Feature

We need to talk about coding

Recently PayPal organised a hackathon in London which attracted thousands of young people to get into coding.

I know, right? An online financial services company encouraging people to hack? How irresponsible is that?  Are there any depths these IT executives won’t plumb in their mission to get down with the kids?

Disappointingly, or fortunately depending on your point of view, it turns this hackathon was nothing of the sort, just a well-meaning attempt by PayPal’s global director of development John Lunn to encourage more people into coding.

There was even $100,000 potentially up for grabs for the most creative coding, so fair play to PayPal for at least trying to bridge the skills gap.

“We’re trying to encourage people to make their environment better by writing code,” says Lunn.

One competitor created an app that used PayPal as a micropayment mechanism, giving readers the Big Issue on their mobile. I think the hack developer is missing the point. The point of buying that magazine is a display of moral exhibitionism. Everyone must see you buying the Big Issue and carrying it with you on the train. How can you do that with your mobile?

Still, at least by appealing to our better selves, Lunn is also trying to entice us into the world of coding, which should be applauded.

But there are still massive barriers to entry for most of us. I’d love to be able to programme a machine that strips all the nonsense from press releases and white papers and replaces it with short, sensible layman’s terms. That should be simple enough. But when you ask how to do it, all you hear are abstract pieces of advice about Ruby on Rails, Javascript and PHP. Ask a simple question – such as: How can a write a programme that replaces buzzwords with sensible ones? – and back will come an unhelpful answer: You should get into Mulch Monkey. I know a 90 year-old who emerged from a coma and picked it up in two weeks!

Those stories always prove impossible to verify. But they do the trick in making you feel inadequate.

I’m not entirely convinced that we’re trying hard enough to make the interface between would-be programmers and the HMHD community (AKA, the half man-half deskers) – or experienced developers as some call them. Are we doing enough to remove the barriers to entry into the wonderful world of coding?

Apadmi is doing something constructive. An app developer by day, it is running coding courses for teachers so they can give app development lessons.

The courses aim to close the gap between what is taught in the classroom and what technology companies look for from potential employees and is the brainchild of Howard Simms, Apadmi’s co-founder. Apadmi is the only company I found that seems ready to teach people of all ages.

You have to remember that the best developers start early, points out Jamie Turner, CTO of PostcodeAnywhere.

“Most of us here started around eight – and it’s as natural as someone who’s truly bilingual,” says Turner. “It can be taught later in life but those people always struggle against the early adopters which is why I strongly believe it needs to be taught early at school. It should be fun, too – nothing too formal.”

George K. Thiruvathukal, who is a professor of computer science at the CS Department of Loyola University Chicago, disagrees. Everyone should take up coding, he says.

Kids might be quicker at coding, but they’ve got no idea about, say, the bottlenecks in productivity that a channel manager might experience when working at a big IT vendor. That 30 year-old veteran may take longer to write the instructions, but their business logic will be unshakably solid. Unlike 99.9999% of the applications that 20 year-olds come up with.

“Coding is something that anyone can do with proper training and motivation and enhances critical thinking and problem solving skills. I have a friend who is a retired Chicago firefighter who just recently started learning programming and is working with me to get more coding into elementary schools,” says Thiruvathukal.

Though mobile and web development skills are at a high premium, there is a growing demand for programmers with art and design skills, he says.

But these days, with budgets and margins tighter than Starbucks’ tax contribution, companies are not making the investments in developing skills.

“Teaching is not the problem,” he says, “It is more about delivery and execution.” Someone needs to bridge the gap between the people who are good at talking to machines and the people who are good at talking to people. Someone should interpret what people want, and translate that into machine code, in the way Synon and 4GL were supposed to interpret the relationships that a developer mapped out, and translated them into Cobol.

Logically, as the nation’s trusted technology advisors, shouldn’t resellers and integrators be doing this? Couldn’t the channel provide the best interface between the two mutually exclusive worlds of the coders and the code-nots?

Some might not agree, but the consensus among coding experts is that teachings kids to code is our best hope.

“We should be teaching kids to code,” says DJ Adams, a consultant with service provider Bluefin Solutions, who is personally involved in initiatives like CodeClub, StemNet and Young Rewired State.

“Not necessarily for programming's sake,” says Adams, “but because our present and future is data-driven. Without the ability to understand, embrace and make data do stuff for you, you're immediately at a disadvantage.”

Oracle offer computer science and Java programming skills courses to teachers and students from primary and secondary schools under the Oracle Academy programme.

Can you see that making kids excited about programming? Or indeed, the Raspberry Pi?

Programming needs to be simple, fun and, in these days of shortened attention spans, it needs to offer instant gratification. So says Belinda Parmar, founder of the Little Miss Geek social enterprise, which aims to get more girls into computing.

“We spent two years asking why girls don’t want to get into technology,” says Parmar, who has a plan to use the accessibility of mobile phones as a way of getting half the population more involved in coding.

A new robot, called the Sphero, which can be programmed using simple commands, using your mobile phone, could be a great way to entice girls into coding.

“We don’t teach girls to be creative with technology,” says Parmar. She’s right, but only half right. We don’t teach anyone to be creative with technology.

We’re not even creative about the way we teach it. Or the way we talk about it. Or, I fear, write about it.


This was first published in November 2013

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