Jaheem Finnie, Oakland Cohort 4 Hidden Genius Alum, experienced many ‘firsts’ in the program. From taking public transportation on his own to learning how to code, Jaheem shares how he grew both personally and professionally while participating in our Intensive Immersion Program. Along the way, Jaheem found his calling of becoming a video game developer while visiting Electronic Arts headquarters on a business trip where he was “blown away.” Now inspired more than ever, Jaheem is majoring in Computer Science at Virginia State University and is laser-focused on becoming a programmer in the gaming industry.
How did you first learn about The Hidden Genius Project?
I learned about The Hidden Genius Project from Malik Poole, Oakland Cohort 3 Hidden Genius Alum, who told me about the program while we were both in the NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) Program in Pittsburg, CA. He shared the mission statement and explained how I could learn more about technology and other things in the program. Malik told me that I should definitely apply as it is a more interactive and hands-on program, plus you can get a stipend too.
What was your experience in the program like?
I was 15 years old and entering my sophomore year when I first joined the program. I remember how nervous I was because I didn’t know what to expect and had very little experience with coding. Since I lived in Brentwood, CA, this was also my first experience taking BART by myself to attend programming in Oakland.
After the first week, I started to become comfortable in the program, especially with understanding how the schedule works and getting to know the other Geniuses in my cohort. Everyone was coming together as a family which made me less nervous.
Overall, The Hidden Genius Project really put their core values and mission into play when it came to the program and the Geniuses. One of the biggest things that changed my life was having the opportunity to visit the largest tech companies in the world such as Google, Twitch, and Facebook right here in the Bay Area. Being able to meet the professionals who worked inside of these companies was cool because they gave me a glimpse of what my career could be like there. My favorite business trip is when we went to Electronic Arts (EA) as this was my first time being at a video game company and I was blown away. I’m really into video games and the employees were sharing how I could get into this field based on the necessary skills and degrees, including ways to apply. This inspired me to major in Computer Science at Virginia State University and pursue a career in video game development.
This program also showed me how to be a professional because they pushed us to be responsible and to always check our emails for upcoming opportunities and assignments. All of the assignments had a stipend attached to them so it motivated me to complete and turn them in on time. Also, if I ever had any questions about any certain projects I knew I could reach out to the educators for help. I know I got a better experience out of the program by connecting with my mentors like Hodari Tourè [Director of Innovation and Curriculum] for support and resources.
Describe the app you designed during your time in the Immersion Program.
The prototype app I created was Disable Connections, which is a platform that helps people with disabilities search and find resources in their local communities. The inspiration for this app idea came after I attended a conference about advocating for disability rights and access. I heard stories from people with disabilities who shared how hard it was for them to find resources once they became adults.
Features in this app included a login page, search bar, and a forum that allowed users to build a community in the app through a chat function. It took me a while to program the app because we used Ruby on Rails, which was a new coding language for me. Hodari supported me a lot with debugging my app and he shared tutorial videos to help me learn the code. In the end, it felt good to finish the app and I was happy with the way it turned out.
How is The Hidden Genius Project different from other mentorship or training experiences that you have been involved in?
This program provided me with way more hands-on learning experiences. From the projects I worked on to the companies we visited, I experienced so many interesting and interactive opportunities in this program. It was always nice to have professionals either come visit us or we visit them to learn about their careers path and what it would take to be successful.
Another great part about the program is the stipends you earn. Out of all the programs I’ve been a part of, none of them offer stipends like how The Hidden Genius Project does. Other programs just offer you the education, which is good, but receiving a stipend was pretty important for me. This program essentially gave me the experience to see what it’s like to work at a job, as The Hidden Genius Project pays you for the work you do in the program.
What specific skills learned in The Hidden Genius Project have been most beneficial for you?
Being more responsible was another great skill I learned in the program. All of the mentors encouraged us to stay on top of our work and take ownership with completing assignments on time. They also pushed us to make sound and responsible decisions in life, especially when interacting with other people. To this day, being responsible has been a major trait for me in life, school, and internships.
What was the most important thing you gained on a personal level (development, relationship, community, etc.) from participating in The Hidden Genius Project?
Personally, I think networking was the most important thing I gained from this program as I still have important connections that I use even after I graduated from the program. Learning how to network has taught me how valuable communication and following up is as I got to meet new people. This program has definitely increased my ability to communicate and as a result, has made me better at networking with people.
How do you think your path might have been different if you hadn’t participated in The Hidden Genius Project?
At first, I was a bit shy being in a space far from home but over time I grew personally. Without this program, I believe that my coding skills would not have been as developed as they are today. The Hidden Genius Project gave me a lot of confidence in pursuing the type of career I want, and provided me with the experience to be successful. They also helped me with my ability to seek out opportunities that will help me gain even more experience.
In what ways have you remained involved with The Hidden Genius Project since completing the 15-month Intensive Immersion program?
I still stay on top of my emails as they constantly send out messages about career opportunities, events, and scholarships. It’s great as The Hidden Genius Project is always willing to give me a letter of recommendation whenever I need it. I also keep in touch with the Beyond12 program by having monthly phone call meetings with my college advisors and mentors.
In 2018, I was able to participate in a Youth Leadership Summit conference at Salesforce. It was an amazing experience that allowed me to network with people from all sorts of companies associated with Salesforce. I even had the chance to be an intern at Electronic Art’s Spawnpoint internship program. It was the perfect opportunity for me to explore my goal in working in video game development. This internship had us working as a team with other students to design and pitch video games in front of EA employees which was really cool. Besides creating video games, we also had the chance to explore their headquarters. Overall it was a fun program, especially during the last week, as we got to do a lot of outdoor activities and were given two free video games. This is the closest I had ever felt to working as a professional for something I was so interested in and I’m thankful The Hidden Genius Project reached out to me for this opportunity.
If you could talk to yourself just before you applied, what is one thing you would say?
I would tell myself to be more engaged and relaxed, especially towards the end of the program.
What words of encouragement do you have for future Geniuses?
No matter how tough things may seem you will always have the support you need around you. Also, never be afraid to speak up and ask questions.