In a fitting way to mark the first anniversary of the founding in Ireland of a revolutionary and international movement aimed at fostering crucial coding skills in kids as young as seven, the Government of Ireland will host a special CoderDojo at Leinster House on 18 July.
A year ago almost to the day (CoderDojo became a year old yesterday), this writer got a phone call from a then-18-year-old coder and entrepreneur named James Whelton. He told me he was on the Luas and would I collect him from the nearest station to my office? He had a story for me.
I rounded up our AV troops because I knew something important was happening and we shot a video interview where Whelton – made world famous a year earlier for hacking the Apple iPod nano – outlined a vision that he and tech entrepreneur and investor Bill Liao had developed to tackle the lack of ICT skills among young people in Ireland.
They were starting something called CoderDojo that would meet every Saturday in Cork and kids could come along and teach each other coding. Whelton got the idea while he was in school and was constantly being accosted by other kids wishing someone would teach them to write code.
In his usual understated way, Whelton said he would like to see the CoderDojo movement be truly national and embraced across the land.
Well, one year on, and Whelton and Liao have exceeded their expectations. There are now 104 Dojos happening every Saturday afternoon – 41 in Ireland – in cities from Dublin to Florence, and Tokyo, LA, New York, London and Chicago. New ones are sprouting up in Jamaica and Africa. On any given Saturday, an average of 6,000 kids between the ages of seven and 17 in Ireland and around the world are teaching each other how to write code. Let’s not forget, it began in Cork.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing, to be honest,” said Whelton, who has dedicated himself full-time to CoderDojo. “It spawned from something that was small, quaint and simple; a club of young people who liked to code and learn stuff to something that is going global, fast.
“The people who have been involved, the parents, the mentors and companies and organisations that have given us the accommodation for the Dojos have been incredible.
“The motives range from people who witness the pain in the economy and realise we need more software developers and skills from an educational viewpoint to the social impact on young people who aren’t especially sporty or academic but took to computers. Their parents have found that socially and educationally, their performances have improved. From that aspect alone it is pretty breathtaking.”
“Really it has been the dedication of the volunteers who supported us and which has ignited the fire that has let these kids achieve these awe-inspiring feats,” said Whelton.
“With CoderDojo, it is not about trying to teach every young person in the world to code but to give anyone who is interested, a little bit curious, a place that they can learn or be exposed to incredible opportunities.
“I’m going to work hard to continue to grow the movement, with more Dojos and more mentors to improve the infrastructure and connect the Dojos together so everyone can learn from each other,” Whelton said.
A CoderDojo in every parish in Ireland?
The Minister for Training and Skills Ciarán Cannon, TD, is responsible for bringing the CoderDojo to Leinster House on 18 July. Swaying him to do so wasn’t hard, said Liao, because Cannon was instrumental in getting the Athenry Dojo off the ground, which today hosts some 120 kids every Saturday.
Also in attendance will be owner and CEO of Harmonia and Dragons’ Den judge Norah Casey, whose son Darragh is a CoderDojo regular.
The interesting thing about CoderDojo is the fact it is all voluntary. CoderDojo doesn’t even have a bank account. It has one guiding principle, above all, be cool.
Companies like Google and Dell and organisations like Science Gallery Dublin offer space readily and Dojos have been held in locations like coffee shops, hotels and even Arranmore, off the coast of Donegal, with mentors in London beaming in via Skype.
“We got the idea from Kenpo karate Dojos,” Liao said. “My kids do Kendo and James used to do Kenpo and the Kenpo Dojos don’t charge. Instead of trying to teach kids by blackboard we encouraged them to come into a room and spar with each other and study by collaborative learning.
“This is having a huge impact and every major computer language there is, is being taught at CoderDojo. Node.js, for example, is being taught at Dojos in Ireland. This is a software language that is barely in third level around the world and is considered the most cutting-edge software on the planet.”
Liao said that already CoderDojo has had its first spin-out company emerge in the form of Dharma Software in Cork, a web design company led by a group of teenagers.
I asked him what his ambition for CoderDojo is now. “My target is to have 3,000 CoderDojos in Ireland. A CoderDojo in every parish in the land. It is really important that any boy or girl with a passion for computers who wants to start a Dojo, can.
“Into the future I would love to see this movement become bigger internationally, bigger than the scouts. And not costing anyone a single penny.”
Liao said that CoderDojo has done a deal with Digiweb, whereby every child will be given free hosting and a domain name. In addition, Camara will offer refurbished laptops at a low price to any kids who wish to purchase them. Camara is also setting up CoderDojo hubs in Jamaica and across Africa.
“Globally, all the kids who have joined CoderDojo, from Florence, to Silicon Valley and Tokyo, see Cork and Ireland as the centre of the IT universe and to have the Irish Parliament host a CoderDojo sends out a powerful signal.”
Ireland’s children are its future
To allow Whelton to dedicate himself full time to the growth of CoderDojo, Liao and Dragons’ Den judge Sean O’Sullivan decided to make Whelton social entrepreneur in residence at their venture capital firm SOSventures.
“James had already decided to commit himself to CoderDojo before we gave him the job and that commitment impressed us greatly,” said Liao.
O’Sullivan, who is also managing director of Avego in Cork, said Ireland’s children are its future. “And increasingly our future is in technology. It’s great to see the Government recognising the importance of CoderDojo by this symbolic gesture.
“CoderDojo is an all-volunteer effort, and it is an incredible example of creating something from nothing. People have pulled together and proven that by sharing and giving, we can build a bright future with just the ingredients we already have: our children and ourselves.
“CoderDojo is helping prepare the next generation of Ireland’s developers, entrepreneurs and designers,” O’Sullivan said.
Video below: John Kennedy earlier this year spent a day at a CoderDojo in Dublin’s Science Gallery and interviewed James Whelton and Bill Liao about the movement