The scarcity of good software engineers has been a constant in the IT industry since its year zero. The growth of the sector has always outstripped the supply of good engineers.
According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, the demand for coders at least in the US, is going to grow by 8% from 2012 to 2022.
The expansion of IT training in colleges and universities hasn’t really been the solution to this shortage because graduates just won’t have the requisite coding hours clocked up in a live environment.
But what if you could produce a generation of coders who had thousands of hours coding experience even before they were undergraduates? This would enable graduates to enter the job market both with a computer science degree and the required experience.
The thinking behind movements like CoderDojo in Ireland was inspired by this aim (Verify sponsors the CoderDojo group in Greystones).
Kids born today and arguably those born since 2000 are digital natives. Learning code from as early an age as possible is almost as compelling as acquiring literacy and numeracy.
These extra curricular coding sessions will ideally produce a sizable portion of the next generation of engineers and tech entrepreneurs but it will also give kids who choose other careers, greater power over their hi-tech environment.
Kano is a firm that has identified this market. It’s comprised of parents who want to get their youngsters coding as soon as they can. They launched their product in November 2013 on Kickstarter. It used crowd funding for it’s initial offering and Kano say they raised $1.5 m in 30 days from 1300 people sourced in 50 countries, making them, according to their website, “the most crowd funded learning invention ever”.
The Kano product is a learning kit for children and it aims not only to get them interested in building applications with code but also to introduce them to working with IT hardware as well.
It ships with a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, speaker and bluetooth keyboard with cabling. The Raspberry Pi covers come in different colours so the user can customise it. The Kano device is easy to assemble and its colouring is also designed to engage young users.
Jon Marshall founding director of MAP (who collaborated with Kano to design the product) told Wired that he wanted Kano to have the look and feel of a Lego brick but with greater sophistication: for example the designers had to be mindful of a child’s less developed motor skills prompting them to put 2 separate keys, one each for left and right clicking.
It has to have the look and also the robustness of a toy to get the child interested from the start but assembling the hardware and coding the software needs to be intuitive.
“The goal of Kano is to do something for the majority… a generation of innovators. We want to be a part of this massive upwelling,”
Alex Klein Speaking to the BBC
The ultimate aim of Kano is to trigger a lifelong interest in coding by giving kids the satisfaction and confidence they get from solving coding problems. This is certainly a toy to an extent but it’s an educational toy.
Raspberry Pi is a microcomputing device created by a team of computer engineers at Cambridge University; Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft, who partnered with Norcott Technologies and Gamer, David Braben, who co-developed Elite, to found The Raspberry Pi foundation.
The reason Pi is perfectly compatible with the Kano product is because it too was developed for kids. The Pi Foundation identified a falling off in coding proficiency among undergraduates in the 2000s.
In the 1990s ‘A’ Level students (the equivalent of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland) applying to Cambridge would have had a few years experience programming their ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or BBC Micros.
In the 2000’s as tech got smarter and the machines did all the heavy lifting, school kids applying to the University didn’t have that experience. So the Pi device was conceived and designed to help with teaching computer science in the classroom and to give kids more live coding hours. It also supports multi-media which is crucial to digital natives.
Kano use gamification techniques to engage the young programmers in their first attempts at creating applications. They employ a drag and drop approach to build programme interfaces using brightly coloured blocks.
The user can see both the code generated by each block and what that code does in the application. They can create complex technology by simply building block on block.
Gamification is a pretty well established educational tool particularly for teaching technology but Kano’s idea is to allow the kids using their kit to reconfigure familiar games like Minecraft. So they’re working in a familiar environment and can see how code can function to change that environment.
The Kano operating system with its bright colours and easy to use interface is driven by Linux. So the tech underneath the hood is pretty powerful.
A New Generation of Developers
Being a digital native means being a power-user of a multiplicity of technologies from mobile to tablet through to telematics and soon the IoT. But this is not the same as creating your own technology which is what engineers do. With the Kano and Raspberry Pi philosophy, the objective is to create not only a new generation of developers but also a wider movement of people who work in other spheres but who can code as well.