Raising a New Generation of Coders

May 8, 2013 Krzysztof Piskorski

Meet Zora Ball. She’s a lovely seven year old girl from Philadelphia, who’s quite similar to all her school friends – with one small exception. She is currently the youngest kid to have created a fully working mobile application.

Zora Ball 

She had managed to do that using the Alice 2.0 software suite customized by her science and technology teacher. According to Philadelphia Tribune, Zora’s game involved a ballerina looking for her lost jewel in a hair saloon haunted by vampires. It featured basic gameplay and graphics.

When Zora presented her app on “Bootstrap Expo” at the University of Pennsylvania, some questioned if her older brother or teacher didn’t do most of the work for her. But girl proved naysayers wrong – in style. When asked to modify her program, she reconfigured the app on the spot, raising many eyebrows.

Zora is of course just one of many IT prodigies. Even before her, we’ve heard stories of 8-year olds getting Microsoft certifications, 10-year olds becoming Sun Certified Java Programmers or 12-year olds earning money by developing iPhone apps.

I could fill this article in with a long list of children coders, but the real point is – we’re witnessing a rise of a generation that learns to code just as naturally as it learns to write and do math.

It’s about time, as software development world is now hungrier for their talent than ever before.

The quest for talent in software development 

Consider PGS Software. Since last year, we’ve grown significantly, increasing our team, number of projects and – as a result – raising our revenue by 30%. Still, we know that at some point the number of available talent might become a limiting factor, just like for other successful IT Outsourcing companies. We hire constantly, we offer internships, we partner with local technical universities, but the needs are growing just as fast as our teams.

We know that even now there are plenty of coders looking for work. But if you start looking for someone with specific skills, some real experience, and – on top of it – if you want him or her to become a good fit for your team… Well, that’s where problems starts.

The supply of IT personnel is growing nowhere near as fast as the demand. According to most predictions, in 2015 the EU will need around 250 000 additional workers with strong IT skills.

There’s only one way to combat this shortage. We need to get kids to program.

Of course I don’t suggest we should simply push young people into IT jobs. Choosing a career for your children quite often backfires, and you also run a risk of feeling quite bad if the reality of the market suddenly shifts in ten years’ time.

But consider this – the natural curiosity of first graders, the way they now start to understand tablets, input methods and abstract UIs before they even read well makes programming a very attractive educational proposal. More and more often coding becomes part of the early school curriculum.

The largest move so far came from Estonia. In 2012, this little country that aspires to become a hotbed of technological skills included programming lessons into regular school activities for… 6 year olds. Of course, no one forces first graders to delve into intricacies of C#. They use tablets and special software, and they seem to like those new lessons very much.

I’m sure their parents are just as happy, because – despite of what many jaded developers think – programming is one of the best careers out there. In a recent comparison on a popular website Career Cast Software Engineers achieved the 3rd place out of 200 vocations. This aggregate score took into account several aspects, including salaries, stress levels, working environment and hiring prospects (by the way: editors, authors and journalists came close to the bottom of the chart).

Of course not every kid will have a natural affinity for programming, and some don’t even like tablets and computers that much (shocking, I know). But you won’t know that until you try, right?

So, without further rambling, here’s a toolbox you can use to guide your young Mark Zuckerberg in his or her first steps:

Age 5+

At first glance, teaching programming skills to a kid who has just learned how to read is a bit too ambitious. Fortunately, there are many simple and beautiful tools that achieve just that, while using only a handful of words. One of those is Daisy the Dinosaur for iPad. If you’re in your thirties, you probably remember the LOGO programming language that taught children how to control an animated turtle. Here, kids control a small dinosaur and solve basic problems by writing programs for their pet.

Age 8+

Older children might want to try something more complex. A new crowdfunded app called Hopscotch builds a great graphical environment where they can expand their IT skills.  They get more commands to play with, more objects on screen, more logical operations. And if you don’t have an iPad, there’s also a popular alternative: browser-based Scratch.

Age 10+

At the age of 10, a young programmer is usually ready to see his or her first lines of real code. And there’s hardly a better way to do that than by showing him CodeMonster – a simple, Web-based tutorial where a blue creature guides you through some basic Java commands in 59 free lessons. For children more focused on fun and gaming, there’s also Kodu. This beautiful and powerful creation suite from Microsoft Research allows children to build their own simple games.

Age 12+

The next logical step is Codecademy. It’s an extremely rich online tutorial that boasts it can teach ANYONE to code. That might just be true, as the comments and interactive guides make it very easy to get some rough knowledge of Python, Ruby, PHP, JavaScript and JQuery. Professionals are encouraged to build their own courses on any programming topic, so the number of the covered technologies is sure to expand.

Age 15+

Here’s where the real deal starts. There’s really no need for hand-holding a 15 year old youngster, and there’s nothing stopping him or her from creating real software with real tools. Who knows, maybe they’ll become the next start developer? At this age, Nick D’Alosio created his first popular news aggregation application called Summly that quickly passed 200 000 downloads. He managed to gather a venture capital of over a million dollars, and by the age of 17 he sold Summly to Yahoo for $30 million.

All of that came before he even went to college.

An investment for the future

Only a handful of young programmers can ever hope to become a star of the same caliber as D’Alosio. Maybe that’s a good thing – there’s something scary about young teens pursuing full-time careers before they leave high school. Still, there are some benefits that might be enjoyed by all of them. According to most research, programming improves logical skills, reading skills and cognition. It also teaches patience and analytical reasoning.

Of course, we must also remember about the dark side of technology. Today’s young people are often too fond of tablets and game consoles, which results in many health problems. But that’s where a bit of parental responsibility comes in hand, and with some diligence, benefits may outweigh the costs.

PGS Software has always been very interested in influence of new technologies on kids. After all, many of us are at the same time parents and technology aficionados. We know from experience that 6 year olds are eager to use the latest tech, and we want their contact with technology to be a healthy one. To facilitate this, we’ve created a line of interactive

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