As Ottawa’s tech sector continues to grow, so does the industry’s need for new talent. How and where companies cultivate that talent goes beyond universities and colleges. In fact, it starts earlier than you think.
Four years ago, Steve Lavigne, the firm’s director of technology, began Kids & Code, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching kids between the ages of six and 17 the basics of coding. Classes are free and run monthly in different parts of the region.
"As a mentor at Kids & Code, I have witnessed many children find their passion for coding,” says Chris Smith, founder and CEO of OPIN Software. “I believe the program is fundamental to our community as it encourages young people of all ages and backgrounds to experiment with software programming."
The story of Kids & Code began with a desire to help in the business community. Lavigne saw the need, but couldn’t find any organizations that helped both boys and girls in STEM from a young age. In his search, he even discovered that the college in his hometown no longer offered computer science programs.
“In high schools they stopped teaching coding and now colleges aren’t offering it,” Lavigne says.
He wanted Kids & Code to be free, so that members of low-income families could attend. The event is BYOD (bring your own device) but Kids and Code also provides equipment for families who may not have laptops or tablets.
At the inaugural workshop, only two attendees showed up. Now the organization regularly teaches 75 students each month. Shopify donated space to host the workshops but Lavigne says they regularly hit capacity with registration sold out within 48 hours of posting a new workshop.
Demand is so high for the workshops that children are turned away due to a lack of equipment or space capacity. Lavigne hopes to partner with businesses for bigger venues to accommodate more children.
Creating programmers for the next generation
The goal of Kids & Code goes beyond free training for children. With demand for talented tech employees outstripping supply, the city needs to produce more skilled workers. Through Kids & Code, a new pipeline of talent is emerging.
Young programmers learn Python, HTML, CSS, JS, Swift, Drupal, Wordpress, PHP, and SQL & Database Administration before they even reach their senior high school years and become interested in pursuing a career in technology. This approach of teaching at an early stage is the same approach in OPIN’s Software’s internship program. Interns are taught and certified in Drupal as part of their mentorship.
“We know it’s hard to find talent,” Lavigne says. “So where are we going to find people? We train our interns so we can give them opportunities to learn something new. Children need the same opportunity.”
Part of Lavigne’s work is to influence the school curriculum in order to have children exposed to computer programming at an early age. His goal is to incorporate computer programming into the existing curriculum. For example, Lavigne worked with schools in Ottawa to incorporate coding in science and math programs.
“Only a handful of schools teach kids how to code,” says Lavigne. “If you only start by high school, it’s too late.”
Workshops run for three hours through the help of volunteers. Most children learn how to code with Scratch, a kid-friendly program developed by MIT to learn the basics of computer programming.
“Cognitive learning begins early, around the time you start to learn to read and write,” says Lavigne. “You’re old enough that you can follow along and see if computer programming is a good fit for you. Plus, our kids are already spending time in front of screens. If they’re going to play video games, why not build a video game instead?”
What you can do to support Kids & Code
The demand for Kids & Code workshops continues to increase but the organization needs your help in supporting its programs. Here’s what you can do:
- Hardware - Ten percent of kids arrive at the workshops without any device and have to be turned away. Kids & Code wants to purchase laptops and especially tablets, which have special programs available on learning how to develop programs in the Apple iPad software. Rocket hubs, which are portable wi-fi devices, are also needed.
- Software - Kids & Code pays for premium accounts to allow children to save their projects. Volunteers hope to continue this program free of charge.
- Venues - Kids & Code’s current capacity is due to limited space. Additional space provided from other businesses would allow for more children to participate.
- Staff support - Kids & Code receives multiple requests for summer and March break programming but space is limited due to volunteer time. Additional funding would enable volunteers to hire a project coordinator and other support staff for these programs.
To donate to Kids & Code, please visit http://www.kidsandcode.org/.