Mentoring

Halifax teen creating opportunities for peers in technology

Alex Gillis is creating an environment of teamwork and collaboration for young tech entrepreneurs

Alex Gillis talks to Mitchell Reardon and Lukas Willsie about the game design ideas they came up with at the workshop.
Alex Gillis talks to Mitchell Reardon and Lukas Willsie about the game design ideas they came up with at the workshop.   Emily Rendell-Watson

When Alex Gillis has trouble in math class, he builds a program to do the equations for him on his computer. He started programming in Grade 5 and is now providing a space for other teens to learn about technology: Hoist Halifax.

Gillis, who is in Grade 12 at Sacred Heart School of Halifax, says there’s a lack of technology education in schools.

“There’s a gap in schools when it comes to programming or building applications for technology. Some schools are starting to run coding clubs but they are often outside school time,” says Gillis. “We also provide one-on-one mentorship at these workshops, which you might not get in any class you are in.”

He co-founded Hoist in January 2015 and runs it out of Volta Labs, a local hub for startups. The community program aims to help participants create a long-term project they could eventually make into a business.

Alex Gillis is working to have Bitness Beacons at Dunkin Donuts in Lebanon.
Alex Gillis is working to have Bitness Beacons at Dunkin Donuts in Lebanon.   Emily Rendell-Watson

Gillis started his own tech company, Bitness, in June 2014. He and co-founder Aristides Milios wanted to help businesses track customer traffic, so they developed a small device called a Bitness Beacon. The device uses smartphone signals to collect data. It helps stores figure out what times of the day are most popular by recording information on how many people walk by and at what times, among other measurements. Gillis won the 2015 Startup Canada Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for his business.

Making connections

Gillis says his experiences creating this startup have given him the tools to develop an environment where other teens can learn about technology and work as entrepreneurs.

“When Aristides and I started our business we didn’t have a lot of peer support, which is important for getting out of your comfort zone,” says Gillis. Many of the teams formed at the Hoist workshops connect and continue to develop their applications and games on their own time.

The young entrepreneur says he has also learned a lot from the workshops.

“Having these kids come in and work together has shown me how important teamwork and collaboration is to any project,” says Gillis. “When we started up we didn’t have anyone to relate to and now we have a lot. The kids at the workshops come up to me and ask to work together on projects.”

Hoist kicked off its game design series on Jan. 16. At the workshop, teens learned about a game design framework called Unity. Unity allows people to design games in 2D or 3D and users can write scripts inside the games to move characters around.

Taylor Macintyre, 18, and Will Travers, 15, worked to create an app for iOS.

“It’s using GPS on your phone and Google Street View to create a landscape of your city. The idea is if you go to a location, you could interact with a quest,” says Macintyre.

Taylor Macintyre and Will Travers will continue to brainstorm and develop their idea through the next three workshop sessions.
Will Travers and Taylor Macintyre will continue to brainstorm and develop their idea through the next three workshop sessions.   Emily Rendell-Watson

This was Macintyre’s fifth time coming to the Hoist workshops. She says there is more to “developing something than just having the skills. You need input and advice.”

Travers and Macintyre agree Gillis is a mentor to them.

“We’re always asked, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ But there’s so much you can actually do at a young age in this field,” says Macintyre. “When I see how wildly successful Alex is, I’m inspired to do what he’s done.”

Gillis is proud of the impact he’s having on teens. He hopes to continue to grow Hoist and to offer workshops when he goes to university in the fall.

Watch Alex Gillis and Mitchell Reardon talk about their involvement in Hoist. (Video by Sindi Skenderi)