Future Coders Get a Peek Behind the Curtain at Warner Bros. Studios

By S.C. Stuart,  PC Magazine

Warner Bros. Studios recently hosted 30 middle school girls from STEAM:CODERS, a nonprofit that works with schools and communities in low-income areas. We tagged along for a day of workshops on machine learning, robotics, game engines, and one big surprise.

At Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, technicians and staff volunteers did last-minute checks on VR demo stations and the snack situation before buses carrying 30 middle school girls from three, Pasadena-area schools rolled onto the lot.

Some teens instantly pounced on the technology setups, grabbing an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, eager to try new stuff. Others gazed out from the large picture windows overlooking the vast studio backlot. They knew Warner Bros. was famous for the eight Harry Potter movies, Wonder Woman and—as they could see from the giant black-clad statue in the lobby—The Dark Knight. But despite living less than 15 miles away, very few of them had ever been to this part of town, let alone inside a Hollywood studio.

The all-day event was organized by STEAM:CODERS, a nonprofit that works with schools and communities at or below the poverty line. All events are free to attend and include hot lunch/snacks, transportation, and a STEAM:CODERS T-shirt. Warner Bros. is a corporate sponsor, and opens its doors a few times a year to different STEAM:CODERS groups; some are co-ed while others are just for girls.

Warner Bros. CTO Vicky Colf sits on the STEAM:CODERS board. “When I was 7, my father—who was in the US Air Force—brought home a huge computer from Texas Instruments, and taught me how to program in a proprietary form of BASIC,” she told me. “It took me a long time to realize that the experience I had growing up was unique; that it made me unafraid of technology, and so I felt both empowered, and completely comfortable, to choose tech as a career.”

Warner Bros. CTO Vicky ColfColf has been with the studio for 13 years and her team won an Emmy for their development of the entertainment industry’s first digital supply chain product, known as Digital End-to-End (DETE). Promoted to CTO in 2017, she’s now responsible for technology strategy, R&D, and providing critical business and technology intelligence and services to all business units.

The STEAM:CODERS girls got a studio tour—lounging on the famous Central Perk sofa on the Friends set, viewing storyboards from The Matrix, and riding Harry Potter broomsticks in front of green screens for the camera. But they also participated in tech workshops on machine learning, robotics, game engines, data science, and more.

“Warner Bros. has the largest content library in the world,” explained Colf. “And through this lens, we can inspire these girls into getting excited about a very wide mix of possible futures in technology.

“If she’s an introvert who prefers to sit and work quietly alone, we can tell her about careers here in cybersecurity, keeping our entertainment assets and networks safe,” Colf continued. “If she’s a real extrovert, we can show her scrum teams that work together on apps. We have a very wide range of people working on technology solutions, most of which they’ve probably never heard, or dreamed of, before coming here today.”

“Many of these kids don’t have a computer at home, and many don’t even have cable or internet access. Yet they need to have digital literacy and access just to survive in the future.”

Learning What’s Behind the Magic

As the girls split off into three different workshop groups, I sat down with Raymond Ealy, Executive Director and Founder STEAM:CODERS. He started the group in 2014 to give those from underserved communities “a bigger horizon on life,” he told me. They’ve now had over 5,000 kids come through the program.

“Many of these kids don’t have a computer at home, and many don’t even have cable or internet access. Yet they need to have digital literacy and access just to survive in the future,” said Ealy.

“Plus, these kids don’t know any scientists, mathematicians, or software engineers within their communities. By bringing them here, they get to meet people—who might look like them—doing these jobs. It all creates an opportunity in their fertile minds. They need to know what’s behind the ‘magic.’ We focus on teaching students logic, critical thinking, and problem solving.”

Ealy has 25 years of management experience in the nonprofit, financial services, and retail sectors, from Bank of America to Countrywide Financial Services. He knows how to manage and motivate a team (it was impressive watching him corral a room full of excited teenagers) and bring in heavy-hitter corporate sponsors like Warner Bros., as well as City National Bank, Union Bank, US Bank, Jacobs Engineering, and Idealab, among many others.

For Ealy, STEAM:CODERS is about fundamentally re-engineering society.

“Young people have been groomed to be perpetual consumers,” Ealy pointed out. “But we want to show them how things are created and how they can become part of that story by meeting and learning from people, as they’ll do today, here at Warner Bros., who actually make technology and entertainment.”

Harry Potter and Robots

In a nearby conference room, girls were learning how to parse incoming box office data feeds to ascertain the real-time value of a Warner Bros. entertainment property. In another space, Warner Bros. staffers walked them through how to program AR holograms with MERGE Cube.

By manipulating Cozmo bots, the teens grasped the principles of human-robot interaction, before engaging in machine-learning tasks on laptops running Google’s Teachable Machine platform. Then they all met with game designers and project management staff, who let them loose on pre-released console titles.

I can’t say whether they got to see a sneak preview of the forthcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, but let’s just say there were a few wands on the table.

At each workshop, it was noticeable that Warner Bros. staffers were asking the STEAM:CODERS questions and vice versa. It wasn’t just a one-way tutelage. This is deliberate, according to Colf; she wants her team to listen for new perspectives and learn from a generation that has never known a world with the internet.

“We’re fascinated to see what they’re most engaged with, how quickly they pick stuff up, what they want to see, and what is considered entertainment to them,” said Colf. “The questions they ask are incredibly telling to us, because they illustrate how they see the world.”

It’s also likely that many of these STEAM:CODERS will not necessarily want corporate jobs in the future, but may well become entrepreneurs within the technology and entertainment fields. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is a roll-up of several indie game publishers and, as AR becomes a new standard, studio chiefs know that good ideas often emerge from outside incubation.

After the workshops wrapped, the girls got into an orderly line and enjoyed Tex-Mex food in a boardroom with views of the surrounding Hollywood Hills.

Eventually, sugar levels started to plummet and, exhausted by the day’s events, the teens filed back into the WB Technology building for a debrief. There, they were all handed backpacks, which they discovered—amid many an excited gasp—each contained a laptop.