A young person’s code

By Emma Mulqueeny on December 19th, 2011

Two weeks ago, I received three emails, within days of each other, from members of Young Rewired State.

One was little short of an essay, crammed with six streamed solutions for teaching the author’s peer group – he is 16 – and the years behind him at school how to program, as well as how we were to bring together and challenge the ones who have taught themselves how to code.

The email had been sent from Silicon Valley, where the author has been snapped up by a tech start-up eager to make best use of the creativity, ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness of a young autodidact from the UK who has, against all the odds, educated himself into commercial desirability.

The second email was from a lad in his final year of school. He had his heart set on medical training, but had also taught himself programming for fun. He had not done as well in his exams as he had hoped, and was taking the opportunity to really think about what he wanted from life.

Did he want to go into medicine? If so, he seemed to have the drive, ambition and intelligence to retake his exams. But did his heart really lie with computer science? He was struggling to find an answer, and there was no apparent help on hand. No one was there to explain to him the potential of computer science, nor even which universities have the better-regarded courses.

The third email was an even more remarkable cry for help. This young chap’s ICT teacher had failed his homework assignment because it was a fully coded and working mobile response to the brief, rather than a PowerPoint presentation of what the front end might look like. It was, I could see, an all-too classic case of teacherly incompetence hitting precociousness head-on.

That was in November. There have been many more emails since, and there were many more before. Why are they writing to me? Well, in 2009, I ran an event called Young Rewired State (YRS). The idea was to grab a load of kids who were programmers and introduce them to open government data. We had recently run National Hack the Government Day, to great success, and won plaudits from government. We were instrumental in the creation of data.gov.uk and had high hopes for a young version of the same event.

To my horror, rather than having to limit entrants – we ran this event at Google over a weekend; it was a young geek’s dream – we discovered that we had managed to scrub up only half a dozen keen youngsters in a couple of weeks. Even with four of us on the case, we were finding it tough to locate kids: there were no networks, the schools didn’t teach programming and teachers had no idea which of the kids in their schools might be able to participate. Some of them muttered vaguely about the pupil in the library who keeps trying to hack into the school dinner menu.

Even developer networks bottomed out in the early 20s. Where were the teens? But we persevered. After three more months, we’d collected 50 names. And boy, were these kids incredible.

We’ve now run Young Rewired State for three years in a row. The core YRS numbers are growing, rapidly. By the time of the 2011 programme, there were 150 kids enrolled. In 2012 our aspirations are even larger. And as the network grows, we see spontaneous mentorship blossoming between the YRS alumni and the freshers.

Every year, the commitment and passion to building a strong, vibrant community for isolated young developers, teaching themselves how to code, grows stronger. All this is heartening, but it is also depressing, because it demonstrates the awful gulf between what we are teaching our children and what they need to know. Not to mention what they find intellectually stimulating and fun.

Quite aside from the demands of an information-driven economy, programming is not just important to the developer, the person who wants to write games and software and code the world around them. It is becoming vital that any adult growing up in this century should understand their digital surroundings.

How many of your life decisions are driven by algorithms written by strangers? Stop and think for a minute. In the time-poor world we live in, with affordable technology making it easier and easier to discover answers, learn things, book things, buy things… we love all that shiny tech, don’t we?

But there are people behind each glossy interface. People who have no interest in knowing you, except to the extent that they can analyse your behaviour to sell you things. As Douglas Rushkoff says in his book, Program or be Programmed, “The difference between a computer programmer and user is much less like that between a mechanic and a driver than it is like the difference between a driver and a passenger. If you choose to be a passenger then you must trust that your driver is taking you where you want to go. Or that he is even telling you the truth about what’s out there.

“You’re like Miss Daisy, getting driven from place to place. Only the car has no windows and if the driver tells you there is only one supermarket in the county, you have to believe him… the longer you live this way, the less access you have to the knowledge that it could be any other way, or that you ever had a choice in the matter.”

Much needs to change in our education system to adequately provide for the needs of our young people. Coding must be woven into the fabric of secondary education if our kids are to have any hope of competing in a global marketplace. That’s a subject for another column.

But it also behoves us, as adults, to dip our toes in the water too. There are places you can go. Try it out. See what you think.

Computational thinking will help you in countless ways beyond actually commanding a computer. Perhaps what you learn will help you in your career. It will definitely help you make important decisions in life, when you need to really understand what the options and choices are.

And, increasingly, it will help you make sense of a world that is changing rapidly. I have started an e-petition to ask the Government to debate the subject. There has been a groundswell in recent months around this topic, and No. 10 is keen to point out that it is updating the GCSE syllabus. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Please sign it and share it.