Mary Moloney on how CoderDojo became a worldwide phenomenon

12 Aug 2016

Mary Moloney (centre) at Inspirefest 2016 with CoderDojo mentors Vanessa Greene (l) and Catrina Carrigan (r). Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Mary Moloney is moving on from her role as CEO of CoderDojo following a period of impressive growth for the social enterprise. Claire O’Connell caught up with her.

Mary Moloney loves a challenge. That’s why, just over two years ago, she stepped into the role of CEO at The CoderDojo Foundation. Her mission was to enable the community and its supporters to create a truly global movement of free technology and computer coding clubs for kids and young people. Today, she is moving on to a new challenge, but the growth of the CoderDojo community during her tenure speaks for itself.

Moloney remembers when CoderDojo co-founders James Whelton and Bill Liao asked her to become CEO. “I had been in Accenture for more than 20 years and it was good timing, I was ready for a change,” she said.

“Bill and James approached me, but CoderDojo was their thing, and I thought ‘how will this work’? But right from the start we were all in sync, we all wanted the same thing – to create something truly global out of something that had become very recognisable in Ireland and had grown organically elsewhere; getting traction particularly in parts of Europe, the US and Australia. But we needed to build more infrastructure, services and content to enable real global growth. We also needed to secure the support of partners and organisations to help us to reach more countries and kids. While doing that, we needed to continue to support the core of what makes CoderDojo special – the growing community of volunteers who so generously donate their time and resources to the movement.”

Any reservations that she might have had about taking up the role were quickly overcome by Liao and Whelton’s commitment to CoderDojo. “Their passion and commitment was so infectious and inspiring, that made the decision to join the team easy,” recalls Moloney. “It was also clear that they welcomed input and help and would be open and supportive of a new CEO.”

Back-to-basics for growth

Moloney’s approach was to go back-to-basics and think about what it takes to open a dojo, a place where volunteer mentors help young people learn to code in their community for free.

“I had been involved in starting a dojo as a parent in Sandymount in Dublin,” she said. “So we thought about the sets of mechanisms and processes and tools that everyone should know and have – like how to be a mentor, how to deliver child protection training, how to structure the room so the kids can collaborate, how to enable the kids to progress at different speeds and how to introduce them to different technologies or different coding languages.”

Moloney also focused on corporate support and fundraising, encouraging companies to “…connect in with CoderDojo through their own corporate citizenship programmes and to align their values with CoderDojo’s goals, making their relationship with the movement a win-win.”

The results soon showed. When Moloney started, around 200 CoderDojos were up and running in about 20 countries. Today, more than 1,100 clubs run on a regular basis in 65 countries, reaching around 45,000 young people each week.

CEOs and kids

Moloney is not only in her element talking to managers and CEOs, she also has a natural way with the young coders and developers who take part in CoderDojo. And at the annual CoderDojo Coolest Projects Awards, Moloney has even been spotted doing gymnastics alongside acrobats and a breakdancing James Whelton.

Getting out there and talking to people has been an important driver for Moloney, who says you never know who in the room will connect with the story, but someone always does. “You reach people, and sometimes they only tell you a while afterwards with an email or a comment, but by getting out and giving talks and meeting people, you connect,” she said. “And, for me, spending time with people in the CoderDojo community itself is amazing – you feel the kindness and generosity of the mentors who are there every week for the kids, and you see the kids helping each other and coming along with all different interests. Some of them are just coming in from their GAA training and CoderDojo is a part of their Saturday, it’s not something odd or different. It’s for all kids.”

Future growth

Moloney welcomes the recent moves towards introducing coding in primary schools in Ireland. She is relieved that some politicians are taking on board the educational need and have acknowledged the work that CoderDojo does. “Coding in itself is a relevant skill, but it is also a great platform from which to assist kids in developing crucial interpersonal skills in logic, problem-solving, computational thinking and more,” she said.

She also stresses that preparing and supporting teachers for technology-related education is a key step: “It’s an ever-changing world and teachers need skills, confidence and, indeed, ongoing support to be able to take on emerging trends.”

As of today (12 August), Moloney officially says goodbye to the CEO role to take up a position with global advisory firm Teneo Holdings, but she will stay on the board of CoderDojo and she is delighted to see Giustina Mizzoni appointed as executive director of the organisation, which continues to grow. “On average, we see about eight new dojos set up each week, and, meanwhile, we have dojos that have been running for years,” says Moloney. “Now we want to see another generation of dojo champions and mentors too, so that existing dojos can be sustained and the growth rates can ramp up even further.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication