An interview with Richard Rolfe from coding week

Richard Rolfe is the co-founder of National Coding Week, the first event of its kind to offer training and education opportunities for adults of all ages who wish to learn the basics of coding and digital literacy. National Coding Week 2015 took place from 21-27th September, with events taking place across the whole of the UK, including the Channel Islands.

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Tell us a little bit about how you became involved with National Coding Week

My involvement with National Coding Week actually came out of a difficult moment in my life. In 2010 I was working as the head teacher of a school in Jersey when I contracted bladder cancer. I’d really enjoyed my career up to that point, but I made a decision that if I survived, I wanted to try something else in the next stage of my life.

After taking some time to get well, I started to apply my experience of turning around struggling schools to working with a variety of business leaders and politicians. In the process, I ran into an ex-pupil of mine who was in the process of setting up his own web technology venture. I was incredibly impressed by everything he’d achieved at such a young age, but also struck by how out of touch I felt with the technology he was working with.

This bothered me, so over Christmas 2013, rather than sit on the couch watching TV, I decided to put some time into seeing if I could pick up some of those skills, just to see if I could. It struck me that while there were a lot of things happening in schools, for older people or people who weren’t in the education system any more, there wasn’t really any targeted support. In particular, there were no major national events promoting coding for adults.

So I teamed up with my ex-pupil and we started working on training initiatives specifically aimed at adults. In September 2014 we officially launched National Coding Week on top of a Double Decker bus in London, and the rest is history!

"Back in 2007, when the global financial crisis hit, the app economy didn’t reallyexist in any meaningful sense."

One of the major drivers for National Coding Week seems to be as a means to tackle the ‘skills gap’ in the coding space. Why do you think this gap has developed?

Back in 2007, when the global financial crisis hit, apps didn’t really exist in any meaningful sense. Eight years later, we’re just starting to emerge from recession and around 370,000 people in the UK alone are working in the app economy, contributing around £4 billion per year to the UK economy.

All of this has practically grown up from nothing, meaning we suddenly have a huge industry with job roles that urgently need to be filled. The government has woken up to this and increased the focus on teaching coding skills to young people, which is fantastic, but these jobs need to be filled here and now. That’s where the skills gap has come from, because the industry has grown so quickly in such a short space of time, from a base of almost zero.

The second annual National Coding Place recently took place – how did it compare to the first?

The first event was planned and put together in 28 days, and featured around 20 individual events. This year, we had over 100, with around 1,000 participants joining in from all over the UK. Prince Andrew tweeted about us, Martha Lane Fox got involved, word started to spread in America – people really embraced it.

The event officially ran from 21-27th September, but we’re very flexible. For us, the important thing is that as many people as possible get involved, so if an organisation wanted to run an event the week before or the week after, we were more than happy to support that.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?

We’re a 100% not-for-profit concern run entirely by myself and my business partner. We’re subsidised by our main business – face to face training in the Channel Islands – and we receive a small amount of sponsorship, but everything goes back into developing the initiative. One of the biggest challenges we face is not overstretching ourselves – we simply don’t have the capacity at the moment to accept every invitation we receive. We’re working towards overcoming this by appointing ambassadors across the UK who can support courses and initiatives while promoting National Coding Week in their local area.

Where would you like to see National Coding Week five years from now?

One exciting thing we’re looking at is working with libraries to turn them into miniature ‘tech hubs’ by helping librarians to gain the confidence to facilitate digital learning skills and promote entrepreneurship.

We’d also really like to branch out and take National Coding Week around the world. We already have some plans to run global events, and we’ve received invitations to promote the event in America. Perhaps in five years or less it’ll be International Coding Week!

"Coding is the new literacy. There’s no excuse for people my age to claim they’vemissed the boat."

In a nutshell, why should people learn how to code?

Coding is the new literacy. Back in the olden days, only the priests and the very powerful would know how to read. It’s only in the past 150-200 years that widespread literacy has become the norm. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a similar explosion in coding, where it stops being the preserve of so-called ‘geeks’ and becomes something everybody can and should be able to do.

There are certain jobs that are going to disappear in the next 5 to 10 years. If you develop a practical understanding of basic coding skills, you’ll be a lot more employable in a wider range of roles. There’s no excuse for people my age to claim they’ve missed the boat. The opportunities to learn are there.

It’s also a useful tool for parents, because it’s going to be increasingly central to the way your child interacts with the world, and if you familiarise yourself with the core skills, it will empower you to intelligently discuss and support their learning.

Tell us about some of the tools you use to learn and teach coding...

We prefer to encourage people to explore learning methods that work for them rather than prescribe a set formula. I often encourage learners to take advantage of free online tools such as Code Academy and Treehouse, which allow people to learn at their own pace from home.

Which coding languages do you think would be the most useful for a newcomer to learn at the moment?

In my teaching I tend to focus on HTML, CSS and a little bit of how they can interact with JavaScript to create simple apps. They’re fairly straightforward once you understand how they work, and if they’re taught well they’re a really good introduction.

To give an example, we worked with some people who had been unemployed for over a year, spending a few days teaching them the fundamentals of HTML and CSS. They are now in full-time employment, learning and using languages that we didn’t teach them. They’d managed to demonstrate a capability for learning new digital skills, built up a portfolio and been hired on that basis.

We’ve even worked with people who’ve gone from long-term unemployment to becoming full-time coders and running their own firms and employing others. It can be truly life changing, and those jobs are there if you can demonstrate the drive and the aptitude to learn how to perform them.

"Although digital literacy skills can appear very complex and technical, with theright tools anybody can learn them."

What innovations would you like to see in the coding space in the next few years?

The major innovation I’d like to see is more business leaders, education facilities and members of the community working together and promoting the fact that although digital literacy skills can appear very complex and technical, with the right tools anybody can learn them.

Do you think the recent changes to the National Curriculum go far enough in terms of promoting coding and digital literacy in schools?

I do think adding coding and digital literacy to the National Curriculum is an admirable step forward, but as a former teacher I also think that there are a number of problems in the execution. First and foremost, there are many ICT teachers now working who simply don’t know how to code. For a long time the ICT curriculum has been based on a scheme of work and exam syllabus that doesn’t include coding. These teachers need access to training or they’re going to really struggle to support the children’s learning effectively.

On top of that, there are many schools that have non-specialised teachers covering ICT, perhaps for just a few teaching periods per week. Then there are primary school teachers, most of whom will also have no experience of teaching coding. The majority of these teachers will be more than happy to learn the required skills, but only if they’re given the opportunity.

Another concern I have is that in primary schools they’re teaching things like Scratch and using drag and drop platforms to help children to get to grips with coding terms. That’s fine up to a point, but I do think there’s a danger that students could be held back from taking on more advanced work if they have the aptitude to do so.

Britain probably has the biggest digital economy in the world per capita, and it’s to the Government’s credit that they’ve become the first country in the world to bring in a computing curriculum. But that alone isn’t going to address the skills gap. The teachers need to have the training and the confidence, or their lack of expertise will trickle down and result in the pupils being less engaged with a skill that could really benefit them.

"There’s ample opportunity for people without formal qualifications to enter into thedigital space."

Some coding professionals feel that workplace schemes and practical experience are more beneficial than formal qualifications when it comes to closing the coding skills gap. Where do you stand on this?

There are some jobs that absolutely require degree level computer science qualification, and that’s not likely to change. However there was a report recently that polled around 200,000 professional app developers all over the world, and they concluded that 83% were self-taught.

That’s a pretty clear indication that there’s ample opportunity for people without formal qualifications to enter into the digital space. You may not have a degree in Computer Science, but you can build a portfolio showing that you have the aptitude and enthusiasm to practice the necessary skills in your own time. Employers are more and more interested in your experience than they are in where you studied or what your cultural or social background is. It’s not about a piece of paper any more.

With that in mind, should businesses be offering more workplace training and apprenticeship schemes?

Absolutely, but it’s important to bear in mind that many businesses are stretched to the limit and simply haven’t had the opportunity to think about creating and harnessing a pipeline of talent. Companies need to be working together – with schools, universities, training enterprises and even their competitors – to create opportunities for intelligent, motivated people.

In London you can find a lot of bootcamp-style courses that offer affordable coding lessons through evening and weekend classes. Some of them even guarantee a job interview at the end. However, 75% of digital jobs in the UK are outside London, where many of those training opportunities simply don’t exist. The UK government and educational authorities are doing good work, but they’re not always as agile as private enterprises can be; which is why we need positive actions from all corners of the industry to nurture and promote talent.

Finally, until National Coding Week 2016 rolls around, what can people do to get involved?

My first recommendation to anyone interested in improving their coding and digital literacy skills is to explore some free online tools, such as codeacademy.com or Treehouse.com. If you prefer to follow a more traditional learning structure, approach local colleges and see if they’re running any part-time courses.

You can also register on our website to be added to our mailing list and kept up to date on a range of local and national events.