CoderDojo is building the next generation of developers: Meet your new competitors

Developers quickly learn they're going to have to go through a number of steps before Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) approves their app, but Harry Moran faced an extra, unusual hurdle before his work made it into the Mac App Store: his mother had to sign the contract.

Moran, aged 13, surprised industry watchers last year when his app, Pizzabot, topped the Mac App Store's charts, displacing favorites such as Angry Birds and Call of Duty. Even in an industry filled with young entrepreneurs, Moran's success with his first app is rare. And he's the first to admit that besides his parents, he had another strong base of support: CoderDojo, a series of programming clubs aimed primarily at teenagers, which began in Ireland and is expanding globally. Moran and other members of the local CoderDojo group were part of the main stage presentation at the Web Summit which took place in Dublin last month.

A young boy learns from a mentor.
Source: Paul Clarke

"It was a great because you learn so much, and it gave me a lot of encouragement," Moran told the Web Summit crowd, although he added that the one thing CoderDojo's instructors didn't prepare him for was Apple's age restrictions. "They phoned and spoke to my dad because they didn't believe that I was 12."

CoderDojo was co-founded by James Whelton, a 20-year-old who wanted to set up a computer club at his local high school in County Cork, Ireland. He said that, despite all the attention paid to mobile apps and smartphones, there wasn't an outlet for someone with his interests when he was growing up.

"I sucked at sports, and I couldn't play guitar," said Whelton. "My teachers thought I was as thick as wood."

Since creating CoderDojo with Xing co-founder Bill Liao last year, the so-called movement has grown far beyond Ireland with 104 clubs spread across Italy, Sweden, South Africa, Russia, Japan and many other countries. In the U.S. alone there are more than 25 local CoderDojos, with the most recent one set up in Silicon Valley, Calif. Primarily volunteer-run and free of charge to attendees, CoderDojo has developed its own Google-like motto to describe its mission: Above All: Be Cool. While it could be the place that spawns the next generation of app developers--and some serious competition to those already in the industry--CoderDojo could represent a way for experienced developers to "give back" to the community and share expertise with some of their peers who agree to be mentors or guest speakers.

At this CoderDojo hosted by Mozilla in May, children ages 7-17 were invited to participate. 
Source: Paul Clarke

What happens at Dojos

Dojos, named after the Japanese word for a self-defense training school, are usually run on weekends and aim to foster as much teaching by kids as they do teaching to kids. There is an emphasis on open source software and the CoderDojo website includes a detailed Wikipedia-style resource center to set up and facilitate sessions. Attendees use both simple coding systems such as Scratch as well as more sophisticated languages including HTML and JavaScript. There is no set syllabus, but students learn everything from creating Web pages to building mobile apps. There is an ongoing call for mentors to get involved and help sustain the momentum of fledgling groups.

According to Whelton, who was honored at the Web Summit by becoming the youngest-ever fellow of the social entrepreneurship Ashoka Foundation, the goal of CoderDojo is to empower young people to get started as early as possible on nurturing both the technical and social skills that will be key to forging a career as a developer.

"It can be a really infectious environment," he said. "It's a space where people can be taught, but also to show off what they've done. It's great when you see them getting their brothers and sisters interested and playing the games they've created."

Shane Curran

Shane Curran is the founder of Libramatic and is a CoderDojo attendee.
Sean Nicholls

Besides Moran, who released an updated app called Pizzabot Seasonings earlier this year, CoderDojo-based startups include Libramatic, a cloud-based app for automating library tracking systems. Founded by 12-year-old Shane Curran, Libramatic launched the week after the Web Summit.

"I already knew how to code," Curran said, explaining that he first started working with Linux at the age of six. "What's great is if you have a problem you can take it there (to a CoderDojo session) and get help from some really experienced developers."

Though he's enjoying almost as much success as Moran and some of the other CoderDojo prodigies, Whelton admitted that a part of being a young developer is also about having a hacker's mindset. On a recent American Airlines flight, for example, Whelton said he discovered an exploit in the plane's onboard Wi-Fi system and wrote a guide that allowed everyone to enjoy Internet access. And although the popularity of Pizzabot and other apps from the kids involved in his initiative may one day get acquired by larger development shops, he said he doesn't have a similar exit strategy planned for himself.

"When the appropriate time comes, I'll set up my own professional skateboarding company," he joked.