Category Archives: Interviews

Creating New Realities for Young Adults with Disabilities

ITKAN’s Partnership with the Marriott Foundation’s Bridges From School To Work Program

Christian Sullivan wears an HTC Vive to view the virtual reality film “Walking New York” with the assistance of Microsoft CTO Paul Edlund

Christian Sullivan (left) wears an HTC Vive to view the virtual reality film “Walking New York” with the assistance of Microsoft CTO Paul Edlund (right).

When 18 year old Chicago resident Christian Sullivan arrived at the Microsoft Technology Center for ITKAN’s September meeting, he had no idea that by the end of the evening he would be walking the streets of New York City. After an interactive discussion on the technology of virtual, augmented, and mixed realities, panelist Paul Edlund of Microsoft gave audience members the chance to try out some VR devices for themselves. Christian slipped on the HTC Vive headset—a gadget that until then he had only read about online and seen in videos—and suddenly found himself on a Manhattan sidewalk alongside a group of artists and filmmakers. Christian commented that he could barely believe his good luck; he had been researching VR equipment recently but had figured that it would be long time before he’d be able get his hands on such cutting-edge devices. After one visit to ITKAN, though, Christian had tested not only the Vive but also Microsoft’s HoloLens, a pair of state-of-the-art mixed reality smartglasses. He left the meeting that night energized by the experience and more inspired than ever to pursue a career in IT. “I never thought this was where I’d be tonight,” he said as he took one last look at the screens, sensors, and “new reality” equipment positioned around the room.

Over the past year, the organizers and members of ITKAN have been welcoming young adults like Christian to their meetings and into their network through a partnership with the Marriott Foundation’s Bridges From School To Work program. The Bridges program focuses on preparing young adults with disabilities for the workforce by providing them with job-readiness training and connecting them with job opportunities with local employers. Christian, a current student at Harold Washington College, recently joined Bridges to learn the skills he needs to find his first job. Because of his enthusiasm for technology, Bridges immediately introduced him to ITKAN so that he could meet with and learn from professionals in the industry.

Less than one year ago, Orlando Herrera was in a similar position. Like Christian, Orlando had just graduated high school, wanted to study computer science, and needed help finding his first job. He joined Bridges during the early stages of the program’s partnership with ITKAN and attended the technology group’s October 2015 meeting, along with three other Bridges participants. Orlando enjoyed the experience so much that he continued to come back to ITKAN every month, meeting new people and learning new things each time. Meanwhile, Bridges helped Orlando find part-time employment as a meat clerk at Mariano’s Fresh Market, where he has worked for over nine months and has proven himself a valuable and reliable team member.

Between a busy work schedule and his classes at Daley College, Orlando always manages to carve out time for ITKAN and other tech-related opportunities—including a recent job shadow with Adam Hecktman of Microsoft Chicago. This particular day in the life of the company’s Director of Technology and Civic Innovation took Orlando from the West Loop offices of digital marketing agency Mabbly (for an interview with entrepreneur Wayne Kimmel about his new networking guide, Six Degrees of Wayne Kimmel) to the Goose Island campus of UI LABS (for a demonstration on advanced radar, drone, and anti-drone technologies as used by Israeli Special Forces). His involvement with Bridges and ITKAN made this whirlwind tour of the local tech scene a reality for Orlando, who reflected on the impact of ITKAN. He considers the organization “very important” and remarked that “technology is being advanced daily, and ITKAN helped me meet people with initiatives and ideas to help promote people with disabilities in this area.”

Orlando Herrera listens to a presentation at the Microsoft Store during a job shadow with Director of Technology and Civic Innovation Adam Hecktman.

Orlando Herrera (far right) listens to a presentation at the Microsoft Store during a job shadow with Director of Technology and Civic Innovation Adam Hecktman.

Whether it’s through a thrilling virtual reality demo or an equally immersive job shadow, ITKAN is giving the young adults of Bridges a glimpse into what is possible. As the partnership between the two organizations enters its second year, more young people like Christian and Orlando will have the opportunity to build the professional knowledge and relationships to one day become IT leaders in their own right—one meeting at a time.

ITKAN Chat – Interview with John Wilhelmi

John Wilhelmi is one of our consistent members at ITKAN meetings. He is also a skilled networker and life-learner. When John doesn’t know something…he knows who to ask.  ITKAN members have come to be immersed in the technology field from many paths. Some use “Falling Fruit”, others fight hard for new perspectives on education, and still others become… firefighters to trail-blaze their path. Read on!


Thanks for your time, John. When did you start to develop an interest in IT?

During my freshman high school year, I had to take 2 public buses that met each other at a local mall to get to the school. The morning bus schedules were synced and my transfer between the buses was immediate and arrived at the school 45 minutes prior to the first class. I spent the time in the computer lab learning about programming. The afternoon trip was different. Rather than an immediate transfer to the 2nd return bus, there was a 40 minute delay. I spent the time in the computer section of Radio Shack learning about the Tandy and IBM compatible PC’s.

John Wilhelmi goes “old school” with his background of his Tandy computers!

Did IT assist you in your early education?

For me, writing was very difficult. When I went through grade school, such technology was non-existent. It was only in high school that you saw computers in specialized classes and teacher labs. Although in my senior year in high school, I did have the Commodore 64 in my basement lab to synthesize analog signals (DSP) and was writing equations on the Apple II to solve electronic circuitry deficits using Thevenin theorem.

What is your target sector in IT?

I enjoy both systems administration and software development. Currently I provide software programming support for some applications I wrote in the early 2000’s. The applications have limitations because I designed them for the LAN. Some of the users want to see the same functionality in the cloud and have access to the data on their phones and tablets. For them, I’ve been migrating the application to Salesforce. On the systems administration side, I provide IT consultancy and web design to a variety of small businesses through-out the Chicago area.

ITKAN Member

John Wilhelmi

How did you come across ITKAN?

In 2008 I had started an IoT (Internet of Things) automation business geared towards the house of worship community. Part of the business development strategy was to join the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and expand out from there. Opposite of my expectations, the business collapsed and I found myself looking for a transition out of that particular market. I reached out to friends at the chamber and they directed me towards ITKAN and nAblement.

What direction do you envision in the next 12-24 months in IT?

People say that the desktop is being replaced by the tablet and the phone. I tend to disagree. You might have shrinkage in market share because accessibility to the immediate need of items like email, mms and applications that are portable in nature, but the creative process takes place on the desktop. I see more desktop-cloud hybrid applications being developed. The cloud is a wonderful place to slice and dice data, and distribute applications to a large variety of people. The cloud does not render engineered graphics well and has security concerns that make the public leery of its value.

What’s the one thing most people don’t know about John Wilhelmi?

In the late 80’s I was a volunteer firefighter and earned the Illinois State firefighters II certification. While most of my friends played sports, I was fighting fires and rescuing people. If I was to take on a municipal fire department or communications project, I do have subject matter expertise, and with briefings on how the particular organization works can implement projects with a clear understanding of its goals.

Name your top 5 favorite websites and why.

I enjoy learning. Since I’m not enrolled currently in any university programs, I’m updating my skill set using various on-line sources.

BLS.gov – keeps me abreast of what is really happening in the economy.
Channel9.msdn.com – IT is always changing, why not learn directly from Microsoft about their products.
www.learnvisualstudio.net – great source to update my programming skills.
www.cbtnuggets.com – great source to update my systems administration skills.
www.Youtube.com – additional learning sources.

Thanks John! We hope to hear more from you at our next meeting on July 10th at the Microsoft Technology Center. Email me if you have questions. or would like to register.

ITKAN Chat – Interview with Steve Luker

The disability community in Chicago is an active one in various sectors, from advocacy and accessibility to various employment resources like AbilityLinks, nAblement and ITKAN. These three organizations have grown in myriad ways during the past ten years. One of the most interesting people – and colleagues – that I have worked with is Steve Luker. I actually first encountered  Steve through an educational film entitled “The Forerunners”.  The film was a collaboration between The Mind Alliance, Professor Fong Chan, and Pat Maher of nAblement. It profiles several nAblement consultants, and is intended to support students with disabilities from diverse backgrounds to consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines and careers. Steve was also profiled as part of a Chicago Sun-Times article related to ITKAN .

Steve Luker

Steve Luker

Steve has been able to focus his disability workarounds and use of accessible technology into a budding career in IT, specializing in .NET programming and mobile game development. I was able to sit with Steve to discuss his background, career and views on IT.

Hello Steve, we have known each other for years, but for our readers, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came into the IT sector?

I have been a Chicagoan for all of my life. I moved to the Wheaton, IL area and I am married to Michelle. I am a developer focusing on the Microsoft side of the industry. I worked on projects for BP and other large corporate clients, as well as other smaller companies. I have worked on websites and desktop applications, and am currently working on a game called “Falling Fruit”.

When did you start to develop an interest in IT?

As you know, technology users with disabilities sometimes have the opportunity to test out new accessibility devices. When I was a young child, a company came to my school with a computer which would make communicating with people easier. One of the challenges that my Cerebral Palsy creates is verbal communication. That was when I developed a rabid interest in IT. Everything I saw I thought, “I can do this or anything with this technology”.

Did IT assist you in your early education?

I started to read at age 3 so it could have been when I was 4 to 6. My disability does not allow me to speak, so I learned American Sign Language finger spelling at 5 and I was spelling every word out. What’s interesting is that I was not a good speller until I got a speech synthesizer, because I couldn’t sound out words in my head. I always found myself thinking about the possibilities that IT would bring in the future.

How did you come across nAblement?

In 2006, I met Pat Maher at an AbilityLinks networking breakfast at the College of DuPage. It was a few months after I got my degree in IT. He asked me to serve on a panel at Manpower’s corporate headquarters in Milwaukee for the Breaking Down Barriers program developed by nAblement. I was able to meet Rob Figliulo, the CEO of SPR Companies, and I really became more involved with nAblement and SPR.

I understand that you have developed a game for the Windows Phone platform. ITKAN has seen Falling Fruit, and it’s very good (and difficult!). Can you tell us about your considerations for developing the game and challenges you have faced?

I wanted to do some kind of app that would go into all of the app stores. I began thinking about how people were actually making money and what tips they gave. Instead of developing an app that people might use for a few seconds every day or two, I thought of a game that might hold people’s attention longer. That’s important when income is coming from ads or in app purchases.

I know that you are registering Falling Fruit on the Windows Store for the Windows Phone operating system. As there is so much money moving with app purchases, I’m assuming this isn’t a labor of love altogether. As Microsoft, Apple and Google are making millions with their app marketplaces, what are your expectations for revenue from Falling Fruit?

Created by Steve Luker, ITKAN member

Falling Fruit, Created by Steve Luker, ITKAN member

Well, at first, I initially thought of sit-down comedy, as there would be a lot less competition than in stand-up, but that didn’t pan out 🙂 .

From there, looking at apps as a prospective business, Apple and Google app stores take 30% of each app sold. Microsoft is different in that they take 30% up to the first 25,000 of sales. Then they take 20%. That makes it more profitable if you come up with the next Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja. I don’t mind not receiving 100% of my work, because the nice thing about all of the app stores is that they do so much of the work for you. Distribution, the billing…all of the back-end work is done well by all of the app stores. However, all of the creativity is in the hands of the app designer themselves. For example, I did some of the art myself. However, I am not much of an artist, so I ask family members and friends to help me with the more involved work.

After Falling Fruit is established and earning revenue on the Windows Store marketplace, my next goal is to roll it out on Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Were there any core needs that you had in developing Falling Fruit?

It has to do with the processor and its ability to do virtualization. That’s when the computer creates a virtual computer. The game is being developed in a game engine so it could be exported to other platforms with a lot of code reuse. So I know .NET, but the game isn’t written in that. The game engine was key to being able to create Falling Fruit.

Name your top favorite websites and why.

Microsoft has news, learning resources, documentation, etc., even for a rookie programmer, and you can use Yammer to ask Microsoft programmers questions on their message boards and internal social network. Also, any Microsoft-related sites go here as well. At ITKAN we have access to BizSpark as well, which is a great developer site for Microsoft technologies offered free to not-for-profits. Thanks to Adam Hecktman of Microsoft for supporting us in securing our BizSpark license.

Feedly is my personal news reader. There are many others out there that work well, but as a matter of personal taste, this is my pick.

Twitter is great for following news and political discussion. You can reach out and really interact with who you are tweeting.

Finally, Twit.tv is an excellent resource for programmers.

What do you think of ITKAN’s progress, the upcoming year and the road ahead for the organization?

I think we have come a very long way. There’s such a strong bond on technology and careers in technology. We had service providers, technologists and so on in the past, but now we develop a critiquing atmosphere where we want to be better IT geeks as well as prospective IT employees.  For example, I know a little about accessibility and I know where it affects me, but now I know so much more after working with ITKAN members who have visual disabilities. I’ve learned so much more that I would have ever thought I would.

Thanks, Steve.

Thanks Bill. See you on 13th of February at our next ITKAN meeting.

What’s an ITKAN meeting like? – From an ITKAN member’s perspective

Many times, prospective candidates, service providers and employers ask me, “What are ITKAN meetings like? Are they formal? Laid-back?”. I can tell you that from the greenest rookie to the most grizzled veteran, ITKAN fits a need – they work on developing their skills, they meet…and even get a great opportunity. After attending these engaging meetings, we’ve really hit a groove with our Megatrends (see our previous blog post to find out more in 2013, a growing network with employers, entrepreneurs and the like, and we are constantly looking for opportunities for fellow members. Networking groups can be loose-ended or with strong ties to fellow colleagues, and ITKAN is definitely one of the best groups I’ve been involved with. I did not foresee that I would meet such a great bunch of folks who are dedicated to the the mantra of ITKAN, where we are building (and nearing) towards a goal of showcasing solid, passionate professionals that any company would be interested in hiring.

It’s the tall one, and we are on the second floor.

On arriving to ITKAN meetings, which are held at the Microsoft Technology Center in Chicago, I enter a work-space for us that  is a collaborative environment that provides access to innovative technologies and world-class expertise.  Take a peek here to see what the MTC is like, how it works and the space itself.  Usually, there is always a few ITKAN members that arrive early. We network, talk about work, and talk a little bit of play as well (gaming and the Chicago Blackhawks are the conversation du jour.) After our intros, ITKAN goes to work. We discuss IT in different sectors and formats, going from general info to the most granular info that Microsoft professionals give to us. We get out around 7, but there’s always a few folks who hang around to network, have a laugh and separate until next month. Adam Hecktman, director of the Microsoft Technology Center has a room set up for us, and Pat Maher, the director of ITKAN, starts our meetings. We introduce ourselves to the group and find out a bit about new members. I’ve been working with ITKAN for over 2 years now. I started using ITKAN as a basis to build a stronger personal brand for my career as well as an opportunity to see where information technology would go next.

Our gracious hosts, Microsoft and Microsoft Tech. Center in Chicago.

The location for ITKAN meetings is in the Aon Center, at Michigan and Randolph, and there are great transportation options via Metra & CTA to the Center. My personal favorite is driving as parking at Aon Center costs $6 after 4 PM. Not only is a great price, but it’s accessibility is great. Join us next time. 2nd Thursday of each month (July 11th is next), at the Aon. Email me if you have questions

Megatrends & Education.

ITKAN kicked off our year of IT Megatrends in a big way at our January meeting!  We began exploring mobile computing principles, products, advantages and challenges. Jeff Seagard, a senior technology architect for Microsoft, led our January meeting to start ITKAN on the Megatrends path. He will be back to drill a bit deeper in the mobile sphere for our February 14th meeting.

ITKAN 2013 - Megatrends

ITKAN 2013 – Megatrends

First quarter 2013 – Jan, Feb, Mar – Mobile Technology, (Jeff Seagard, Microsoft)

Second quarter 2013 – Apr, May, Jun – Social Media and Business (Todd Nilson, Social Syntax)

Third quarter – July, Aug, Sept – Big Data (Jeff Seagard, Ross LaForte)

Fourth quarter – Oct, Nov, Dec – Cloud Computing – (Chris Kabat)

One of ITKAN’s charter members, Joe Blasi, feels that Megatrends is a framework that traditional IT education could learn from…

“Education needs to be better fitted into today’s fast paced IT, and needs to take a page from the traditional trades with some kind of apprenticeship system”, says Blasi. He also believes a more hands-on approach is more effective, especially for IT prospects and workers that have disabilities. “The older education system is left behind when it comes to offering more hands on work.”

Each topic will begin with a high-level overview, then drill down to more granular or applied knowledge, finally culminating (in the 3rd month of each quarter) with a more innovative, creative delivery for student attendees who have attended each of the previous 2 sessions on that topic. This could include an industry case study, an exercise that applies some of the knowledge delivered/gleaned from the earlier sessions, or some other innovative approach.

Join us in February at the Microsoft Technology Center at 5 Pm on every 2nd Thursday of each month. Click here to reserve your spot for our second Megatrends meeting!!

A message from ITKAN and Pat Maher – National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Come Celebrate NDEAM at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago!

by PAT MAHER on SEPTEMBER 24, 2012

Members of ITKAN Visionary Innovation Team

Members of ITKAN’s Visionary Innovation Team

In early 2008 we founded an initiative dedicated to creating a community of candidates with a passion for technology who managed disability in their lives. ITKAN was launched at the Illinois Technology Association’s (ITA) TechNexus incubator space with their generous support. Our tagline, “Fostering Knowledge, Network and Opportunity” remains a central theme to this day. We have met each month – with some exceptions – to establish this community by bringing in expert presenters in leading edge technology applications and processes, educating members on a variety of assistive technologies, considering applied technology shifts such as the evolution in the mobile office and engaging our members in forward-thinking projects to enhance their career or future career opportunities.

We have been supported in this mission by the ITA – and now the Illinois Technology Foundation (ITF), SPR Companies and its strategic family, and for the past two years theMicrosoft Technology Center (MTC) and staff. We moved our meetings to the MTC in Autumn, 2010. With the support of Adam Hecktman, Director, and Shelley Stern, Citizenship and Public Affairs Director of Microsoft we have settled into the beautiful MTC with its Envisioning Center, many creative spaces and generous hosts.

Information Technology Knowledge Abilities Network

Join us on Eventbrite

Join us at the Microsoft Technology Center Chicago (directions in Eventbrite link at bottom of post) from 3-5PM on Monday, October 22nd in celebrating the ITKAN collaboration as we recognize National Disability Employment Awareness Month and our Computerworld HonorsLaureate, tour the technology world of the future in the Envisioning Center, and view the CINE Golden Eagle and Chicago International Filmfest Silver Hugo award-winning short film the forerunners in this creative environment

“The forerunners is a great film! Very powerful. Beyond the business case, I really enjoyed a lot of the insights it gave into the broader disability experience – putting a strong, tender and human face to it. Bravo.”

– Rob McInnes, Diversity World

Register for this MTC Chicago and ITKAN special event today athttp://www.itkan.eventbrite.com!

ITKAN Chat – Interview with Kathie Topel

The information technology industry is comprised of a multitude of proficiencies, and “ITKAN’s Chats” will attempt to reach as many as possible to bring insight to its members, thereby finding their niche and taking another step towards the fulfillment of their mission.

In our last ITKAN Chat, we spoke to Brendan Ginty at Sonicwall about the IT security industry. Continuing our focus on ITKAN supporters, we chat with Kathie Topel, the managing director of IMPACTinsights, part of SPR Companies.

Kathie has led seminars and executive workshops that have fundamentally changed the way organizations operate and improved their performance and results. She created the POWERSHIP®model and wrote a book of the same name, based on her experience as an expert in IT-business alignment.

Now she is putting her formidable skills and knowledge to work for Impact Insights and for the many companies she works with. Also, she recently led the inaugural meeting of the ITKAN Visionary Innovation Team!

Hi Kathie, thanks for your time today. Can you tell us a little bit about IMPACTinsights and your book?

POWERSHIP® is a single source that outlines a complete corporate culture landscape or POWERSHIP Culturescape™ Environment.

IMPACTinsights works with CIOs to ensure that IT is at the Heart of Business Success.  We are IT Performance Consultants who build award-winning IT departments.  The POWERSHIP® book is used in our implementations as the model to optimize performance which results in highly engaged employees and greater contributions to big business goals including revenue, profitability, innovation,  customer acquisition, retention and satisfaction.

After reading about Impact Insights on your homepage, it seems that your company focuses on streamlining companies towards common goals. How often is corporate culture a roadblock towards streamlining a division and/or an organization?

Corporate Culture is frequently a roadblock for organizations.  IMPACTinsights works to make sure that everyone from the front line to the top line realizes they have a role in leadership and that everyone is accountable for bottom line business results no matter what role they are in.  We find that when individuals are engaged in their work and understand how their day to day role integrates with the strategic direction they can be upward of 40% more productive.

Part of ITKAN’s mission is to “Support the Aggressive Adoption of Deep Diversity”™”. Diversity is one of the hottest keywords in business today, and it goes hand in hand with corporate culture. What is your opinion on where people with disabilities fit here? 

Individuals with disabilities can be such key contributors in the workplace of today.  The way they view and understand concepts adds a dimension to the work place that can’t be overlooked.  I frequently see them being extremely focused, very consistent, constantly driven and key participants of innovation.

One perception that we concentrate on from participants during ITKAN Chat is what do they think of the future of IT as a whole. What do you think, Kathie?

“I believe you will see the role of IT across the board needing to be more strategic.” – Kathie Topel

I see the role of IT in the future continuing to evolve at a much more aggressive pace than ever before.  I believe you will see the role of IT across the board needing to be more strategic.  The leadership of IT will need to be more like the leadership of an entrepreneurial company and understand as much of how bottom line value is generated as they will need to understand technical concepts.

Kathie, we appreciate your time for this interview and your contribution to ITKAN. Any final thoughts?

Professionals with disabilities have so much to offer within the space of technology.  Keep up all of the great work in the area of Diversity and Inclusion.  I look forward to supporting ITKAN in way possible.

Thanks, Kathie!