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Todd Thibodeaux on the future of Chicago’s tech industry — and the new graduates poised to lead it

Todd Thibodeaux

Todd Thibodeaux

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In 2009, I met a young man named Christopher Hayes. At that time, he was a shy freshman set to begin his high school career at the Chicago Tech Academy, a brand new, four-year high school with a curriculum focused on developing technology and entrepreneurial skills. And this past Saturday, Christopher — along with his 67 classmates — was part of ChiTech’s inaugural graduating class.

The school began as a dream, conceptualized by local tech entrepreneur Terry Howerton and education wunderkind Matt Hancock. The two wanted to establish a place that would equip its students with the technology skills and business experience needed to compete in today’s competitive job market. At the time, my organization, CompTIA, was looking for a related local philanthropic cause we could get behind, something that fostered the importance of critical skills training and education. ChiTech was just what we were looking for.

As a founding sponsor of the school, we’ve had the privilege of witnessing firsthand all the admirable feats the staff and students have accomplished. Through apprenticeship and mentorship programs, students have met and presented in front of execs from Microsoft, Cisco and Groupon. Through the rigorous technical curriculum, they have learned in-demand coding and mark-up languages such as HTML5, iOS, Android and CSS3. Through entrepreneurial coursework, 15- and 16-year-olds are writing business plans for iPhone apps — and in one student’s case, presenting her plans at the White House.

The most exciting part, however, is not the long list of what the graduating class has achieved in merely four years. It’s the anticipation of the game-changing projects these teenagers are going to pioneer in the future. In a time when our entire country is facing an IT skills gap and a shortage of workers with tech training, ChiTech is actively doing something about the problem.

Christopher is a perfect example of this. Having become his professional mentor and friend over the last four years, I’ve been lucky enough to watch him develop his software development skills. He’s also a superstar in the Genesys Works program. This not-for-profit organization has a proven record of enabling inner-city high school students to succeed as corporate technology professionals. Christopher earned a placement at the Private Bank and will continue his work there again this summer. Before that, for two summers, I hired him as an intern.

This past weekend, I saw Christopher again, this time in a cap and gown, diploma in hand. I can report that he is no longer a quiet freshman, but a confident, successful young man with a limitless future ahead of him. On behalf of everyone at CompTIA, I want to congratulate him and all of classmates on a wonderful four years. We’re all so proud, and can’t wait to see the great things you do next.

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