CoderDojo at 5: Rare interview with James Whelton on the eve of very first dojo

17 Sep 2016

Born of frustration with the slow adoption of coding in school curriculums, global software movement CoderDojo began on a Saturday morning five years ago in Cork. Here, we dig out a rare interview with co-founder James Whelton on the eve of the first dojo.

On a Friday afternoon in 2011, on the way back to the office after attending some conference or other, I received a phone call in my car.

On the other end of the call was a young chap called James Whelton whom I had first met several months previously at a Web Summit event where he talked about achieving global fame because he hacked the iPod Nano to turn it into a watch. This was long before Apple had even hinted at creating an Apple Watch.

The then 18-year-old told me he was on a Luas tram and he was nearly at my office with a story for me. No interview had been arranged. The whole thing was unsolicited.

Instinct kicked in and I checked with our video editor Conor McCabe to see if he was available to do a quick video interview because an important story may have just landed. With characteristic zeal, McCabe had our cameras set up and ready to roll.


CoderDojo co-founders James Whelton and Bill Liao

When he arrived, Whelton explained that he and Bill Liao of SOSV were about to start something new – a movement called CoderDojo – because he was inspired by so many school pals asking him to show them how to code.

The next day, the first-ever CoderDojo would take place at the National Software Centre in Cork and, as Whelton explained, it was designed to fill the void in schools where there was no computer education.

Within months, CoderDojos began springing up in Dublin, on islands off the coast of Donegal and overseas in locations including Tokyo and New York. Children as young as six and as old as 18 flocked to learn how to write software.

A year later, at an ITLG event, I walked in on a CoderDojo session happening at Sony Studios in Hollywood with famous actors and their children in the front row.

Now five years old, the CoderDojo movement has spread to support more than 1,100 dojos in more than 66 countries worldwide.

Early CoderDojo in action

CoderDojo was the springboard for a whole generation of young coders who would go on to make names for themselves including Harry Moran, Niamh Scanlon, Lauren Boyle, Jordan Casey, Harry McCann, Catrina Carrigan and many others.

This afternoon (17 September), at a special event in The Vaults at Dogpatch Labs, the fifth anniversary of the very first CoderDojo will celebrated in style. A panel made up of CoderDojo alumni who have grown and developed with the movement will relate their experiences.


A CoderDojo in India

What set the movement apart was its ethos of tolerance and shared learning. It would not be out of bounds to see 10-year-olds teaching older teenage students how to code.

It is fitting that, five years later, the Government of Ireland is embarking on a pioneering new education strategy that will soon see coding taught in primary schools and computer science become a Leaving Cert subject. There could be no better tribute to what Whelton and Liao began.

As co-founder, Liao said: “The first rule of CoderDojo is, above all, be cool.”


A CoderDojo class in full swing in Japan

Disclosure: SOSV is an investor in Silicon Republic

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