Carmel Valley engineer runs unique nonprofit school that teaches computer programming to youths

By Arthur Lightbourn

Former Navy pilot, electrical engineer and computer manufacturer Vic Wintriss has the outrageous idea that children of grade- and middle-school ages can be taught computer programming — and, who knows, might even become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates — or at least help alleviate a looming national shortage of one million programmers that threatens the current U.S. leadership status in technology.

Wintriss is the founder and executive director of the private nonprofit Wintriss Technical Schools Inc. (WTS).

“As far as I know,” he said, “there is no other school in the United States, or the world for that matter, that is teaching kids this young the Java™ computer programming language. Most academics think it’s too hard for them to learn, too complicated, too difficult” and too costly to hire Java teachers.

Java, originally developed by James Gosling at Sun Microsystems in 1995, enables programmers to use English-based commands to write computer programs, instead of having to write instructions in numeric codes.

Once a program is written in Java, the instructions are translated into numeric codes that computers can understand and execute.

The language, first called Oak, after an oak tree that stood outside of Gosling’s office, was later renamed Java in recognition of the great quantities of coffee consumed by the computer language’s creators.

WTS offers “after-school” computer programming classes in Java to boys and girls, from age 10, grade five, up through middle school.

“I want to get these kids hooked on computer programming because it just opens up a whole new world for them,” Wintriss said. “Most of our students are from the Carmel Valley, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, and Solana Beach areas; and we have an outreach program for Hispanic kids.”

The motto of the school is: “Changing kids’ lives with Java™.”

We interviewed Wintriss in his one-classroom school located in a hacienda-style courtyard office building on High Bluff Drive on the edge of Carmel Valley.

The classroom is surprisingly small — 200 square feet — with room just enough to accommodate four state-of-the-art Apple iMac computer stations.

Accordingly, class sizes are small, usually two or three students. “So it’s basically individualized instruction from a professional teacher, often assisted by an intern,” Wintriss said.

For students’ inspiration, on one wall of the classroom are three large framed blueprints of a Class 1 heavy-cruiser Starship, a ray gun and a hand-held Type II phaser, all out of the science fiction TV series “Star Trek.”

Wintriss is a blue-blazer type of guy who first got interested in electronics as a teenager while earning his amateur radio operator’s license back during the days when to qualify you had to learn and be able to communicate in Morse code — a communications code, you may remember, consisting of various sound sequences of dots and dashes or “dits” and “dahs” representing letters of the alphabet and numbers, and used by “ham” radio amateurs, professional radio operators on ships, telegraphers, the military, and spies in Hollywood WWII movies.

“I learned by doing when I was a kid,” Wintriss said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was getting it done anyway. This is the way I feel works with the kids. We’re not a college course here. We’re teaching kids to understand the basics and learn enough so they can write their own programs. Some of the details they’ll learn later on in high school or in college.”

Wintriss was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and was raised in Summit, New Jersey. His father was a German-born mechanical engineer and inventor who had more than 200 patents to his name on everything from zippers to dolls’ eyes and dolls’ voices.

In 1954, Wintriss earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University.

He joined the Navy and served as a pilot of P2 and P3 anti-submarine warfare patrol planes for three years, then went to work for his father at his father’s company in New York City.

“Loved the work,” Wintriss recalled. “I was my father’s engineering vice president. That lasted for six months. We got in a big fight…We were both pig-headed. So I went back in the Navy and finished out 20 years.”

While in the Navy, from 1962 through 1964, he taught computer programming at the Navy’s first computer programming school in San Diego.

Retiring from the Navy in 1975 with the rank of Commander, he went into business and founded three successful electronics manufacturing companies — Electronic Product Associates (EPA), manufacturing industrial and training computers; Computer System Associates (CSA), manufacturing training computers for schools and colleges; and Wintriss Engineering, manufacturer of sports imaging equipment and highway surveillance cameras that read and recorded vehicle license plate numbers.

In 2006, he launched Wintriss Technical Schools.

“This is our sixth year. The school was totally funded by my wife, Diane, and me. We’re a 501(c) 3 nonprofit institution. Since the first two or three years, we’ve been self-sustaining. The tuitions have covered our expenses. And we’ve had some donations and some grants.

“Our aim is to change kids’ lives by getting them hooked on computer science and computer programming,” Wintriss said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful career. It’s well paying, of course, but more importantly, I tell my kids, money is nice to have, but the most important thing really is to do something you enjoy, that’s satisfying, that you love.”

Like the act of writing itself, Wintriss said, “You get the satisfaction of not only having written something, but it works; and it’s on a computer. And that’s a very heady experience.”

Since 2006, WTS has taught some 100 students; some are now studying computer science at universities.

“All of our teachers are volunteers and we use only Java professional programmers for teachers.”

Wintriss personally “re-programs” all his teachers to talk in plain, non-technical English, so students, especially the younger ones, can easily grasp the Java computer language.

“We have nine teachers and right now about 30 students and a waiting list. To reduce the waiting list, we’re looking for more Java professionals to volunteer as teachers or, perhaps more accurately, as mentors.”

Class times are flexible. Home school students generally come during the day and regular school students after school; also on weekends. “Our big days are Saturdays and Sundays,” Wintriss says.

The tuition is $30 per hour. Tuition assistance can be arranged, as well as transportation assistance,

“We recommend a two-hour class per week,” Wintriss said. “A lot of parents ask when does it end? It never ends because there is always more to learn.

“In the first class,” Wintriss said, “we start writing computer games. We write a ‘high-low’ game, a guessing game where the computer says, ‘I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 100, can you guess what it is?

“You guess a number and the computer says ‘Too high” or ‘Too low’ and so forth. We encourage the kids to be creative. For instance, the computer can make wise remarks, like ‘Too high, dummy.’ They love things like that. The idea is to make it fun and they hardly know they’re learning.”

The next game they program is a Pong game, then a Tic-Tack-Toe game, an Asteroids game, and onward and upward to programming robots.

Students are encouraged to enter their programmed robots into the WTS-sponsored international Autonomous Robot Competition held each summer at the San Diego County Fairgrounds.

His goal for the future of WTS?

To obtain a substantial grant so he can replicate his teaching system with small classes and campuses in San Diego County, up into Orange County “and then out from there.”

The formula, he says, is small classrooms and lots of them.

“I want this to continue when I’m not here,” he said.

Quick Facts

Name: Vic Wintriss

Distinction: After a career spanning 20 years in the Navy and 30 years in business, Wintriss launched a private nonprofit school that teaches computer programming to grade- and middle- school age children, preparing them to fill the critical shortage of computer programmers anticipated in the next 10 years.

Resident of: Carmel Valley

Born: Meadville, Pennsylvania; grew up in Summit, N.J.

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, Cornell University, 1954; M.S.E.E, San Diego State University, 1972.

Military service: Served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and retired as a Commander in 1975.

Family: He and his wife, Diane (nee Ritter), have been married for 12 years. He has three grown children from a previous marriage.

Interests: Teaching computer programming to young people seven days a week; also teaching Sunday School classes at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church.

Favorite film: “Forrest Gump,” 1994 comedy/drama starring Tom Hanks

Favorite getaway: Santa Barbara

Recent reading: “Lost in Transition,” by Christian Smith; and “Jerusalem,” a history, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Physical regimen: Works out twice a week and maintains a healthy diet.

Philosophy: “Try to be as honest as you can.”