’s Jerry Kennelly: Ireland needs to become a land of coders and scholars

15 Apr 2013

Technology entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly addresses DojoCon attendees at Slane Castle

The saints and scholars tag for Ireland is defunct – it now needs to be known as the land of ‘coders and scholars’, Kerry technology entrepreneur Jerry Kennelly told DojoCon, the global gathering of CoderDojo mentors at Slane Castle in Co Meath at the weekend. He told parents to wake up and be aware of a seismic change that will enable Ireland to make an economic impact on the world.

After starting in Cork almost two years ago, CoderDojo has grown to more than 16,000 kids learning how to code in 180 dojos in 23 countries. And Slane Castle, normally the destination of choice for rock stars and bands ranging from U2 and R.E.M. to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones and Madonna became the venue to host those who are supporting tomorrow’s ‘rock stars’.

Mentors, organisers and parents are the beating heart of the CoderDojo movement and the very people who make it possible for kids as young as six across the world to learn how to write the critical business language of the 21st century: software code. They give up their time, organise venues, source broadband and bus the kids to and fro.

The movement began when then-18-year-old James Whelton, now an Ashoka fellow, and technology investor Bill Liao decided to address the anomaly of kids not being taught coding in schools. “We’re still a very young movement, not even two years old. In that time we have learned that no matter what issue arises, we can collectively and as a community overcome it,” Whelton told mentors.

Whelton has since established the Hello World Foundation, which will strive to use open-source principles to enable the CoderDojo movement to run more easily and more seamlessly. “We will work with teachers and we will be helping other charities with their technology. We will work towards a more sustainable, connected and more collaborative network of dojos.”

A light that never goes out

Among the community of ardent mentors is Disney technology VP Una Fox, who established a CoderDojo in LA. “Nobody teaches coding in schools in Ireland or the US and I’m sure it’s the same in many countries around the world.

“But it’s amazing when you see the light in the kids’ eyes when they work on a computer and find out that they can make an object move and how excited they are about that. It’s amazing to see how much they can do after just one hour of instruction and how creative they can be.”

Kennelly, who sold his company Stockbyte to Getty Images in 2006 for US$135m, told the audience of mentors how convinced he has become that coding is going to be the lingua franca of the digital age and that no nation can afford to be left behind in this regard.

Kennelly told the audience how he began as a photojournalist and after buying his first Mac in the 1990s began to pour over various manuals on how to use software like Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, PageMaker and more. He said that while he still can’t code himself, he has become something of an expert on relational databases.

His experience with Stockbyte and his more recent venture has convinced him that Ireland can be a great base in which to build world-changing businesses.

“Most of my time is spent meeting large companies and the view a lot of people have is that we all live in a technologically advanced world. That is not the case. The reality is most medium and large businesses don’t have access to beautifully executed code and most are using apps that are out of date.

“Often IT departments are black holes where IT projects disappear.”

He said, however, that the coding revolution has the power to change all of that. “Real innovation is coming from small, innovative teams with a strong creative vision and they are the ones who will change the world, not the large companies.”

How Ireland could change the world forever. But it starts at home

Kennelly said he believes Europe is only playing catch-up and aside from Skype, it’s hard to think of truly world-changing technology companies yet to emerge from Europe.

Kennelly said the future belongs to creative people who work hard and often in a solitary manner, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule and how The Beatles used to play eight-hour sets.

“Creating something from nothing is a solitary affair. Before the internet was mainstream I would spend months locked in a room trying to learn all the manuals. The result was the technical expertise that allowed me to do what followed.

“Having spent the 10,000 hours, conventional business people told me that I was nuts, but it became the new model and Stockbyte was one of the first three companies in the world to do this.”

Kennelly pointed out that Ireland is a nation of entrepreneurs and one of the few countries in the world where English is spoken as a first language. He also said there were innumerable advantages to the fact that most young Irish people by their early 20s have experienced the US and Europe.

But he said a valuable opportunity is being wasted by the present education system. “We are not producing people that understand their role in the world – the education system has become a points race that doesn’t lead to empowerment or self-belief or in unleashing creativity.”

Kennelly pointed to his Young Entrepreneur Programme in Kerry, which by next month will have introduced 5,000 schoolkids to entrepreneurship. “Once they settle on a business idea they become highly motivated and fight tooth and nail to bring their ideas to fruition, they get challenged by mentors in a Dragons’ Den environment and they fight back. They become stronger because they unleashed their own creative spirit.

“I truly wish that inner power will stay with them because they are changed for the better.”

Empower young entrepreneurs

He said it is important that while not every kid will become an entrepreneur they need to think entrepreneurially. “They will discover that working for someone else is a pain in the ass and may want to start their own businesses. Maybe they won’t, but creating an awareness in their mind that they can be entrepreneurs is critical.”

Kennelly cited the Collison brothers, John and Patrick, who sold their first business for US$5m when they were 17 and 19 respectively and today are running a company in Silicon Valley estimated to be worth US$1bn, e-commerce-enabler Stripe.

“They were playing with concepts when they were kids. Patrick learned how to code at the age of eight.” Kennelly said it was time Ireland learned from their example.

“You can write apps in your bedroom and gain a global audience through the Apple and Google Play stores. The old world of hiring PR people and marketing people no longer matters. There are no upfront costs and the creators get 70pc of the revenue. Every entrepreneur and software developer has a chance to be in control of their futures and it beats the hell out of running a traditional software company.”

Kennelly said software coding can provide young people with a powerful set of skills. Thanks to the work of the mentors, in a few years we could see hundreds of thousands of young people creating apps who have come through CoderDojo.

“They don’t all have to start tech companies or work for people like me, but when you know you can create wonderful software you are very much in control of your destiny. Make the world a better place – you don’t need boardrooms or data centres, you just need to have a concept to make the world a better place and execute on that.

“We can be the island of coders and scholars instead of saints and scholars,” Kennelly said.

He told the parents of Irish children to wake up. “This is real. It is not about kids just playing computer games, there is a tangible result at the end of it. This could be an economic game-changer for Ireland. The entrepreneurial globe is far more impactful than anything Official Ireland is doing.

“Look at what the GAA has done in sport. If we can take 20pc of that effort in volunteerism and put it into efforts like the CoderDojo movement, the impact would be enormous.”

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