Cults of coding kids

Much about the recent AzureCraft 2016 conference was focused on the future. The future of cloud, the future of IoT, the future of the Microsoft Stack, but if you were paying close attention you might have noticed a subtler focus on the future of technology – one built around children.

It’s no surprise that the whole second day of AzureCraft was a family event, because if you really want to focus on the future of the technology industry, looking at how we educate and grow our own talent is just as important as growing and building our frameworks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing diversity challenges in software development and engineering. The numbers are stark – Stack Overflow’s 2015 developer survey saw 92.1 percent of responders identifying as men, with the numbers for other organisations similarly depressing, with Google technical employees accounting for 17%, with Facebook clocking in at just 15%. This isn’t news, and it’s not new, and it’s something that as an industry we can’t expect to just change overnight.

Diversity helps our teams and programming wasn’t always just “men’s work” – but in order to reap the benefits of cultural diversity, we need to make sure that software development is open to everybody. Hiring for technical positions is hard, and it’s just as disheartening for the employer, with the best intentions, to not even see talent from diverse gender, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. Changing the culture of an industry takes time, and a lack of action will directly lead to a lack of change. Thankfully, with enough force of will, we can change our industry to be more supportive and inclusive going forwards – and it all starts with education.

Following Scott Guthrie’s Keynote at AzureCraft, we saw Martin Beeby introduce the Nano Satellite project, and the BBC Microbit along with a live demo of a toolchain designed to help kids learn to code. The Microbits are free system on chip computers being delivered for free to every Year 7 student in England and Wales, and borrow both their name and ethos from the pioneering BBC Micro project that helped popularise home computing in the 1980s.

Notably, the Microbit benefits from strategic partnerships with a whole bunch of technology companies, including Microsoft, who have built a variety of tools to help introduce kids to software development. These tools range from the visual (Microsoft Block Editor – a graphical drag and drop code editor) to the more traditional (Microsoft Touch Develop - a text-based programming language with a micro:bit library built in). Of course, being 2016, the micro:bit also supports JavaScript and Python. You can experiment with all these tools here

The micro:bit, really, is just the latest in a relatively recent trend of system-on-chip computers that arguably started with the Raspberry Pi, and aimed at bringing low-level, low cost computing to today’s children. It’s an interesting trend, and a valuable one that fights against the mass productisation of computing into closed devices like tablets, which while great for computer literacy, offer a poor experience for young people looking to learn how to build technology.

The popularisation of these low cost devices is especially important to UK industry, because teaching children to build technology, rather than just use it, is an area in which we’ve long been falling behind. This was starkly highlighted back in 2013 when Google engineer Neil Fraser visited Vietnam to see how schools teach and discovered 11-16 year old children doing homework that would qualify them for jobs at Google (click here). If we’re to keep the UK software development market competitive, we have to embrace and support these schemes.

Luckily, we’re not limited to just devices – there’s a rising tide of organisations and literature available to help both adults and children along the journey. Let’s look at a few of the options.

Code Club is a nation-wide network of volunteer-led, after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11 that aims to voluntarily help fill the gap in software education. Owned by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, they create projects to teach children how to program by showing them how to make games, animations and websites, with volunteers attending their local clubs for an hour a week, teaching single projects. They run as a not for profit and rely on financial support from the public and corporate sponsorships, along with accepting volunteers. If you have the free time to spare, they’re a good place to start getting involved.

Young Rewired State is a global community of digital makers aged 18 and under that runs the yearly Festival of code nation-wide hackathon. The festival is on hiatus this year, but they act as a centre that runs programming events, the yearly festival, and as a lobbying organisation. Always looking for volunteers and help, they’re another good point of contact.

Codebar – an organisation with the goal to enable underrepresented groups to learn programming in a safe and collaborative environment and expand their career opportunities. They run free weekly workshops, regular events and try to create opportunities for our students making technology and coding more accessible.

These organisations all teach “real world” programming, but there are plenty of ways in through learning languages like Scratch, and games like Minecraft. With events like AzureCraft, organisations like Code Club, YRS and Codebar, and a wealth of modern programming tools, we really can change the shape and capability of the UK tech scene.

We just have to try; it really isn’t too late.

About the Author:

David is the founder of Electric Head Software, working as an independent software consultant based in London focusing on iterative software delivery, developer mentoring and cultural change - mostly working with London-based organisations and start-ups.

David has previously served as the chief coding technical architect for JustGiving, and helped market-leading organisations including JUST-EAT and Vodafone improve their technical capabilities.

P.S. He just wrote a book about teaching kids to code HTML5 and JavaScript called “Get Coding” – click here to buy

Chris Parsons