What’s the point of teaching children to code?

By - Wednesday 4th March, 2015

It’s going to be a long time before any of Croydon’s “code club” children become the next Mark Zuckerberg…

Let’s be honest, the chances are infinitely small that a child  currently attending a Croydon code club today will have made a splash big enough to warrant a movie about the technology giant they built; there aren’t too many companies the size of Facebook out there after all. The probability that any one of them will even make it as any kind of technology entrepreneur is minuscule: The odds are stacked against most small companies succeeding from the start; more so in the risky world of the software start-up. Even if they are successful can we be sure that they’ll keep their business in Croydon? The more established pull of East London will, doubtless, continue to threaten to drag them away, and – for those for whom the opportunity arises – many may not be able to resist the siren call of Silicon Valley: As you’ll see in this edition, one such talented team made just such a journey recently. And if by luck these young turks do stay, what tangible injection of wealth will the town even see from their venture? Technology companies rarely generate that many jobs: When WhatsApp was sold for $19 billion dollars it had 55 employees. Companies that size aren’t going to fill many empty office blocks with salaried workers. It’s barely a corporate sandwich order’s worth of lunch-time trade.

Can we even assume that these young people will want to carry on living in the place that incubated them? Nigel Dias expresses great confidence that they will. But we’ve seen how often people that are educated here want to move away to a more desirable area the moment they get the chance. There’s some probability that their above-average starting salary will be patronising the coffee shops of more fashionable parts of London – not the streets of the Cronx.

A depressing analysis? Well it certainly seems that way… until the realisation dawns that most of the children taking part in these lessons won’t actually grow up to become programmers at all (something programmers themselves have reminded us in articles in the Citizen before). Then you realise that the pessimistic tone of my  first paragraphs painted a positive picture by comparison.

On such an analysis – as a regeneration strategy at least – educating tech city seems like a terrible plan.

But if you really believe that, well – I think you’ve missed the whole point.

“Future Tech City”, code clubs and other STEM initiatives are one way for us to beat the next bust

First: Does any of this need to benefit the whole town in some grand sense? I think not – as hard as it is for me to admit (for I always want everything to benefit the whole town in some grand sense), it is simply a good thing in itself to give our children some valuable skills in a fast changing world. For the minority that do go on to use those skills it may turn out to be on the most important turning point of their lives. For many others – perhaps those for whom a STEM subject will never be a calling – it will likely prove to be a fertile ground for learning wider skills. Even if we don’t all learn how to code (I think this is actually deeply unlikely – if anything the software of the future will likely be helping us to code) knowing how computers make decisions and knowing how software works in general is actually very useful for everyone. As is, even more widely, the type of logical problem-solving that is developed by practising coding.

Second: Because even if it won’t generate an immediate regeneration need, it is, for once, a truly long-term investment in Croydon’s future. Over time, with consistent activity across the borough, year-after-year, reaching as many children as possible in order to identify the minority who do want to make it in tech, the benefits it stands to bring are considerable. Not flashy one-off successes, but by sheer persistence and the law of averages, a true cultural change: whole crops of technology companies – big, small, both wildly and moderately successful emerging. An area with a global reputation for a very unusual concentration of gifted technologists. A place where you just keep bumping into people with the right skills to make great software – people who probably have an entrepreneurial attitude too; precisely because they like the “making” vibe that hangs in the air.

As I’ve said before, it’s strange to contemplate another major decline for Croydon when it seems like we’re on the verge of an upward swing. But it will happen again – particularly if we are complacent about any success as Croydon was about its transformation in the early 1970s, when many of its leaders thought, with the great back-office boom at an end, that they’d already “finished it”. But a town is never “finished”: Croydon Tech City’s Future Tech City programme, code clubs and other STEM initiatives are one way for us to beat the next bust and put something in place now that will pay dividends over the long-term . If they can do that and give individuals valuable life skills at the same time, then their point is very clear indeed.

Read articles like this – and many more – in our monthly print magazine

Politics, reviews, photography, #Croydon #TechCity, sports and plenty more besides: Our monthly print newsmagazine brings all the most relevant, features, news, opinion and analysis together into a single publication. Written entirely by citizens, it’s the perfect way to catch up on what really matters to Croydon over a drink or a coffee, or on the way to work.

You can find the magazine in venues all over the London Borough of Croydon.

Get your copy today. Write for the Citizen and you may well see your own article next time you pick it up.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

More Posts - Twitter

  • Robert Ward

    A bit of basic coding isn’t of itself going to do very much, but what it can do is demystify the process and impart a bit of logical thinking. A small minority will realise that they want to make a career of it. The rest will be better for the experience.

    Will one of them found a tech giant? Almost certainly not. But if we are a place that nurtures talent then success will come. Mark Zuckerburg was born in White Plains, NY; Sergey Brin in Moscow but they came to where their ideas could be made to work, where the infrastructure for success was in place. That is where the jobs are.