#Girl Power: Meet Sarah, our talented young coder. Starting from ground zero,  she has come a long way – after all, she clinched an Honourable mention at the National Olympiad in Informatics (NOI) in March 2018, in just less than six months of learning to code. How did she do it? Read more from our plucky student as she shares with us her journey with coding and how it has impacted her life.

Q: Tell us how you got started with coding. What do you like most about it?
Sarah: It was Coding Lab that sparked my interest in coding. In the past, I’d never imagined using a computer for anything more than a Google search. But after a few lessons at Coding Lab, as I began to take my first steps into the Python programming language, I fell head over heels in love with coding. My interest surprised even myself! My teacher Mr. Foo is truly inspirational. As I  started with no coding experience, he guided me with infinite patience and would be more than happy to fill the board with diagrams and explanations just to make sure that I completely understood a concept. His enthusiasm really got me into coding- passion for coding is contagious! I started out with the Python meets Math course and I think it’s a great course for easing complete beginners like me into computers and coding. After you complete the course, you’ll have enough programming knowledge to read and understand code, pick up new languages and, most importantly, explore things through coding.

Sarah and her family, trekking in the USA
Sarah, with her family, trekking in the USA

Q: It took you less than six months to participate in your first coding competition. How did you manage that?
Sarah: Well, The one thing I like most about coding is the freedom and possibility it presents. The fundamentals of coding are quite simple, but there’s so much that you can do just using variables, functions, and loops! I understood this when I was learning Python, but only truly appreciated it when I began learning algorithms and C++ to take part in the NOI. Mr. Foo started teaching me sorting algorithms about halfway through my December break, and I still remember my delight when I realized that I was beginning to explore coding at deeper and very relevant level. That’s why I decided to try out the NOI as a personal challenge. It was tough, but fun!

The National Olympiad in Informatics (NOI), held at the NUS School of Computing
The National Olympiad in Informatics (NOI), held at the NUS School of Computing

“After learning about graphs and data structures, I saw how coding can be used for modelling and organizing real-world information- just thinking about it makes me excited!”

Q: That’s really impressive! Not many would dare to compete so quickly! How did you feel about it?
Sarah: Well, I think I just felt that there was nothing to lose! I was definitely a little nervous before the competition, but I always saw it as just another stepping stone to an even better understanding of coding. I faced a steep learning curve while preparing for the competition, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Sarah, receiving her award at the NOI competition in March 2018
Sarah, receiving her award at the NOI competition in March 2018

Q: Now that the competition is over, what else do you think you want to do with coding?
Sarah: I’ve really just brushed the surface of computer science. Coding is really a language, and just like someone learning a second spoken language, I’m still learning how to express myself and get my ideas down in clean (and readable!) code. I know that this only comes with practice and experience, so in the meantime, I plan to continue my journey into the awesome world of algorithms. I really want to be able to understand algorithms on a high level so that I can comfortably modify them and use them to solve complex problems. I hope that someday I can even design sophisticated algorithms myself! Apart from that, I also want to explore coding for modelling and simulations. That also makes me very excited.

Q: Designing algorithms – that’s fantastic. Could you share with us why you think learning to code is so important?
Sarah: Coding is an important skill to have not just because people with a coding background earn higher salaries- more than that, coding gives you power over the technology that will only play an increasingly significant role in your life. Speaking from a teenager’s perspective, there’s never a day when I don’t use my phone or computer. Coding also opens your mind to a different way of thinking.

“I find myself applying the logic and analytical skills I’ve picked up in coding both in school and in everyday life.”

Q: Apart from coding, what else do you like to do in your spare time? What’s a typical day for you like; how do you unwind at home after school?
Sarah: Well, to be honest, coding has slowly become the hobby I really enjoy- but I still love baking! When I’m not studying or coding, I’m usually in the kitchen covered in flour or busy scouring blogs for recipes. I’m also learning tai chi fan, which I find a fun and challenging exercise. And yes! fishkeeping is one of my hobbies and I rear Discus fish at home.

Discus FIsh - One of Sarah's hobbies (Believe it or not!)
Rearing Discus Fish – One of Sarah’s hobbies (Believe it or not!)

Q: Coding, baking, fishkeeping – way cool! so what do you think you will end up doing when you grow up?
Sarah: I’m still rather tentative when it comes to my career aspirations, but I really want to study math and computer science in college. And I honestly can’t imagine myself in a job unrelated to either of these fields- so maybe I’ll end up as a coder, who knows!

How Sarah unwinds: Baking cream puffs
How Sarah unwinds: Baking cream puffs

Q: We hope so too! Lastly, in the current field of STEM, there is sometimes the mistaken impression that it is ‘only for boys’. How do you think girls can be encouraged to pursue their passion in Math, Science and coding? Do you have any tips for young girls who want to code? 
Sarah: To all girls who are thinking about getting into coding, my advice is to not be afraid and try it out! It’s never too late to begin coding, and everyone- even experienced coders- has been a newbie at some point in time. If you find that you really like coding, then go ahead and explore at your own pace, and don’t forget to enjoy every moment! Starting to learn how to code is the hardest part.

“You’ll definitely encounter problems and get frustrated at times, but with patience, there’s nothing that you can’t achieve. There’s no one who can’t or shouldn’t learn how to code.”

Also- speaking from experience, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the troves of information online. Don’t let this get the better of you. Just take things step by step. Break down a hard concept into bite-sized chunks. If you need a couple days to process something, that’s perfectly fine! Coding is a lifelong journey. Personally, even though I’ve learned a lot in the past few months I only feel that the more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t know.

“It’s weird but true- so just be sure take the time to appreciate what you’re learning, and don’t be intimidated by the vastness of coding, because that’s where all the possibility lies, and that’s what makes coding beautiful!”

Sarah is currently a JC1 student at Hwa Chong International. She attended Python Meets Math class from 2017 – 2018 and received an honourable mention at the 2018 NOI competition, in less than six months after she picked up coding.