One Thursday night on Twitter, online friends Tiffani Bell and Kristy Tillman were talking about Detroit’s water crisis and how a city could shut off water to 300,000 residents with delinquent accounts. Feeling frustrated, the two women decided to do something about it, and weeks later, built a system to match payments between donors and residents facing a shutoff notice. Months later, that system — which was, at the time, a side project for Bell and Tillman — had raised more than $600,000 across 8,500 donors, with more than $100,000 being paid in the first 34 days.
It’s stories like Bell and Tillman’s that have inspired the ‘learn to code movement’ — the idea that there needs to be more programmers, from all walks of life, in the world. That’s why hacker schools like Dev Bootcamp, MakerSquare, and Bloc.io have created immersive, bootcamp-style programs to help prepare its student base of college grads and career changers for entry-level engineering jobs. It’s also the reason why online, learn to code platforms like Treehouse are becoming some of the Internet’s most popular destinations.
Programming experience helps people find find jobs, solve problems, and start companies. For parents, it’s a way to empower kids with the most important asset that they’ll ever have — the ability to create something of value out of thin air and to build what’s in their imaginations.
Why parents need to step up
Teaching kids to code is both challenging and time-consuming — with ‘best practices’ that are still very much a work in progress. For budget-strapped schools with limited technology and faculty resources, it’s also expensive. While some schools are beginning to implement coding programs, there are many that can barely afford to purchase the equipment that they need to take the first step.
“I have a friend that is a principal for an Los Angeles charter school, and he told me that they only have a handful of computers for the entire school,” says Jimi Smoot, a self-taught programmer who, after growing up on food stamps, built and sold two software companies.
“This makes me sad because some computer time and basic programming can change
kids lives significantly.”
Smoot, who taught himself to code by taking the bus to his local public library, explains that parents can’t wait for schools to catch up. If they do, they may be risk creating opportunity costs for children in their adult lives.
“The world is increasingly software driven,” says Smoot. “Cars are already software driven, and pretty soon it will be the software that is driving you places. If you want a job in the future where you can be creative, valuable to your company, and make a good salary, it’s where you want to be.”
Coding is like candle-making — and parents can play a critical role in helping their kids develop this invaluable skill
“I was fortunate that my parents were open minded about technology,” says Smoot. “Parents need to know that we are at a point in which everyone should learn to code.”
Creating a learner support network
Parents will need to play a role in their kids’ learning processes — even if they do not know how to code, themselves. Simply giving your child a computer or smartphone will not be enough of a support system. Steve Shah, vice president of product management at Citrix, brings this idea to life with one simple question
“For all the talk about digital natives, how many kids today have any idea what’s going on inside their smartphones and gaming devices?”
Digital literacy is screen deep, and parents need to play an active role to encourage kids in developing the fundamentals of logical and analytical thinking.
“In December 2014, millions of students around the world participated in a one-hour introduction to computer science in classrooms, private homes or anywhere else someone wanted to host a session.”
Parents can volunteer to lead an after-school coding club or to host a hackathon to encourage kids to self-teach these skills and learn together. Parents can also support local schools by encouraging participation, non-financial support, and financial sponsorship from their employers. For instance, it may be possible to host a coding workshop in an unused conference room.
“We’re used to thinking of corporate public service in terms of soup kitchens and park cleanups—coding for kids should be on that list as well,” says Shah.
Creating more than code
Not every child will want to become a computer scientist or engineer. Some will become artists, accountants, writers, lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Parents need to understand that coding can be a valuable part of almost any professional journey. If you’re a plumber, you can start your own business and launch a website faster. If you’re a writer, you can work with software teams to create training documentation. Programming experience can support any trade or art.
“It makes you think about breaking complex problems down into solvable
chunks,” says Smoot. “This is an extremely valuable skill that can be applied to many
things in life.”