Saturday 1 November 2014

The computer clubs training the whizz kids of tomorrow

A nationwide initiative is teaching cutting-edge skills to enthusiastic youngsters. Nick Bramhill reports

Published 23/02/2012 | 06:00

Simon Murphy with his children Sinn, Fia, Filip and Oscar at the Cork CoderDojo in the National Software Centre

It was the most revealing part of incoming Dragons' Den star Sean O'Sullivan's eloquent interview on The Late Late Show last November.

Despite our surging unemployment figures, the Irish- American tycoon spoke of his frustration at not being able to find suitably-qualified staff to fill 10 vacancies at his Irish-based technology company.

The entrepreneur had built up a $200m (€150m) company by the time he was 28. But he said he had hit a brick wall in his search for skilled computer programmers for his Avego Corporation, which has pioneered technology for car pooling. The firm is based in Kinsale, Co Cork.

The New Yorker blamed the Irish education system, which he said had failed to move with the times by providing the computer training needed in schools and at third level for Ireland's highly successful IT sector, which he described as "the Silicon Valley of Europe".

His solution, he conceded, would be to import the skilled Java programmers from other parts of Europe -- an option he stressed frustrated him, because he'd rather give the positions to Irish graduates.

But the tables are swiftly turning, so much so that in future years the rest of the world's leading IT nations are likely to be eyeing up Ireland's new generation of computer whizz kids.

That's because hundreds of tech-hungry youngsters, frustrated that their needs are not being met in the traditional classroom environment, are flocking to new, cutting-edge computer clubs every week which have been endorsed by O'Sullivan.

Since July last year, more than a dozen so-called 'CoderDojo' sessions have sprung up around the country under a not-for-profit Irish initiative, which its founders believe will equip the next generation with the tools and knowledge they require to thrive in the global IT sector.

Such is the hunger for new classes, that an average of two new classes -- which are mentored by six to eight computer experts -- are now opening up every month in Ireland, including remote outposts like Arranmore Island, off Co Donegal.

But now the initiative, which started off in Cork, has started to take off across the globe, with classes already established in London and San Francisco, and one soon to be unveiled in technology-mad China.

But the creators of the clubs, where young people aged between seven and 16 willingly flock to learn to code, hack, develop websites, apps and games, say the move has been particularly necessary here because the Irish education system has failed to offer adequate computer training.

And it seems they can't create dojos quickly enough to keep up with demand. When the initiative first started in Cork last summer, they soon discovered that dozens of the eager youngsters attending were travelling in from Dublin and further afield.

Frank Hannigan said he was thrilled when his two sons, Niall, 16, and Darryl, eight, begged him to let them join Cork's weekly meeting at Mahon's National Software Centre last month.

Mr Hannigan said: "It's a struggle to get my kids to do things like going for a swim or another activity, but this is the opposite. All their friends are going to CoderDojo and I'm absolutely delighted they're so keen, because this is plugging a gap that is not being offered to them at school.

"It's exposing a large group of kids who want to know everything they can about computing and it's free. It's also extremely effective. Within an hour-and-a-half of the first session my sons attended, my eldest, Niall, had designed a web page."

Mr Hannigan, a director of a number of internet companies, added: "Many children have a hunger to learn more about computers and technology. When they hear of someone designing an app or game, they want to be able to do the same. Now they have the opportunity to learn how to and when they become adults, that knowledge they have gained will become essential in whatever they decide to do.

"I just can't believe this hasn't happened before."

Creators, Cork computer wizard James Whelton, 19 -- who became the first person to hack the iPod Nano -- and entrepreneur Bill Liao, who's also a venture partner with Dragons' Den judge Sean O'Sullivan's Kinsale-based SOS Ventures, expect many more Irish success stories to emerge from the classes.

Alan Clayton, a mentor at Kinsale's inaugural dojo last month, said he couldn't believe it when more than 100 youngsters attended the first session.

He said: "There were 103 kids at our first session, which is pretty phenomenal. But then again it's not surprising because so many kids want to learn how to code. That's got to be a great thing because those kids are going to be better equipped than the ones coming out with traditional, academic qualifications.

Mr Clayton, who's also a councillor in Kinsale, added: "It bodes very well for the future, because there is a global shortage of people with these kinds of programming skills and the school system here isn't adapting to help. If you look at the educational system, the limit of what kids are being taught is the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) in transition year, which is inadequate. That's failing the children and that's why it's very hard to find people who can write computer code. There are plenty of jobs available for people who can do this, but very few Irish people can.

"But when you look at the enthusiasm and the knowledge being shared and passed on at these meetings, the future looks very bright."

For more information, see www.coderdojo.com.

Irish Independent

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