Giving back – an hour of code

At Campaign Monitor we recently took part in the Hour of Code programme.

Essentially this involved us taking 18 school kids from year 8 (aged 12–13) for the morning, and exposing them to computer science in the workplace.

Working with code can appear a daunting (and geeky) profession that is inaccessible to most people, whereas the reality is anyone can pick up the basics. The main ingredients required to be a good programmer are problem-solving skills, asking questions, logic and creativity – which kids seem to naturally have in abundance.

A bit of background

In the US only around half the states allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation and there is a massive shortage of people studying computing.

Here are some stats from code.org about the state of computing in the USA:

There are currently 592,067 open computing jobs nationwide.
Last year, only 38,175 computer science students graduated into the workforce.

The below chart kindly provided by Nicta.com.au shows that in Australia there is a massive drop in the number of university applications for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) courses whilst the number of ICT jobs is growing at a tremendous rate.

It’s also becoming an important part of more traditional job roles and the hope is that by getting exposure early these kids will be heading in the right direction whichever career path they choose to follow.

The event

It was actually quite daunting having our reception area packed with 18 school children. It’s been a long time since I had to interact with a 12 year old, (probably not since I was 12 myself…) so even just trying to think of appropriate language / ways of phrasing things was a challenge.

We started off by showing them around the office, the various workspaces and giving them a taste of developer life at Campaign Monitor.

It was probably predictable that the main thing they initially latched onto were the breakfast and lunches supplied for our staff plus the ping pong tables and xboxes. A dream for most teenagers!

That said, they also seemed to grasp the advantages of working in small teams to solve problems and the benefits of the collaboration spaces we have set up. I’m not sure they appreciated the value of the optional standing desks – but I’ve yet to give them a go myself to be honest!

One of our more experienced team members then gave a brief talk on his journey through high school, university and the Campaign Monitor internship programme to his current role. I thought this was really important as it gave the kids an opportunity to see what the whole path could look like.

The hour of code

It was finally time for the hour of code itself. We had them work in twos – research shows students learn best with pair programming, sharing a computer and working together.

No question about it, these are smart kids. They absolutely smashed through the logic puzzles in the guise of birds both flappy and angry. If you’re interested the challenges can be found here: https://code.org/learn.

It was great to see them discussing the problems and high-fiving when they figured out the correct solutions.

To clarify these weren’t children who particularly wanted to learn coding, most of them preferred PE to IT but they had the skills required in droves.

The Panel

To finish the morning off myself and three of the other CM team were sat up as a panel to be asked questions by the kids. I was definitely out of my comfort zone at this point as I’d not done anything like this before. They were being rewarded with sweets for asking questions so as you can imagine it started out with, “what’s your favourite colour?”, “is it going to rain today?”, “what’s your favourite food” etc – fair play to them, they got their rewards. As I said before, smart kids.

It did then get on to more serious questions like “what was your first job?” – we had collectively done paper rounds, worked at KFC and even collected golf balls from a driving range.

“What did you score at uni?” All the guys I work with are super smart and smashed university with outstanding grades, I had to profess that I had dropped out. I wasn’t sure if that was what the teachers wanted to hear, but I hoped it showed the kids that there is more than one route into the field. A lot of developers are self taught and in my opinion having a real passion for the subject can count for far more than a degree.

At the end of the session they got a taste of the awesome lunches we have here and were let loose on the ping pong tables — I’m pretty sure they’d been eyeing them up the whole time!

Conclusion

I hope they got something out of it – I know I did. It was great being out of my comfort zone. It’s very different talking in front of kids than your peers. There were definitely times that you could see they had switched off and were unengaged – I wouldn’t have the skills to be a teacher these days – but then they’d surprise you with thought provoking questions.

The giving back initiative is one of the many things I love about working here. I would encourage others to get involved, ask your employer see if you can run an hour of code at your workplace. Details on signing up can be found here: https://hourofcode.com/us#join.