26 Oct


I’m about to thank a tabloid journalist.

To those of you who didn’t just die of shock, let me explain why.

When I first read Willard Foxton’s article in The Telegraph on why it may be a “stupid idea” to teach coding in schools, I got angry. Very angry. To suggest that young people would grow into “dull weirdos” by learning software development smacked of exactly the kind of bullying I encountered in the 90s when I wanted to grow up to be a software engineer. But this is 2013, and the world has grown up.

Or so I thought.

Willard‘s words are not just reactionary – they are damaging. In a retort on The Register, he says “The reason that line was there was to draw people into the article” – and yes, it does a good job of that. But it also destroys the confidence of any young coder reading it. It could easily be paraphrased by a young person – in need of our support and encouragement – as “Oh, you’re following that dream of yours? Well, it’s dumb.”

I’m not young. I’m not old. I’m barely a developer. I have, however, spent a few years in the industry working with developers at events, on projects, and within their communities.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sunderland at DDD North. I arrived at the venue and was greeted by great tasting bacon sandwiches, and a hell of a lot of noise. Here were hundreds of software developers talking, laughing, being social. Some of them were students, some of them had been in the industry for years. Dull? Weirdos? No.

Over the summer I took a 2,000 mile road trip to support Young Rewired State. I wrote some of my thoughts at the time for a column in The Guardian, in which I stated implicitly the need for us all “to inspire the next generation by highlighting the opportunities available to them.” See that word there?


Truth is, a lot of those young developers inspired me. The passion, tenacity and enthusiasm I encountered at that event was astounding – and the fact that people as young as 8 or 9 were able to write code, get up on stage, and present proudly the things they had worked on? Inspirational to the nth degree.

These aren’t isolated incidents, either. Across the world, software developers from all walks of life are changing the world, one line of code at a time. To truly change the world, you have to live in it – and they do. No longer the stereotype of a nerd removed from society, software developers are real people solving real problems – building, designing, creating – and that’s about as far from the picture painted in Willard’s article as you can get.

So why am I thanking him?

Because developers – young and old – are, in my experience, the complete opposite of “dull weirdos”. You only need to take a look at Twitter to see how diverse, social, progressive and proactive developers can be. The anger that his words have fuelled within the tech community is bringing all of the wonderful, brilliant, talented and creative people within it out of their shells. They’re blogging, tweeting, writing talks and speaking out.

Now they’ve got something to fight for.

  • Harry Dalton

    Willard Foxton’s article invoked the exact same rage in me, here was my comment on it:

    “Hello there, 14-year-old programmer. I’d just like to tell you that I am perfectly capable of being charismatic AND programming.

    Once, when we did do programming at school, about half of our mixed-ability class grasped it well. I would expect the same if we were to do a mixed-ability maths class. Does this mean we should not even attempt it or brush it off as something worth learning? No.

    Your argument that coding is not for everyone is invalid, as neither is maths, english or science. There will always be people whose abilities lie in a different area but learning and knowing how to tell a computer what to do is becoming as important a fundamental skill as basic maths and anyone who says otherwise is stuck in the past.

    You additionally state that coding is an industry lacking in innovation. This is false; It is no secret where the biggest new companies have been emerging and where the most growth is (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) Coding and innovation tie hand-in-hand, so comparing the art of coding to plumbing is ridiculous.

    Finally, the rest of your meagre argument is based on stereotypes. You may as well start claiming that everyone who is good at maths is spot-ridden and wears glasses.

    Knowing coding doesn’t mean you have to program everything – I highly doubt you were involved in the programming of the website you published your article on – but by jove does it help in the modern world.”

  • Sailesh Patel

    This morning I woke up to this article, and the first thing I thought was that this just re-enforces the belief that the coding community has fought hard to dispel.
    My non-coder friends weren’t surprised when I told them I code as I already had the brand of ‘Computer Nerd’ and were genuinely interested in what I do. I also told my IT teachers who also weren’t surprised that I code, and like my friends, they were very interested in my coding.
    Later on, I also found out that a very popular person who would be the jock in a USA high school, also codes and is in fact far better than I am.

  • Stuart Farnaby

    I would like to think teaching code in school would be awesome and everyone would come out with a good grasp of a certain set of languages but for me there is much larger issues within schools other than not teaching people to code. I worked as an ICT Technician for a couple of years in a school in the north of England and the quality of ICT staff wasn’t great….Okay it was bloody shocking. They were normally maths, english or history teachers which has been given a ‘ICT for dummies’ book and then set on their merry way. They had such a low level of knowledge that the kids all knew more than them which inevitably lead to the kids getting bored and ending up on miniclips.

    My point in all of this is that the logistics aren’t going to work to actually ‘teach’ kids to code. If the lessons are going to involve putting kids in front of the PC’s with a couple of tutorials where the teach doesn’t have to understand or join in then I’m sure that would work fine but what happens when the kids get confused and they need help. I’ve met programmers/developers who actually work in the industry who don’t grasp simple concepts such as memory management, recursion, passing by value/by reference, points in C++ and so on. So why are we expecting teachers who have little to no training or even the willingness to learn (Trust me a lot of them don’t care about learning new things) to grasp these concepts and also keep up with the constant changing digital world.

    I would rather my child came out with no knowledge at all so that they could start from scratch rather than a crap load of bad habits and a poor understanding of a certain language. Look at Universities for an example of this, People are coming out with such a terrible level of understanding of simple concepts (Pointers in C++ being one of them) that they are pretty much useless in the workplace and this is purely because the teaching staff just isn’t up to scratch. I personally would like this to be done properly rather than stretching the already very limited resources which schools have on providing a half hearted attempt at teaching kids to code.

    In my eyes things like ‘young rewired state’ and ‘coding club’ are a much better example of how coding can be brought into the light (Keep up the great work guys). They bring together people who are like minded and are willing to learn which unfortunately isn’t the same environment that a school offers. A school just throws information at children and those who wish to learn, learn…Those who don’t just ruin the experience for everyone else. Until you change the core concept of how a school works, teachers are trained and hardware is bought then introducing a large core subject such as coding into the school environment just isn’t going to bring any decent results. You will end up with exactly the same thing you get out of universities, kids with little or very poor knowledge of the subject and have no idea where to go next with it.

    Sorry to be so negative on the subject but after my time working in schools my opinion would be that teaching kids to code would be below a lot of other changes which are required to make schools in this country work. I really would love to see code being taught in school as it is an amazing field to get into but I seriously doubt that the UK school system could cope with it and the biggest issue with this isn’t even the kids, its the adults (teachers). The kids have all the passion in the world which hopefully will mean they can still find the resources (which there is a vast amount) and still pursue the amazing subject which is coding.

    On the note of ‘Dull Weirdos’, I can agree with the weirdos bit (I called myself Coding_Bear… on twitter for god sakes) but dull….I’m not so sure about that bit.