Coding for our lives

15 Dec 2011

Ireland's hidden talent - meet the kids who can code

Computer programming should be one of the most important subjects in schools. John Kennedy meets the young programmers who prove Ireland is a rich source of talent.

At a time when there are currently 5,000 vacancies in IT companies in Ireland, the Irish schools system needs to enshrine ICT skills as a core subject.

That’s why it’s both incredible and poignant that a voluntary movement that was born in Ireland during the summer is about to go international. Coder Dojo, the brainchild of 19-year-old entrepreneur and programmer James Whelton from Cork and tech entrepreneur Bill Liao, began as a Saturday morning club for kids to teach each other software programming.

It has grown into a national movement up and down Ireland, a place where kids and their parents can go and learn to write software code in a friendly environment. The first UK Coder Dojo was held in London only last week and other countries in Europe are clamouring
to get the initiative started there, too.

What Whelton – who only did his Leaving Cert this summer and is already up and running with his own software company Disruptive Development – is at pains for people to realise is there is actually a lot of software talent among young kids in Ireland.

“The kids are out there all right. Whether they’ve been doing it a long time and are self-taught prodigies, or they’ve picked it up through going to the Coder Dojos, they are coming out of the woodwork. I would like to think that Coder Dojo has played a role in helping to bring this to light.”

PizzaBot creator Harry Moran

One of the best examples of what can happen in a relatively short time is 12-year-old Harry Moran, originally from Agher in Meath and who recently moved to Cork from Westport. Moran went to his first Coder Dojo in September and began to learn how to code.

In recent weeks, he has emerged as the world’s youngest Mac app publisher and when his game PizzaBot was published in the Mac App Store, it shot to the top of the charts – scattering Angry Birds and outflanking Call of Duty.

“I found it hard to do at first and it took more than a month to make the game and then get it approved by Apple,” he says.

Moran plans to expand PizzaBot into an Android game and will create new versions of it. He has also set up his own software business, HM Computing.

“I want to build the business up and create a lot more apps.”

He also wishes schools would create a dedicated course around computing. “It’s a very important subject to learn because all of the jobs of the future will involve coding, it’s a very important skill for kids to learn.”

Moran’s mother Elaine admits she was typical of most Irish parents who would have tried to limit how much time their children spent on computers.

“It took some of the people from Coder Dojo to speak to me and give him the time to write his game. Computers were a block with me; I was only allowing him 20 minutes per day. I was anxious for him to be good at other things, like reading, sports and art.

“Coder Dojo was a revelation to me. We are very involved in the Scouts, but were amazed by the access to friends, the sharing and the goodwill. They all mentor each other. He started in September and learned how to code and within a month he had built his first game. This took us completely by surprise.”

Self-taught Shane Curran

Another example of the hidden talent in Ireland is 11-year-old computing prodigy Shane Curran. At the age of six, Curran did his first Linux install. At age 7, he learned how to programme in Visual Basic and built a simple web browser that he made available on the web for download. Since then, he has learned how to programme in multiple languages, such as PHP, C, C++, Java, Python, Ruby, Perl and Bash.

Curran has just developed a 21st-century version of the phone book called that stores people’s names and email addresses in a MySQL database and then allows users to browse people who have registered, obtain their email and contact them.

I ask Curran how he got into computers at such an early age.

“I just sat at a computer and I was interested to see how it worked and I looked inside. Something just sparked with me and I decided to get into lots of things, like Flash games.

“I am pretty good at picking up software languages. I learn it all online. The internet is very good for teaching you programmes and I taught myself a lot from the internet. Coder Dojo started during the year but largely to this point I have taught myself. At school, the teachers usually ask me if they have problems with the computers.

“The one thing Coder Dojo could do is help to get schools teaching coding to the kids. That definitely needs to improve.”

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Curran isn’t short on ambition. “I’d like to be the owner of a large company. Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin are my inspiration. If I could get half as far as them, I’d be happy.”

The kind of potential Ireland could unleash if it gave greater support to computers in education was ably demonstrated a few years ago when two Limerick teenagers – John and Patrick Collison – sold their first technology company Auctomatic for $5m. They were just 17 and 19 at the time.

Today, they are building a new software company called Stripe, which has just attracted investment from Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the biggest investors in Silicon Valley.

Tommy Collison – US ambition

The Collisons’ younger brother Tommy is currently in fifth year at secondary school and has been doing the SATs in recent months in the hope of getting a college place in America.

“It’s fairly clear that computing is fast becoming the lingua franca of the working world. Almost all jobs require – or would benefit from – a basic level of computer proficiency, but this isn’t being reflected in our education system,” he says.

“If there is nascent talent, it’s being missed. There are probably lots of kids with a lot of ability out there who aren’t getting picked up because there’s no place for them to express and further that talent, and I think that’s a real shame.

“Picture, for a minute, what it would be like if programming was taught as an option in schools, alongside maths or history or German. We’d be cultivating a generation of programmers in an era of start-ups like Facebook, Tapadoo or Stripe, my brothers’ company, and that’d leave us (Ireland, as well as those teens themselves) in a very good position for the future.

“Paul Graham, an American venture capitalist, founder of Y Combinator and possibly one of the most eloquent essayists of our time, often talks about the ‘Pointy-Haired Boss’. This undesirable caricature is someone who knows nothing about technology. The surest way of not becoming one of these people, Graham says, is to programme.

“I think that efforts like the Coder Dojo are making a huge difference in the fact that these kids are learning a lot about something they’re obviously passionate about. James (Whelton) and the other mentors are cultivating the students’ love and talent for programming and instilling some great values and skills in them, too.”

We’re not turning Irish school kids into creators of technology – James Whelton

Whelton points out that the current state of play in Irish schools is that by fourth-year most Irish school kids are taught the ECDL (European Computer Driving License), which gives them a working understanding of applications like Microsoft Office.

“But the reality is we’re at a stage where primary school kids are already comfortable with Office. We are turning Irish school kids into consumers of technology, not creators of technology. This is at a time when they are seeing movies like The Social Network and hearing about successful Irish programmers like Stephen Troughton-Smith.”

Whelton notes, however, that there is a light on the horizon. In recent weeks, he and other Coder Dojo organisers got to present to the Oireachtas on potential curriculum for Irish schools.

“Harry (Moran) was immediately on to me and begged me to try and make this happen before he does his Leaving Cert. Here’s a sixth class student already thinking six years down the road.

“I think there’s an opportunity to get the ball rolling and it could tie in nicely with Junior Cert reform that (Education Minister) Ruairi Quinn wants to implement,” Whelton adds.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years