“Like Crossfit, but with coding,” Phoenix Spark encourages Airmen interaction through computer skills

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Conrad
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Amid the click-clacking of fervent keyboard strokes and intermittent chatter that, at times, drops to low, hurried whispers when not building to loud exclamations or excited laughter is Capt. Ryan McGuire, 9th Air Refueling Squadron KC-10 Extender pilot and the director behind Phoenix Spark’s recent base-wide coding challenge.

In programming, “coding” refers to the process of designing, writing, testing, debugging, troubleshooting and maintaining the source code of computer programs. Essentially, coders write the instructions that computer programs follow.

“Historically, when we would draft ideas for new technology or processes in the Air Force, we’d have to outsource that new technology’s coding to off-base companies,” said McGuire. “Having the talent here, though, and being able to do that ourselves not only saves us money, but it also allows us to push those ideas down the pipeline faster.”

So began the coding challenge. Billed as a learning experience to which novice and avid coders alike could come and take their shot at different coding problems, the challenge Oct. 26 looked to build a reliable roster of passionate Airmen to join a team of web and app developers who would then go on to work on base projects that have the potential to impact the Air Force.

The reason for issuing an invitation to Airmen who had little or no experience with coding was because in addition to seeking those who already have technical expertise, Phoenix Spark also wants Airmen who are excited to grow and learn; who can look at a problem and instead of saying, “It’s always been like that, leave it,” says, “Let’s get to work on fixing it,” said Col. Matthew Leard, 60th Air Mobility Wing vice commander.

“The Airmen who are drawn to (Phoenix) Spark and to innovation in general are those who see things a little differently,” said Leard. “Not only that, but the generation that’s been raised with iPads in their hands are growing up, and we owe it to them to kind of take a step back and allow their ideas the space they need to be practiced and explored. No idea has ever been cheapened with an additional perspective.”

One of those additional perspectives comes in the form of Staff. Sgt. Ronald Ferguson, 821st Contingency Response Squadron small package initial communications element technician.

Ferguson, along with his nephew, Nathan Robinson, a student at Fairmont Charter School, are no strangers to coding. As a SPICE technician, Ferguson’s job entails installing and maintaining electronic communications equipment. Nathan, meanwhile, took a coding class last year as a part of his 5th grade school curriculum.

“I think it’s awesome to see where he is at just 11 years old,” said Ferguson. “Seeing him program these little robots and software interfaces and all the projects he thinks up—I think it really speaks to where we’re going job-wise. In the coming years I see coding becoming more of like a basic job skill.”

For Nathan, his experience with coding has reaped some unexpected benefits.

“I know it doesn’t sound very cool, but it’s made me better at counting,” he said. “It’s just fun. It’s a way to make friends.”

Nathan’s comments also reveal an aspect of Phoenix Spark that, although not Spark’s overarching goal, could be said to be no less vital: Camaraderie.

“Phoenix Spark is a community,” said Ferguson. “It’s taking people with similar mindsets and having them work together. Even this group here doing this challenge—there’s this real feeling of us all being on the same page, and we all probably would never have met without Spark. It’s like Crossfit, but with coding.”

Phoenix Spark meets every Friday at 12 p.m. in building 181.

For more information, contact the Phoenix Spark office at 60amw.ps.phoenixspark@us.af.mil or 707-424-8920.