The people's republic of coders


Conceived in a school computer room in Cork, the CoderDojo initiative is on the verge of going global – and its rapid expansion in Ireland may give us a clue about where our economic future lies

THE BEST-placed people to lead Ireland out of the current economic situation are probably not suited executives or politicians presenting well-meaning jobs plans. No, the drivers of Ireland’s next economic upswing are most likely wearing hoodies and scuffed trainers and have to be in bed by 10pm on school nights. They’re quite possibly bored in school, frustrated by a lack of opportunities afforded to them in real life compared with their evolving digital worlds.

These young people are among a generation of digital consumers, who are fast becoming IT creators. And for them, the Irish education system can be a let-down.

This was the scenario 19-year-old computer entrepreneur James Whelton faced, until one day in secondary school in Cork he started a computer club. Initially, the idea was for him and his mates to knock around a few IT problems and solutions, and his school gave him the use of the computer room one evening a week.

The first day, 40 kids showed up, and they began teaching each other web design and gaming. Soon, kids from other schools were enquiring about the club and they had to put on an extra night. From that genesis, a movement called CoderDojo was born, and the peer-to-peer youth organisation, which is all about learning in a relaxed and social environment, is now on the verge of going global.

Last Saturday, up to 100 kids and parents crammed into a first-floor room in the National Software Centre (NSC) in Mahon, Cork, for the weekly CoderDojo club which has been running since last June. The way it works is simple. Young people bring their own laptops and learn IT from experts there, but mainly they learn from each other. Parents are encouraged to attend and learn themselves. Participation is free – all the experts give their time without charge, and the NSC provides the property and covers light, heating and broadband.

The key rules are that everyone must “be cool” and that it’s okay to be clever. Topics change from week to week. For example, a few Saturdays ago it was all about data visualisation, while last week the main tutorial given by programmer Will Knott was on JavaScript. People grab the nearest beanbag or workspace and volunteers work the room making sure everyone is given any assistance they need. Think Boy Scouts or Girl Guides for the digital age.

So far, there are about a dozen groups up and running nationally, and more are about to begin in the US, Europe and Asia. Whelton and CoderDojo co-founder Bill Liao are working to ensure that, in expanding, the ethos of the movement is not lost. They are unlikely to accept corporate involvement by way of paid teachers, but IT bosses and schools are already taking a keen interest.

Sitting near the front of the group is nine-year-old Alan Panayotova. He helped write the JavaScript tutorial which was being presented by programmer Knott on a large screen. His mum, Galina Panayotova, who is Bulgarian, tells me she has found life tough since moving to Ireland, following the sudden death of her husband, who was a computer engineer.

“I have put my children on the computer because I have no money for a babysitter and to be able to breastfeed the younger one, I put Alan on the computer. They didn’t have friends until we came here. They didn’t have children with the same interests. I was scared of computers and restricted them playing games which I didn’t think were educational. Now I am not scared and they have a very different view. They are creating their own games.”

As I chat with Alan, another adult approaches. “Sorry again Alan, but can I ask you another question about that code?” he says. Alan shows him one or two things and the adult nods, somewhat awkwardly, as if recognising the role reversal of the situation. He walks away, before turning back.

“One last thing,” the adult says. “Will you give me a job when you’re big and have your own company?” Alan laughs: “Sure.”

Also floating around the room is coding veteran Harry Moran (13), who developed his own game called PizzaBot last year and in the process became one of the youngest app developers in the world.

Moran taught himself coding and also maintains his own blog and website. “The thing I love about this is that it is kids teaching kids. I teach people I don’t know, some of whom are five or six years older. In school I am pretty lucky in the teacher I have right now. He is into computers but previously none of the teachers were into it. Basically, half of what I did before was to fix the computer problems for the school.”

In every area of the room kids from seven years upwards are hunched over screens problem-solving. Fourteen-year-old Louis Roberts is busy making a website which will have a video embedded on its home page. In another corner, Seafra Forda, who travels to the club from Kerry every Saturday, has succeeded in making a game and next wants to learn the basics of C programming.

Liao, the co-founder who is also an investor in IT companies, says that for children to be able to invent something new, they need to know the language. “If you want to learn you need to start young. There is this stereotype of the computer nerd in their bedroom with no social skills. While you can become a great programmer that way, you can become even better if you play well with others. It is insane in this country that we are not giving every child the opportunity to be creative with technology.”

Over Bill’s shoulder, a man with blond hair enters the room wearing a long black trenchcoat and casual clothing. He turns out to be Seán O’Sullivan, an Irish-American IT millionaire, and the person credited with inventing the term “cloud computing”. As a youngster he also came up with a way to put street maps on the internet – a precursor to Google maps. O’Sullivan is managing director of Avego Ltd, which has offices in Kinsale. He is also the new judge on the RTÉ show Dragon’s Den, and he has hired Whelton to develop the project fulltime.

While O’Sullivan works with over 30 companies as a venture capitalist, he remains a computer engineer at heart, who was programming for major institutions and companies while still a teenager. Surveying the room, with dozens of kids solving problems and teaching each other to be innovative, O’Sullivan says this is the future.

“The Irish government itself has said IT is an important part of the economy and clearly it has done a great job attracting some of the world’s leading companies such as Google and Facebook to set up their European headquarters. But we are desperately looking for 10 engineers to add to our team in Cork and we can’t find them. We go on recruiting trips to Romania, Spain and France instead. Something like this movement could have huge implications and reverse that trend. If IT is to be the future driver of this economy, this is where it will start to happen.”

As we chat, Liao grabs O’Sullivan by the arm and points him in the direction of nine-year-old Panayotova – the young JavaScript developer. “You’ve got to meet this kid,” he says.