VANCOUVER – When Robert Arkiletian heard Google was interested in interviewing him for a computer programming job, he wasn’t interested.
He told the Google recruiter, who found Arkiletian’s work posted in online forums, that he wasn’t the type of person the company was looking for and that he already had a job he loved.
He’s known as “Mr. Ark” to the students he teaches computer programming to at Eric Hamber Secondary School, where programming prodigies are winning national competitions and 17-year-old whiz kids are confused with graduate-level computer scientists.
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Arkiletian said. “When I get up in the morning and come to work, I’m going to work to have fun. In some ways I’m not that different from the kids. I’m still a kid at heart.
“When you become passionate about (computer) programming, it’s kind of like, I know this sounds really odd, but it’s almost like a different way of life.”
The technical skills that got him noticed by Internet giant Google for one of the most sought-after computer programming jobs are no match for his passion for teaching.
“Every time I learn something new, my passion level starts bubbling over and I share that with my students,” Arkiletian said.
His students have recently competed in a national programming competition called the Canadian Computing Competition, at the University of Waterloo.
Grade 10 students Jasper Chapman-Black, Phillip Wong, Emmanuel Sales and Grade 9 student Ari Blondal all aced the test, getting perfect scores in their attempts to build a piece of software capable of answering a series of questions.
“The questions are not like math test questions where you are given a specific scenario and you have to solve for X, for example,” Chapman-Black said.
“In the Canadian Computing Competition what you’re doing is creating a computer program that is going to solve all problems of a particular type for you,” he said.
The Waterloo competition is the top test of Canadian high school programming skills.
“I usually just cross my fingers and I hope that I have one student that will do well on it because so many students compete in it,” Arkiletian said. “This year, the fact that I had four students do perfect on the junior exam, was, in some ways, very lucky. The kids deserve all the credit.”
Cary Wang, 17, and 18-year-old Ulysses Zheng are students in Arkiletian’s senior programming class.
In addition to competing against other high school programming students, the duo pitted their skills against university-level programmers in a contest put on by Simon Fraser University in February.
Arikiletian said Eric Hamber was the only high school competing, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear confused contestants asking: “Where is Eric Hamber University?”
Wang and Zheng placed 21st out of 44 contestants, and both have gone on to create their own commercial-grade software.
This year, Wang developed what he called a “high-performance web server,” which Arkiletian said requires graduate-level programming skills beyond what he can teach.
And Zheng has constructed four iPhone applications, including a math skills game that has had more than 1,000 downloads since its release in September.
“Computer science gives you an easy way of helping people around the world,” he said. “If you create something today, it can benefit people tomorrow.”
Arkiletian said he prefers to teach students by being a strong role model and providing a challenging environment.
“What I’m kind of providing them is a model of the passion and the enthusiasm and the doggedness, the persistence that you have to have to get those high heights, one step at a time.”
But he never expected to have students such as Zheng and Wang go on to exceed his own abilities.
“(Wang) could easily end up working for Google,” he said, noting the student’s web server placed first in one comparison against other web servers.
“For these two particular students, the material they’ve done is way beyond my skill level. I can encourage them. I can provide them with equipment. I can help them in any way that I can, but in terms of teaching them, I would say it is more of a situation where they are teaching me.”
During his 14 years of teaching computer programming at Eric Hamber, many of Arkiletian’s students have gone on to study computer science in university.
Sanae Rosen graduated in 2007 and is now working towards her computer science PhD at the University of Michigan.
“One thing that was great about his class is he very much encouraged us to go beyond what he was teaching in the class. He encouraged us to start our own projects that were not necessarily directed by him and let us follow our own passions,” Rosen said.
Michael Steeves, a 2010 grad who just completed his third year of computer science at Simon Fraser University, said the skills he learned in high school gave him a major boost in his first year of college.
“When they went into the first classes, they had to learn everything from scratch whereas I went into the advanced class and was able to do that quite easily because of Mr. Ark,” Steeves said.
Michael Carins, another former Arkiletian programming student, now works three programming jobs while finishing his studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
“I coasted through the first year of computer science. I barely had to do anything,” Carins said.
“Not a lot of high school teachers have the skills to teach something like this.”