The Interview: the incredible journey of James Whelton, CoderDojo co-founder (videos)

10 Apr 201511 Shares

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Cork native James Whelton co-founded the globe-spanning CoderDojo movement when he was just a teen. Today he is a 22-year-old tech entrepreneur focused on the emerging tech scene in the Middle East.

On a pretty normal overcast Friday afternoon in the summer of 2011 a phone call came in from James Whelton.

Whelton was just 18 and had done his Leaving Cert. He had become a bit world famous a year or so earlier for hacking the iPod Nano and creating watch faces for the device.

Whelton told me he was on the Luas tram and was on the way out to my office. Instinctively I asked our video editor Connor to set up our cameras, we had a story.

Whelton told me that the next morning a new movement was to be formed in Cork that would endeavour to teach kids how to code. The movement was in response to a dearth of ICT education in Irish schools and part of a global awakening around tooling-up kids with vital technology skills. The logic that Whelton and his co-founder, venture capitalist Bill Liao of SOSventures, had established was that software coding languages will be more universal and more useful than spoken languages.

Within a year there was a CoderDojo on every continent on the planet, the movement having spread from Arranmore on Ireland’s west coast to Japan, the Caribbean, LA and Africa, with one rule: “Above all, be cool.”

Today the CoderDojo movement is a not-for-profit organisation where, through a network of volunteers and kids teaching other kids, there are more than 480 dojos operating in 48 countries worldwide. Within Europe alone CoderDojo classes reach more than 25,000 students.

On 13 June, CoderDojo will host this year’s Coolest Projects Awards, which will be the biggest yet, having grown from from just 15 entries in 2011 to an anticipated 500 entries this year.

After running CoderDojo with Bill Liao from the start, a new CEO Mary Maloney joined the organisation in 2014 and Whelton took the opportunity to become a CTO for Paul Kenny’s Middle East e-commerce venture Cobone.com and travel start-up Safarna.

Sands of time

After Kenny exited Cobone in December as part of a multi-million euro exit and Safarna was wound down, Whelton has decided to stay on in Dubai where he is helping to nurture the city’s emerging start-up scene, building the community and advising start-ups.

Just back from a trip of discovery to Nepal, which he describes as his first “disconnected” holiday, Whelton admits he needed to step back from the craziness.

“I’m just 22 now and with all the things I’ve been through I feel like retiring,” he jokes. “But like anyone in their early 20s I still have a lot of growing up to do. I can successfully wash a white shirt now so I’m on the up and up!”

Behind the jokes is the reality that Whelton had to grow up faster than most of his peers after walking into the limelight before he left school.

When he was a 14-year-old teenager growing up in Cork he got a call from a panicked neighbour whose nephew had just been diagnosed with a tumour behind his eye. A scan had just been completed and doctors in the US needed the scan within 24 hours but the broadband of the day wouldn’t allow it. Whelton quickly wrote a software app that allowed the doctors in the US to view the brain scan over the internet. The doctors were able to determine the correct surgery and treatment and today that child is alive, although minus one eye.

Just two years later he became briefly world famous again when he hacked the firmware on the Apple iPod nano to put a watchface on the device and, two years after that, CoderDojo was born.

Not long after CoderDojo was established he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Polaris Ventures, immersed himself in the Dublin start-up scene and worked with Liao to grow CoderDojo into the global movement it became.

Reaping the whirlwind

In effect, instead of going to university like most people his age, Whelton dived headfirst into the technology revolution and still occupies the whirlwind.

“I’m immensely proud of CodeDojo, but neither Bill nor I can take full credit because it is the community of volunteers and kids who have made CoderDojo what it is.

“As an organic grassroots movement it has been fascinating to see it grow. People instantly got the concept, understood the founding principles and abided by the inclusive nature and core tenets.

“The challenge was always how do you structure something that has grown as fast as CoderDojo without restricting it?

“CoderDojo is a product of the collective effort of people who cared and were passionate about coding and wanted it to grow.

“I look at things like the Coolest Projects and see that as something that was driven by mentors like Noel King who really is the fire beneath it.”

Ultimately, he feels that, what CoderDojo has created is a social dimension for kids to learn how to code and also develop personally.

“It has transcended creeds and genders and you are seeing kids who would have had no such social outlet becoming teachers of classes, presenting their projects and more. To me the most rewarding thing was seeing the kids’ confidence grow.

“When you see kids teaching other kids, it is incredibly powerful. It was then I realised that this could be self-perpetuating. It was a powerful moment.”

Within a year of founding CoderDojo with Bill Liao, Whelton became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship, joining social entrepreneurs such as Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank.

This led to Whelton securing €100,000 worth of investment through a partnership led by Intel, which he used to create the Hello World Foundation to help other education iniatitives.

Middle Eastern promise

Although he is in the Middle East he still keeps in touch with Liao. “We’ve always been very aligned on the topic of education and he gave me a lot of mentorship. I last saw him three weeks ago at a CoderDojo in Cork. We’ve a good understanding and friendship.

“We see each other from time to time and what is very important is that CoderDojo and the Hello World Foundation are in incredible hands and we have a great board in place.”

While other young entrepreneurs have gone west to Silicon Valley, Whelton says he saw the opportunity to go to the Middle East when he met Paul Kenny in Silicon Valley.

“I knew it was time to step away from CoderDojo from an operational perspective and gain new experiences. Within three months of arriving in Dubai I had one company acquired and another one shuttered, and so while it ain’t quite Silicon Valley, things move fast out here.

“I’m still on the board of CoderDojo; I still advise and I hope to learn and grow through the things I am experiencing here in the Middle East. I may yet go back to Cork and study computer science in UCC – if they’ll have me – or I may go to Silicon Valley.

“But right now I’m working with a diverse set of cultures, gaining great experiences and out here there is a lot of opportunity because there has been an influx of capital and investment.

“All I can say is that it has been an incredible journey.”

Ages of Whelton

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com