The summer after Caleb Weaver’s junior year of high school, he attended a seminar about diversity and, later that night, lay awake in his bed dreaming up how he could fight issues of inequality.
Having taught himself to write computer code at a young age, he wanted to make computer science education more accessible to any youth who were interested, regardless of socioeconomic background.
His organization Convert to Code was born. The group hosts no-cost coding workshops at community spaces and businesses around Lancaster taught by Weaver, his code-enthusiast friends, local web developers and college students.
“We want to plug kids into the thriving tech scene that’s here but hard to find,” Weaver said.
Now a sophomore at Stanford University, Weaver, 19, and close friend Danae Martin, who attends Vanderbilt University, built Convert to Code during their senior year at Manheim Central High School. After a year of planning, they put on their first Convert to Code workshop a month after graduating high school in the summer of 2017.
Convert to Code’s most recent workshop was held on Sept. 15 at Benefix, a Lancaster-based health care tech company where Weaver has been an intern since early summer.
Stanford allows students to take up to six academic quarters “off” while remaining enrolled, according to Weaver. He took that opportunity to extend his full-time paid internship at Benefix past summer vacation and has been working as part of Benefix’s team of web engineers based in Lancaster, Colorado and India. Weaver plans to return to Stanford’s campus come winter.
The Business Journal talked with Weaver after the latest Convert to Code workshop to hear about the Lancaster tech scene and why kids should learn how to code.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What attracted you to Benefix?
I was really looking for a small startup for my first year after college so I could learn. It’s really difficult to learn when you’re at a bigger company, where it’s like: Here’s a project that doesn’t really matter. It seemed like Benefix was addressing something that was a real issue, that they were doing really good work. And they reached out to me the day after I applied.
What have you been working on at your internship?
I got to build an e-signature feature. A couple of insurance carriers who were prospective clients said they would come on board once we could offer e-signatures for applications for health insurance benefits. I was asked to tackle it, and I got to see my work go live on the site to offer to clients.
Tell me about your first year at Stanford.
I loved it a lot. It was where I wanted to go since I was very young. It was my first time that far west, on my own. I learned so much just about myself and the way the world works. Stanford places a huge emphasis on diversity. I got to meet so many incredible people who have done so many incredible things. It’s very easy to lose yourself and feel very small and inadequate, so you can’t be overly competitive. You have to be collaborative, otherwise you will continue to feel like you’re failing. That was something that was very difficult for me to learn in my first year.
Did you feel pressure to find an internship at one of the major tech companies based near Stanford in Silicon Valley?
Stanford’s network and alumni have some major connections with those big companies. I don’t think it’s necessarily pressure on students, but it is an expectation. It was funny to talk to my friends at other schools who worked at old high school jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at Stanford that wasn’t even an option. You needed to find a real internship at one of these companies, or you’re wasting a summer. It started to burn me out toward the middle of the year. I wanted everything that Benefix is: I wanted a small startup that’s focused on addressing a real issue, and they’re in my hometown. It was perfect.
What do you hope to bring back to campus from your internship?
First and foremost is awesome connections. My co-workers are awesome people who I’d love to stay connected with. On top of that, I’ve gotten to work on a real web application, ship real features and find real fixes to real problems. I have worked very closely with the other web developer in Lancaster, so to have that kind of attention for six to seven months and to ask him questions and get personal answers has taught me a lot. I learned more in the first three months of this internship then I did with four computer science classes at Stanford in my first year.
Convert to Code’s next workshop is a “free-hack session” at the Candy Factory in Lancaster on Sunday, Oct. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. Weaver and the Convert to Code team are also planning a “Holiday Hack-a-thon,” tentatively scheduled for Dec. 15 at the Listrak HQ in Lititz. More details at convert2code.com.
How did the Convert to Code workshop at Benefix on Sept. 15 go?
It was to-date probably the best one. It was also very exciting to be there and see the progression of the organization as Danae and I get closer to achieving our vision. Matt [Ranauro, Benefix founder,] and Mike [Monteiro, chief product officer] talked with the kids, and it was so cool to see everyone excited and engaging with them.
Tell me the story of Convert to Code.
We’re hoping to become a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit soon. To date, we’ve had 14 workshops, about one a month. Basically what we’re trying to do is address this lack of computer science curriculum at different education levels in Lancaster County. At Manheim Central, we had two CS classes, and we were considered to be a school with a strong computer science curriculum. We just wanted to provide middle school and high school students a place to learn about something they’re interested in.
We do everything for free. We want our workshops to be accessible to everyone. And for us, they’ve been free, too. Places like The Candy Factory, Millersville University and Benefix have been generous enough to donate the space, and developers will donate their time to instruct.
How were you able to plan workshops during your freshman year at college?
Danae and I scoured Lancaster County for a team to take over. We actually settled on someone we knew from Manheim – Gabe Stewart – and brought him on board as soon as we could that first summer. It was all a learning experience for us because we had only hosted two workshops before we went away to college. And he took it and ran with it. Gabe became head of operations during that first year, and he was a rockstar. He did nine or 10 workshops by himself, and we helped him plan and kept in touch with him. Now he’s at college, but about four other high schoolers have gotten involved, too.
Do you think this idea would’ve worked in any other community?
I don’t think it would’ve flourished this way in Silicon Valley near Stanford. I think Convert to Code has a foothold now so that it can grow in Lancaster. I think what’s allowed us to survive as a community organization for over a year now using almost no money is a very Lancaster County-specific thing.
Do you think Convert to Code has lived up to its core values of accessibility and reaching different groups of people in Lancaster?
I want to say it has. We’ve had between 100-150 students so far across 22 school districts in Central Pennsylvania. It’s also open to adults, too, if they’re interested.
People have said we could easily turn this into a for-profit venture, but that’s not what we want to do.
How do you plan to expand once you’re an established 501(c)(3)?
We hope to run a couple of rounds of fundraising, ramp up marketing efforts, pay our teachers and expand to new spaces. Hopefully one day with funding, we can have our own space, our own computers, and all you have to do is show up. And down the road, we’d like to start building in-school curriculums and raising money to help schools build infrastructure for computer science and getting wi-fi.
Do you see yourself coming back here after you graduate to continue to work with Convert to Code or Benefix?
That’s something I’ve been bouncing around my mind, especially if Convert to Code lasts over the next two years and even longer. It’d be tough to walk away from. I think that’s also where Benefix falls too. There is a very high probability that I will come back to grow Convert to Code in some capacity. Maybe I’ll be a board member.