Fighting Poverty in Schools

Eric Elliott
Sep 28, 2014 · 9 min read

How we act today will make or break our future

When I was a kid, the neighbors had a room full of computers. I probably spent more play time there than I did at my home. I fell in love with computer games at an early age, and from an early age, I knew how computer games were made.

~ computer makers just assumed that you might want to program some of your own software ~

You see, some early personal computer systems booted right into the programming environment. There was far less software back then, and the computer makers just assumed that you might want to program some of your own software.

When I saw text adventure games for the first time, I was hooked. It didn’t seem like magic. It seemed like something I could create myself. And I did. I made lots of text adventure games before I set foot in my first programming class in high school.

Learning to code while I was young gave me a head start in a lot of ways:

I developed good technical reading skills (I learned how to learn).

I started practicing algebra every day, because working with variables is an integral part of programming anything more advanced than “Hello, world.” If you’re not a scientist or engineer, you’re probably still wondering why they bothered teaching you algebra in high school.

When I was 13 years old, my school finally started teaching us logic. Of course, every computer programmer gets good at logic quickly, too. A good grasp of logic is handy for just about every kind of problem solving.

~ learning to program isn’t just about computers ~

Learning to program isn’t just about computers. It’s about learning how to solve problems effectively. It’s impossible to overstate the value that programming has had in my life, even when I wasn’t using it to make my primary living. The skills I learned while I was very young helped accomplish just about everything I set my mind to.

Even if you can’t imagine right now that your kid might need to know how to program, I have some information you might want to pay attention to:

Researchers believe that in just 2 decades about 45% of today’s jobs will be replaced by code or robots. Being deeply entrenched in Silicon Valley startup culture and knowing the technology that’s right around the corner, I believe they’re underestimating.

~ this is not science fiction ~

If we’re going to defeat poverty, we must come to grips with this simple fact: There is no field in the world immune to the coming tech disruption.

The whole taxi industry is currently under heavy fire from Uber, Lyft, and similar companies, and from Google’s very successful self-driving car program, it’s clear that even Uber’s drivers will be replaced by computers. This is not science fiction. The tech is here today. Similar disruption will displace workers across all industries over the course of the next twenty years.

Make no mistake, the robot invasion is coming. In the not-so-distant future, almost every household will own a robot — but it might not be what you think. The smartest robots around today are self-driving cars. A lot of Americans already own cars that can keep themselves in the correct lane, control the speed, and park themselves.

Because of the over-all cost of a car, putting a very fast computer in it makes economical sense. Manufacturer’s can deliver more automation, more safety features, and a better driving experience for the owners. Soon, your car could be the most powerful computer you own.

But the real invasion will come by air. You may have noticed techies recently playing with strange looking helicopters. Quad copters are taking off in popularity primarily because many models are user-programmable. They can be programmed to be self-flying drones. Companies that take aerial photos and video are already starting to shoot aerial photos on a tiny fraction of the budgets that were required just a few years ago.

Lima Pix — “Drone vs Cow” (CC-BY-2.0)

Companies that deliver a lot of packages (notably Amazon) are experimenting with automated drones to deliver packages right now. Surprisingly, the developed world is not leading the commercial drone space. The real drone action is in Africa, where drone deliveries can get supplies to places that are hard to get to otherwise.

In Africa, drones are already being used for everything from stopping poachers to delivering life-saving medications.

Delivery, flight, taxis, even the burger guy are already losing ground. No big deal, right? There must be professions that will escape the insurgency.

Doctors? Nope. Expert systems are already better than doctors at certain types of diagnosis, and robot-assisted surgery is already well established. It’s only a matter of time before the robots don’t need the doctor’s help anymore.

Lawyers? Forget about it. Corporate paperwork was once a bread-and-butter business for lawyers. Now services like RocketLawyer and LegalZoom are automating legal document creation, and doing a better job of it than many human lawyers.

~ surely the artists are safe ~

Surely the artists are safe! Wrong. Both visual art and music versions of the turing test have already been passed by computers, and with 3d printers gaining in popularity, it’s probably already been done in sculpture, too. I just haven’t heard of it, yet. (The turing test is an attempt to measure whether or not a computer is thinking by fooling human judges into thinking the computer is human).

Even more interesting, though, is that programming is allowing creative artists to do things that artists have never been able to do before. Take 7Bit Hero, for example — a band from Australia that combines live music performances with a mobile game experience shared by the entire audience. For example, the crowd might all need to smash buttons at the same time to defeat a shared enemy on a big screen while the band is playing.

Even if artist-programmers are a niche demographic, and our robot-overlords turn out to be benevolent, with tech all around, people without programming skills in the coming decades will essentially be sidelined by people who have far more useful skills. If you were an online store selling exclusively via mobile and delivering to customers via drones, would you hire a recent college grad who can’t code his way out of a paper bag?

If you’re Uber in 2025, and your entire fleet is running self-driving cars, what sort of employees do you think you’ll need? You guessed it…

If you’re an entrepreneur, no matter what field interests you, learning to code can help you succeed in it. Can you imagine trying to do business in this day and age without a website?

The truth is, businesses that lack custom apps written for the specific needs of their customers are going to have trouble competing, whether you’re selling photos of snails or building a tech empire: Coding skills will help you do what needs doing.

As it stands today, any entrepreneur who doesn’t know how to code is going to face much bigger challenges than one who does.

Well, no problem. Surely the US has a terrific CS program in all of our public schools — right? Wrong again. Only about 10% of K-12 schools teach computer science, and fewer do it for credit.

~ only about 10% of K-12 schools teach computer science ~

This makes me want to cry, because we’re raising a whole generation of children who will essentially find themselves illiterate when they enter the job force.

Source: code.org

Our collective illiteracy is already having a stifling effect on economic growth in the United States.

At several of my recent jobs, I’ve been tasked to hire developers who are ready to start contributing productively to applications that serve millions of monthly users. In case you’ve never tried to do this before, it’s very hard.

JavaScript is the standard language of the web platform, and web platform technology has basically swallowed almost every type of software development. The thing is, a lot of people know a little JavaScript, but very few are fluent enough to write the apps that users and business demand.

Another problem is obvious to me. I’ve seen the curriculum for some of the K-12 CS courses, and to say that it leaves a lot to be desired is an understatement. We can’t treat computer science like other subjects.

~ the best way to learn to code is to code ~

It can’t be taught with lectures and textbooks. In order for it to succeed, it must be taught with a combination of spoken instructions, examples, and most importantly, lots of interactive exercises. The best way to learn to code is to code.

The really effective programs group students together and let them collaborate on projects — a discipline that more closely resembles what developers will experience in the work force.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycle of poverty and homelessness. I wrote another Medium post in July called “Fighting Poverty with Code” that explains that there is a known solution that can virtually end homelessness for good.

The main cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. If you can’t compete in the job market and get one of the high paying jobs, how can you expect to afford a home?

We’re setting our children up for a very tough challenge. They’re going to have to learn the basic building blocks while the rest of the world is busy building skyscrapers. How many years do you think we’re setting them back? How much will that cost them? What challenges will they face in the meantime?

While we’re busy chasing our tails, other countries are investing in tech because it obviously represents a huge opportunity. We’re already outsourcing a tremendous amount of programming work overseas. I love the international collaboration, but not when we trip over homeless people on our own streets on our way to the conference call.

This needs to change, now.

~ i’m done watching from the sidelines ~

We can’t afford to wait for schools to fix this problem. We’ve been waiting for years, and despite the fact that we’ve become more and more reliant on code, the problem in schools has only worsened. I’m done watching from the sidelines.

In July, we had an idea and a few course outlines. We jumped on Kickstarter and set out to raise $7,500 to develop JavaScript training courses, vowing to offer them free of charge to job training programs for the homeless. We raised $25,000 (including sponsorship).

Our first round of funding covered the cost of course content creation, and since we exceeded our goal, we expanded the plan to create two additional courses. In July, we told the world we were going to fight poverty with code. We’re keeping that promise.

~ a pilot scholarship program for high schools ~

We’re moving into the second phase: Course deployment for the first course, and a pilot scholarship program for high schools.

All of the course bundles are transferable scholarships that you can use for yourself, or gift to participating schools. Each donated scholarship will allow a high school student to enroll in the same high-quality job training that we’re offering to people preparing for jobs at top tech companies. Every purchase will help us continue to expand the courses and grow the outreach programs.

We’re reaching out to schools in need of tech training programs to offer scholarships to students. Anybody can fund a transferable scholarship by purchasing one of the bundles on the fundraiser page. You can reach out and find a school to donate it to, or we can make a suggestion to work with one of our pilot school partners.

We’re working hard to build a brighter future.

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Eric Elliott is a compassionate entrepreneur on a mission to end homelessness.

A veteran of JavaScript applications and author of “Programming JavaScript Applications” published by O’Reilly Media, Eric has been building apps for more than 15 years, for some of the world’s best-known brands. He’s contributed to software that powers experiences for Adobe, Zumba Fitness, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, CNN, and musicians including Frank Ocean, Usher, Metallica, and many more.

    Eric Elliott

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    Make some magic. #JavaScript

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