself, McAlister would seize the chance of an internship at age 15.

McAlister’s roots in technology could be traced back to his childhood, however his interest in computers started when he was in sixth grade.

“[In sixth grade], I thought, ‘Coding was so cool!,’ and that’s when I first got my first computer,” he said. “So with that, I wrote very basic code and would write out a message and hit send, and a little message would pop up on the computer saying ‘Hello,’ or something really dumb like that. But I thought it was the coolest thing, and through that it has just progressed.”

Although computer coding is where McAlister first began, he would later discover that his passion would truly lie within computer engineering, the design of components that go into electronic devices.

McAlister uses electronic learning books that teach him how to build circuits. Credit: Gabrialla Cockerell/ The Foothill Dragon Press

“[In eighth grade], I was cleaning out a computer storage room in my middle school, and […] there [were] tons of old, old computer parts, and I learned about all the different parts and [I would] go home and research, and figure out what they all did,” he said.

“The computers were just going to be scrapped, they were pretty junky, so I took parts from all different ones and built them all together and built this crazy computer. It actually sparked a couple of times, and almost caught fire. That was interesting. Then as the years gone by, I built a couple of others. It’s been fun.”

“I kind of realized that coding wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. I’d code, and it would kind of get monotonous after a while, just sitting there at the computer typing, typing, typing,” he continued. “I’ve realized that computer engineering is more or less what I want to do. That allows me to play with all the parts and stuff, but also write a little bit of code that could work on the parts, so it kind of takes both aspects of it.”

When learning about computers, some challenges that McAlister encountered was learning all of the terminology.

“Wrapping my head around that was tricky. But really with computers, it’s more or less playing around with it, and if it doesn’t work, you try something different, or you go online and find something that does work,” he said. “I was able to overcome stuff, but trying to figure out what it all meant was the hardest part.”

Thanks to his aunt’s connections and his skills in technology, he attained a two-week internship in Cambridge, England during the summer between his sophomore and junior year.

“So I flew over there, all by myself at 15 years old, and I worked two weeks at an international company called ‘Viva’, writing programs for them,” he said. “But just thinking how I didn’t really know much, but there [were] so many opportunities. I guess working over there and designing programs over there, it just encouraged me even more to work with computers.”

 

 

McAlister first began with basic projects, working with C# and a little bit of JavaScript in Microsoft Visual Studio, creating a service bus.

“[A service bus is] a program that will take information from one program, and information from another program, and allow the two programs to talk with each other,” he said.

“So after that, I worked on writing code for an information radiator, which is basically a board they have in the office, which is running off a Raspberry Pi computer, and that board would display any information they wanted. I had to code basically a lot of C++, and little bit of Flash in there, and just HTML to break it all up. It was basically a live web page.”

This information radiator would display the workers’ projects and their progress, which McAlister would use to encourage them.

“But the definite challenge hit where I was trying to create a live time graph, so taking that information I talked about previously, they entered the percentage, and I was trying to create a graph that would actively be plotted, so you could see a trajectory and estimate when the project would be completed,” he said.

Senior Blake McAlister created this circuit with LED lights. McAlister coded the microprocessor that displays a light show. Credit: Gabrialla Cockerell/ The Foothill Dragon Press

“At the time I had no idea how to even begin with that, since it was such an overwhelming thing. So through that, I just went to my mentor, and he was like ‘Oh, I’ve never seen this before.’ So I made the best effort I could, but that project was just a little bit above my level.”

Although McAlister got to work on various projects during his internship, he also had the opportunity to celebrate his 16th birthday in England.

“How much better could a sixteenth be? Especially when you get to go all around London doing tours, and then the next day you go to a concert that goes well into the night,” he said. “The worst thing was coming back from that and going into a four-hour meeting and falling asleep through half of it. So, that was just an experience there.”

McAlister suggests pursuing computer science if you have an interest in it.

“Just go for it, really. If you want to go into computer science, I would totally recommend getting a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, they’re fun little boards to play around and code on,” he suggests.

“Look online for different websites and coding courses. There’s a ton that you could pay five bucks for and go and they’ll teach you how to code simple things. Even if you can’t pay for coding or you don’t want an Arduino, [there are] tons of YouTube channels are out there where they talk about tech, and watch them and kind of get inspired.

“Don’t give up, and if you have the opportunities like I did with England or building computers, or writing simple codes, totally do it, because if you really want to, it’s really fun.”

“Don’t be afraid of computers, they’re fun to play around with, and once you really get to play around with, they’re so many awesome things you can do with them.”

–Sinjin Serrano

Featured Photo Credit: Gabrialla Cockerell/The Foothill Dragon Press