This Saturday saw the second Oxford CoderDojo, led by the youngest CoderDojo founder worldwide to date, Tyriah Allison – just 11 years old. Hosted by games and technology company NaturalMotion, Ann O’Dea caught up with the latter’s CEO, Torsten Reil, to ask how it all came about.
On Saturday, 29 March, I had the privilege of attending the first Oxford CoderDojo in the Ebbe Street headquarters of NaturalMotion in Oxford, England. The innovative games tech company has recently been acquired by Zynga Games.
In the leafy surrounds of Oxford, a gang of youngsters and their parents gathered in the colourful building for a morning of code that was led by an experienced Python coder of just 11 years old, Tyriah Allison, a primary school student from the Jericho suburb of Oxford.
As parents gathered nearby, Tyriah stood up to lead a small group of her peers on their beginner's journey to learn to code. Remembering my own shyness at that age, I was a little awed by her courage, but it felt like the most natural thing imaginable, with her peers all eager to dive in and experiment. Co-founder of CoderDojo Bill Liao was also present for the inaugural Oxford Dojo, and beamed with pride. When Tyriah had approached Liao, he had urged her to start her own Dojo. And here she was.
The spirit of CoderDojo
"Tyriah embodies the CoderDojo spirit," said Liao. "The ability to code is an incredibly powerful language skill best mastered at a young age and applicable to any career path. We look forward to Tyriah's continued success and her role in growing the CoderDojo family, as well as inspiring others to found Dojos across the UK."
Reil concurs it is a skill that can complement many career paths. He should know. He was studying biology in the zoology department in Oxford when he first realised the importance of code.
"I couldn't code at the time, but there were some things I wanted to do regarding some ideas that I had about biological theory, and the only way to find that out was to write some computer simulations," Reil said. "So back then I taught myself Java and then C++, and started to write code to test my ideas. That's really how everything started.
"Eventually, I ended up writing code pretty much all the time, even for problems unrelated to biology," he added. "For example, I write a simulation to optimise the traffic lights in a city, because I got so annoyed waiting at traffic lights all the time. It was those things that made me realise that once you can code there are lots of things that you can do."
Eventually, Reil became very interested in how animal neuro networks and movement worked, and wrote motion simulation technology. That's how NaturalMotion got started. He had in fact come up with what he now calls Euphoria, the motion-simulation technology used in NaturalMotion's own games, such as Clumsy Ninja and CSR Racing, as well as in third-party games.
Tyriah Allison (11) leads a CoderDojo at NaturalMotion in Oxford, England
NaturalMotion meets CoderDojo
So how did the link with CoderDojo come about?
"Tyriah sent me an email a couple of months back, telling me about CoderDojo, and that they were looking for a place to host it in Oxford," said Reil. "She approached us because she was such a fan of Clumsy Ninja, one of our biggest games. I emailed her back and immediately said yes. I spoke to our guys, and found we had loads of volunteer mentors here who wanted to help. The reason we're doing this is we want to give back to the community we work in, but also we think that learning coding skills is so important. That's how our company got started after all. It unleashes so much creativity if you know how to code."
Tyriah has been coding since she was just nine years old, and has been attending the Young Rewired State's Festival of Code every year since.
"Young Rewired State is delighted that one of its top young coders has chosen to set up a CoderDojo in Oxford," said Emer Mulqueeny, founder of Young Rewired State, an independent global network of kids aged 18 and under who have taught themselves to program computers. "Seeking out and empowering young coders to take on new and exciting challenges is a core part if the Young Rewired State mission."
Headquartered in Oxford with studios in London, Brighton, and San Francisco, NaturalMotion is the maker of hit mobile games which has recently been acquired by Zynga, a leading developer of social games, such as FarmVille and Words with Friends, that are played by more than 100m monthly consumers.
CoderDojo is an open-source, volunteer-led movement to ignite free, not-for-profit coding clubs and regular sessions for young people ages 5 to 17. It has its origins in Cork, Ireland, and was founded by James Whelton and Bill Liao.
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic's campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland. You can nominate inspiring women in the fields of STEM via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @siliconrepublic