We need more kids who can code

20 Dec 2010

In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy reasons that not only do we need greater ICT competency in our schools, but we need more kids that code, that break things and who, ultimately, build things.

Last week, three things happened that once again confirmed in my mind how important it is that we do not lose momentum in terms of equipping future generations of Irish school-leavers with the right skills, particularly ICT skills, and how a much better job needs to be done to grow our engineering population.

The first thing that happened was the realisation of just how severe Budget 2011’s reduction on ICT spending in Irish schools was going to be. According to the Department of Education’s Estimates for Education and Skills Vote, the capital allocation for 2011 for schools’ ICT equipment will be reduced from €63m in 2010 to €1.5m in 2011.

“This reflects the very significant capital investment in schools’ ICT in 2009 and 2010 as part of the ‘Smart Schools’ programme,” a spokesman confirmed. “A total of €92m in ICT grants has been issued to schools in the past 12 months under this programme. The focus in 2011 will be on leveraging this significant investment to ensure further integration of ICT into teaching and learning.”

So the watchword of 2011 will be ‘leveraging’ previous investments. The problem really is before last year there were no ICT investments to speak of. Nonetheless, the State will press on with putting 100Mbps broadband into 300 more Irish schools next year. My fear is that unless teachers are encouraged to embrace ICT, the champions needed to make use of the 100Mbps won’t be there. You could argue won’t the children themselves be the champions finding new ingenious things to do with the technology? I would say yes, but it’s a team effort. Encouragement and interest go a long way.

You see, it’s all about momentum. The 2011 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition received the highest number of entries in its 47-year history, with a record-breaking 3,943 students across Ireland taking part. I would argue that efforts like Smart Schools = Smart Economy to put ICT into the hands of teachers and classrooms played some role in that. A whopping 1,735 projects have been entered into the 2011 exhibition, which has risen by 35pc, a positive sign for the prospects of science and innovation for the future of the country? Yes, but it’s going to be a team effort.

Kids who hack

The second thing that happened last week was an epiphany of sorts. While talking about the need to keep up momentum in ICT in education it struck me that we’re arguing a lot about just getting teachers and kids to use ICT and digital media to realise a better educational experience, to think differently and prepare them for the work environment of a 21st-century digital economy. But what about going further in quarters where the kids don’t just want to learn how to use PowerPoint, but want to code, engineer and if they want to, hack.

When I say hack, I’m not talking about guys who are out to cause mischief or lead DDOS attacks on e-commerce websites. No, what I’m talking about is the core essence of what has built companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and even going further back, HP, when two guys tinkered with radios and oscilloscopes in a garden shed.

You see, we rave and rave at times about how engineering is a ticket to the world, but we forget that the seed of the digital revolution is guys who are innately curious and want to break things open, figure out their inner workings and rebuild them to be perhaps even better.

In the late 1970s in California, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were members of a local computer club before setting up Apple. Considered one of the greatest engineers of his age, Wozniak broke phones apart, rebuilt them and created the world’s first dial-a-joke service and even a television interface for computers. That was before Apple and before the internet.

There was a poignant moment at a recent Y Combinator conference where just after The Social Network was released when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked about how he felt about the film. He pointed out how the film mostly got the wardrobe right but didn’t acknowledge the fact that instead of being some insecure geek trying to be popular and get girls, he had been in a happy relationship since long before the events of the movie even began. But most telling of all and how Hollywood completely missed the point in its portrayal of the origins of Facebook, he said: “Don’t they realise that the guys in Silicon Valley just want to build stuff?”

And that’s it; they just want to build stuff. We need people like that. We need to realise not only do we need a baseline proficiency in ICT among teachers and students – that should be a given at this point – but we need to sate the curious minds of kids who are capable of going further. The ability to code and engineer should be on offer to those kids who just want to build stuff.

When Call of Duty: Black Ops came out recently, it brought in revenues of US$1bn. We need to position ourselves to be able to engineer those kind of products, not just taking tech support calls in call centres. Companies like Microsoft get this now, not only is it becoming more open to open source, but the company said it was thrilled when it heard people were hacking into its new Kinect physical gaming device because ultimately it meant people would build newer games and even better it. All of this would add to its longevity. Facebook, for example, is running a Hacker Cup competition to create competition among programmers. Why, well ultimately this will create legions of apps developers into the future, making Facebook’s ecosystem more compelling and once again, ensuring its longevity.

Among the programming and engineering elite, hacking is actually a badge of honour. In their world it is really about building stuff, not ‘hacking’ in the sense that they want to cause any trouble. We need to encourage kids to code, not just embed YouTube videos in some presentation or show how they used Wikipedia to research a project. We need them to code, too.

Winning future investment

And this brings me on to my third point. I learned with regret that Ireland lost out on an investment project that would have generated 200 software jobs because we didn’t have the software engineering talent for that particular project. The Intel investment went instead to Romania. Well done, Romania.

This should have been a project Ireland could have won hands down. We really needed a ready supply of skilled young software engineering graduates to swing it.

But what sent a shiver down my spine was the recollection of a call I received in 2002 just after the dot.com bust from a mother whose son had just graduated from college after doing computers and jobs were scarce on the ground. She was upset that there were no jobs in computers – at that time – and her son’s efforts might have been in vain. Her outlook was in part being driven by negative media coverage that effectively pilloried some of the Irish internet founders of the time. Ireland was actually barely scratched by the tech downturn of 2002 and any job losses at the time were recovered within a year or two.

Ireland’s response to the dot.com downturn was totally out of proportion to Ireland’s actual exposure. Computer engineering classes at top universities fell from an average intake of 800 to less than 200. Instead parents encouraged their children to do ‘safe’ subjects like law. Well, today the jobs in demand are in software and engineering. How are we going to fuel a knowledge economy if we aren’t producing people who can build the products of tomorrow? Need a lawyer anyone?

There is a clear link between maths and science performance in Irish schools and the fact that computer courses still haven’t recovered the numbers they need – at a time when technology jobs grew in Ireland by 6pc this past year.

Computer science college courses experienced the highest drop-out rate, with 27pc of these students leaving within their first year, a recent HEA study has found. Engineering was third in terms of drop-out rates, with 20pc of students leaving before second year. Science tied with the arts/humanities/business sector, with a 14pc drop-out rate.

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the OECD group responsible for measuring maths and literacy performance by students worldwide, found Ireland significantly below the OECD average for maths, causing alarm among industry groups.

Comparing countries’ and economies’ performances, Ireland achieved a PISA score of 487, below the OECD average of 496 and comparing poorly with economies like China-Shanghai (600), Korea (546) and Finland (541). Insufficient ICT resources in Irish schools were blamed by PISA for the poor performance, proof if anything that the State must be stepping up its investment in ICT in schools, not reducing it.

So, proof if anything we need to keep momentum, not abandon our efforts when things take a wrong course. The technology industry is alike any industry, it has its fair share of downturns, peaks and troughs but when it recovers it gets stronger.

The 21st century will be an age of discovery. We have barely scratched the surface of what technology can do. If we are to be in the vanguard of this revolution we need Irish kids who can code in the front ranks, breaking things and rebuilding them. We need kids who can code. They just need encouragement.

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