Learn how to code

Many people ask me many times where they can learn how to code; mainly because they mistakenly believe that Young Rewired State teaches kids how to code, we do not, we encourage peer-to-peer  learning in a community of self-taught programmers, whilst they tackle social and civic challenges.

However I do also campaign for people to know how to program, even if only for a hobby, so it is fair enough to be asked. I just can never give an answer that satisfies as organisations spring up so fast, move on, morph – and anyway, just doing a an online coding course is not really going to be that exciting.

Just now, I rattled off a response to another email from a journalist on this topic, and it being Friday afternoon and after a week of travelling I was tired and cranky so rattled this off. But as I sat afterwards with my tea and biscuit(s) it struck me that actually that is probably the best response I have managed to drum up so far. So here it is for you (in no particular order):

  • find some free online coding tuition in any programming language (there are loads play with as many as you can)
  • get into the habit of clicking the View Source link on web pages to get an idea of what code looks like
  • set up a blog with someone like WordPress and have a go with the HTML view
  • explore communities such as github to learn how to share and fork code
  • use communities like stack overflow to get help
  • go along to hack days and learn from other people

Feel free to add useful updates, anecdotes and pointers in the comments

 

 

 

 

 

How hack days have grown up

For the past five years we in Rewired State have been running hack days. Initially to encourage the UK government to open up its data, removing the fear and uncertainty of what developers might do with the information once it was made available with no limitations. Now we run them for all manner of organisations, from media giants to corporates – as well as a continuous symbiotic relationship with central and local government

To briefly describe a hack day in 2009 it was usually a weekend with a number of software developers in a space with spankingly good wifi, some data, pizza, beer and a few dodgy prizes awarded to those who got the most claps, gasps, cheers or laughs. They were informal events that brought together groups of people and individuals who would never usually have time and opportunity to meet. The results, the prototypes, were less important than the community activity for the developers, and the meercat moment for the sponsors or people for whom the hack was being produced.

As with growth of any idea or concept, as Rewired State has continued to run these events so we have refined and learned what we do to make it better for developers, better for clients and to refine outcomes to meet the need that sparked the hack. I hope that by sharing this updated learning with you all now, it will help.

Here is how a hack day looks to us now in 2013

Ideation

We found that we were spending more and more time with clients refining the actual challenges being laid down to developers during the hack. It has always been profoundly important that hack days do not turn into bootcamp for building prototypes to a specific brief. In order to enable the unique collaboration, the creative ideas, the spark of solution that generates a number of prototyped digital ideas that resolve a particular issue – it is essential to define the problem first, not design the solution.

We advise that hack days have three of four challenges laid, and the associated data made available.

In order to define the challenges, the problem must be identified and this usually requires the meeting of several people on the client side of the hack. In Rewired State we spend the majority of our time initially with the client shaping these in such a way that they are clear enough without be prescriptive about potential solutions.

The Hack

Our hack weekends are hugely crafted in order for them to be simple and open. It takes us at least eight weeks from woe to go to get everything in place, including the developers. Luckily for us our network of devs and designers is made up of over 1000 people who can create working prototypes in 36 hours or less. So we have a hugely talented pool of people we can draw upon.

We take time to initially invite specific people from this pool to try to make up a group of people at the hack made up of 50% devs with expertise and experience of the field we are focusing on, and 50% with no experience whatsoever. We find that this mix tends to create realistic yet innovative ideas, without stifling creativity. And then we open the hack up to anyone who would like to join for whatever reason – we don’t second guess peoples’ passions!

The end of the hack event will produce ‘winning’ solutions for each of the three to four problems laid out in the beginning.

Modification days (Modding days)

It was becoming clear to us as we grew up that clients were increasingly wanting to take ideas forward from the hack, as the solutions were what they had been looking for. As we in Rewired State are committed to not becoming a body shop for developers, others are doing this perfectly well, we needed to find a way to enable prototypes to be taken through to product, with the teams who had come together in a perfect storm to come up with the concept in the first place; (often people with full-time jobs and geographically separated).

And so we created a modding process: the selected prototypes from the hack day would go through a process of development whereby the client would feedback to the dev teams on what would be useful to change or adapt, followed by a day or two of scrum-style programming and design, on all three or four prototypes so still a ‘hack’ format everyone is together again, followed by client internal review and feedback, and so the iteration process continues until the products are ready for the client to adopt.

When you don’t need a hack day – we have Rewired Reality

Clearly the hack days we run cost more than sponsoring beer and pizza, well the problem-solving ones do, and so sometimes people come to us thinking they need a hack day, but don’t have the time or money necessary to get the benefit from full-blown physical event. And so we created Rewired Reality, where we have a number of our Rewired Staters and Young Rewired Staters behind an online board. Here is how it works.

IP and money

IP is always the question that must be resolved up front. We are careful to ensure our community of developers feels like they are having fun as much as building solutions to real problems, and so we try to strike a balance between commercial hack days around specific problems, and those where it is just for fun (where we have found some amazing data being released that they would enjoy having a go at, or for a cause that we know touches the hearts of many).

For the former, we pay developers for their time. They are paid to attend hack days, they are paid for modding days and in most cases, the client will retain the IP. But they don’t always, in some cases they are happy for the developers to keep IP, so there is no real defined rule, but it has to be discussed and agreed in advance.

For the latter we don’t pay developers money, but we do provide a well-run hack, with good healthy food, some pizza usually thrown in, fun and frivolity. And they keep their IP.

This balance works for us right now, it may well change as the hack day continues to grow up.

Hack day Prizes

Originally hack days had some token prizes, often deeply ironic or just downright funny. As they began to become a thing outside of the developer-only zone, prizes became more valuable, cash sums or shiny kit. For a while we grappled with this – trying to strike the right balance.

A high sum of money would skew the attendance and reason why the hackers chose to come along, change also the dynamic of the event, less collaboration and more secrecy, and attracted a different kind of developer, often entrepreneurs with an unwilling and exhausted coder in tow. Not what we are about at all!

A low sum of money could be seen to be insulting.

So we try to avoid financial prizes.

“Stuff” is always hard, because it is tricky to second guess the number in a hack winning team, and if an individual but amazing thing is donated, such as a 3-D printer, how does a group of four strangers who have come together to create a prototype over a weekend, share that?

So we try to avoid “stuff”.

Experiences are good. Vouchers are good.

But actually, the conclusion at the moment is that we need to make the hack weekend itself so enjoyable that it is about that experience and not the prize – for our open and non-commercial events. Prizes more in line with the original ironic/playful times and a well-stocked bar at the end.

We do not award prizes for the winners of commercial hacks as the process continues through the modding days. but we maintain a consistently high standard of service to those devs who come along.

With thanks to Hudson Hollister who presumed that I had written all of this up and shared it, ad nauseum, as did I. But then I realised that this was all in my head, or in my conference slides, which is no use to anyone.

Young Rewired State: bringing back open government data

Young Rewired State was born back in 2009 when a small group of us decided that we needed to bring the open government data revolution to the next generations. Our intention was to show them what had been fought and won on their behalf for democracy and scrutiny, introduce them to the potential for open data, open government or otherwise, in a non-dull way.

Google hosted that first weekend for us but the legend now goes that it took us three months and a massive credit card bill for hotels and trains to find 50 coding kids in the whole of the UK for a single weekend hackathon at the much-lauded Google HQ in London. Our original sign-up was three kids… three… for a free weekend in Google HQ London.

Photo by Lettuce
We wanted to introduce coding kids to open government data, instead we discovered
  • schools were not teaching programming, computer science, or anything really other than the PE/Geography/any spare teacher showing the kids how to turn on a computer and use Word/Excel/How to photoshop a kitten pic (the only nod to programming – some of you will get this)
  • this was not something the teachers were happy about and I found acres of frustrated geeky teachers fighting a Latin Goliath
  • young people were being driven to teaching themselves, something well-served online with a tonne of lessons on YouTube, websites with individual lessons in the greatest detail, should you care to look, but these kids were isolated and bullied
  • some/many were being failed at school <- when I posted that blog post 25,000 people on Hacker News clicked on it within the first hour…

M’esteemed colleagues were well-renowned software engineers and designers and did not have the capacity to fight this particular fight, except by continuing to do good – most of whom are now in the UK Government Digital Service – but I was able enough, and I was a Mum and I was an entrepreneur, and I was an open government data campaigner – and I had to stay to do something.

Through personal and professional means I turned myself into a lobbying machine to teach our kids to code and, through Rewired State, continued to run Young Rewired State as an annual event, growing from 50 kids to 600 kids, now 1000.

I gave up my job.

I fought battles.

I lost battles.

I won them.

I did school runs.

I got cross about girl engineers (lack of).

I wrote.

I did.

I talked (although I am not a natural speaker – BetaBlockers FTW).

And I found a community of fabulous people: Mathematica, CodeClub, Mozilla, Nominet, Nesta, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jam, MadLab, Birmingham City Council, CoderDojo, Treehouse, General Assembly – seriously so many people… and now I feel like I can step back from that fight now. I have been as much use as I can be… and a *lot* is happening.

I need to look to the future and I need to re-focus the kids we are now finding in increasing numbers, and as the others teach them how to code, and as the others fight the battle with institutions and education – I want to go back to what we wanted to do in the first place.

And so I think now is the time, as we grow beyond the UK, to re-focus what we are doing on finding these kids and introducing them to Open Government Data. I will always fight for education, but I fight for democracy, transparency and accountability over all – and I would like our children to grow up understanding Open Data as freely as they understand Open Source.

Starting now…

Our aim is to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code – and introduce them to open government data

http://youngrewiredstate.org

No exit strategy intended, anyone else here for the long game?

As a social entrepreneur, someone who is leading an organisation that is about longevity/good/jobs not an exit strategy, I am learning fast as I build Rewired State, Young Rewired State and Rewired Reality.

It is hard work, this is year five and it is harder than years 1, 2 nd 3, they were great fun. Four was the portend of things to come and now we face a year of scaling down rather than up, consolidating and dealing with employment and HR over strategy and innovation. Not necessarily fun but just as important to secure the future of our dedication to open data, open government, open organisations and young programmers. The future as we see it.

As we scale, so the community spirit that imbues young start-ups dwindles and it is difficult to retain the call-to-arms enthusiasm we all have when starting something new. Big lessons are learned and sometimes trust can be tested, especially when the bill for sustaining your battle cry begins to become about proper sums, ones that can’t be appeased by offers of free pizza and wifi, and more about salaries and data bills.

Money destroys those discussions, in communities, start-ups, social enterprises and even charities. Yet we all have to find a way to sustain our work, beyond begging for a slice of a CSR budget.

I am just at the beginning of year five, and will of course chart its course through this blog as ever, for those interested. For those who are in a similar position, I would like to share a little of the pain, and the ways we can continue the work we started, fund it, employ people, make it all sustainable, and still have these organisations in business when we retire – years hence.

Right now I am a bit lost, a bit frightened and do question that I am the right person to continue pushing for what I believe is sensible, right and good. At the same time I think it is OK to feel this frightened; to feel as if I had conquered it all and egotistically *the one* is usually a hiding to nothing, and we would be doomed.

But it is scary.

If there are any more of you out there, please do make yourselves known either privately or here. It would be good to find some others who are in it for the long haul and therefore about to enter the scary years, and take some forced time out to support each other.

Scary – but not giving in…

Young Rewired State – an update

For any of you who are unaware of Young Rewired State, here is a video from this year’s Festival of Code

To date we have made it our focus to find and foster every child in the UK driven to teach themselves how to code; to support them through community and peer-to-peer learning, and introduce them to open data, primarily open government data. If you would like to read up more on what we do and why, here is a White Paper written by Dominic Falcao, a student at York University.

So we have come far in the last four years and as we enter our fifth year we really are going hyperlocal and global – as I mentioned in a previous post.

Since that post I have had some very great discussions with developer communities in several regions outside the UK, including Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Kenya and San Francisco – and the narrative has become more clear, why this is so important and how this very well could be the beginning of a game-changing, independent, worldwide community.

Let me explain…

The idea is to start as we did in 2009 in the UK with one weekend in a number of International regions. Find 50 local children, aged 18 or under, driven to teach themselves how to code, and introduce them to open government data in a traditional hack-style event. During these weekends these young programmers will be mentored by their local coding community, as they are in the UK, but as well, they are remotely supported by the worldwide members and mentors for YRS, through twitter hashtags and IRC channels.

If history can repeat itself over the following five years, each of these first 50 will continue to be mentored and add to their number, growing to 500 in five years, maybe more – and then becoming hyperlocal.

The dream is for a child in Berlin to find it completely usual to be supporting a child in New York, for example, with a local civic problem, or just in their learning. For them to grow up expecting and understanding open data and open borders. And almost more importantly to be forever a part of a worldwide community of like-minded people – never again coding alone.

The beauty of this network is that it is so local, we are working with established developer networks and organisations in all of the countries, and as these children become 19 they *typically* fold back into Young Rewired State as mentors. This is important as it creates a support network for teachers and educators worldwide that is so needed.

We work also in partnership with those organisations teaching young people to code, giving them somewhere to continue the learning through collaborative, peer-to-peer education that can scale according to talent and desire.

YRS Scotland

This weekend sees the very first of these hyperlocal events in the UK, with a group of young programmers in Scotland starting their YRS journey. You can follow the action and add your mentor support by following the hashtag: YRSSCO2012 on twitter.

I really do believe these children can actually change the world, and I am grateful to the huge community who have supported us in the UK and overseas to get to now.

We are run as a not-for-profit social enterprise. Here is how you can get involved

Revolutionising R&D, Science and Technology through geek principles

Today I attended the Astellas Innovation Debate at The Royal Society in London – their glorious ignorance of panel and participatory diversity aside, it was a fascinating conversation and an interesting bunch of people: not my usual crowd, (apart from a couple of familiar faces there because of their Academic standing, not their day jobs).

The subjects up for debate were:

How do we innovate in a time of austerity?

Are we doing enough to nurture innovators of the future?

You can watch all the action here if you fancy. You can see why I wanted to go, this was totally my bag, baby.

I chose to listen rather than tweet (for most of it!) and I am glad I did as it was remarkable how similar the discussions about the challenges facing science and medicine(s) reflect almost perfectly the issues we try to address in the great programming discussions of late. The conversation did focus very definitely on scientific research and medicinal science over and above anything else – particle physics was mentioned, as were lots of very medical terms. But essentially the issues seem to come down to:

  • VCs will not invest in Science research as there is no 3-5 year return – expect 20 years but probably 40 (someone mentioned that we are only really now able to properly scale and utilise the discoveries of Watson and Crick)
  • R&D budgets are being slashed
  • Corporate Labs are disappearing
  • Not enough money spent on education at University level (I would add that this is true at all education levels, and the general consensus was that this is so – but I was not able to comment or ask questions so let’s pretend I did)
  • Apparently there is a survey that says that 49% of kids ages 7-18 are bursting to study Science/get a job in Science and Technology – this survey was quoted a lot but I am afraid I cannot find it on the website :/ if I find it I will post it here – but I do query this percentage

It was not the debate I was expecting but, as I listened to them speak, the similarities with the stuff I do, lobby for, represent and try to resolve seemed so clear that I started riffing on whether the solutions in the geek world, could help.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist, I am not an academic, I have no idea whether this is already being done, but no one in the room mentioned it, except for my favourite panelist: Professor Paul Boyle who mentioned open principles and social innovation. (He later confessed to not wanting to sideline the panel). I am just saying what I would have loved to have said in the room.

1. Money

The fact that everyone agreed on was that VCs would not invest in research that would only yield profit after decades, so they were all looking for alternative routes to fund. I say take the hacker mentality.

Do the research, discover little things, then share them on an open repository, such as coders do with GitHub. The smaller discoveries can then be ‘forked‘ by other scientific researchers, shared and so on and so forth; so that there is as much value in the sum of the parts – and more quickly-realised benefits – as there is in the eventual cure for lung cancer (or whatever the greater intention may be).

This seems to me like something that VCs would feel more able to fund, and could really escalate the speed and number of discoveries and innovation.

I asked the community on twitter if there were such a thing and was pointed to the following:

taverna.org.uk

http://arxiv.org

The Dart Project

figshare.com

Synapse

And finally everyone said why can’t GitHub do the job?  I suspect they could, but they are not set up to now and I was pointed to this blog post that explains why it is not really fit for purpose, but again there is still debate raging in the Internet about some of these facts.

All of those links are not quite what I mean. But there is something in all of them that is useful.

Maybe we can set this as a challenge at the Wellcome Trust: Open Science hack event, perhaps we can start there.

This brings me onto hack events. I believe that the hacker way of breaking and remaking, building solutions and failing forwards until they find something that works is something the (non-computer) Science community could benefit from. We will see at the Wellcome Trust hack and I will write more on this. Hack days and modding (modification) series are a great way of kickstarting R&D and building working prototypes at a relatively low cost: thousands not millions, nor even hundreds of thousands. In Rewired State we are doing exactly this in our commercial work, feel free to ask me questions!

A dying community – how to bolster the numbers of kids choosing science

In spite of the quoted research that I cannot find, in my experience children are not inspired by the sciences in school. They may love Prof Brian Cox, Dallas Campbell and Kevin Fong – maybe – but they do not see themselves as growing up to do that, in the main. (The science bit, not the telly bit). One audience member whose name I did not catch had a good theory on this, he pointed out that all children studying art, drama, textiles, languages, maths all get to be creators, to make something entirely new, be that prose, or a sum or a fabulous piece of art for themselves, in science (and this was also true for ICT) they just get to recreate stuff that other people have already done. It’s not fun, they can’t create in senior school.

And so we come to the same problem facing ICT education in this country. Fixing the exams to include coding and computational thinking is not the magic bullet. We *must* address this in junior schools: Year 8 is too late, and we must invest in better University Science degrees. Focusing on GCSEs, EBaccs and A levels is too long a road to achieve anything of worth in our lifetimes, it has to happen YES but it will yield in 20+ years. It really cannot be more simple for the educators, and they are doing wonderful things to address this and I have enormous faith and respect for the work they are doing.

However, it will not be fast enough to be ‘VC-fundable’ nor even a good enough argument for the public purse in straightened times, but that is why things like Young Rewired State and its equivalents are so important, and why we need to apply the Open Source/hacker mentality. We need to bolster change in society, we can’t just make a law and make everyone love science and technology (nor is that ideal at any rate, we need art and language) this is not smoking in public places! But what we can do is curate communities outside the education system that bridge the gap between academia, industry and peers who are doing the stuff the other kids want to be able to do, to do this for the greater good of the next generations – we really do. Because if we don’t, this is going to be a horribly slow burn, gang.

I am not going to address the girl thing. Needless to say my views are written many times in this blog, but definitely not helped by events such as the one I attended today and wrote about here, where there was only one female speaker and she was only on the first panel, and the members of the audience that were invited to speak were all male (until I caused a bit of a twitter fuss during the event, and the chair was asked to invite a female to answer the girl question, the selected member of the audience sadly was put on the spot, had no researched opinion on the matter and other than being a female physicist was at a bit of a loss as to what to say).

And so I wrote this.

Young Rewired State Year 5: Everywhere and Hyperlocal

So the time has come when we are all itching for more Young Rewired State, and interestingly it seems that year 4-5 of this thing is when it all starts to get local. As you know, we like to try stuff to see if it works and so here is a very brief outline of the plans as we stand today, (PLANS, not definites… we are still testing ideas):

YRS in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales
Historically we have struggled to get centres and kids in these areas, mainly because we need to do more to raise awareness of YRS rather than there not being any kids who could take part. So we are planning on running three separate hack weekends on open local government data for 50 kids in each place, emulating what we did in England in 2009 at Google – the beginning of YRS.

The first is being run in Scotland: http://rewiredstate.org/hacks/yrs-scotland-2012 and we are working out Wales right now and Northern Ireland will likely be a collaboration with Maggie Philbin and Teentech.

  • if you would like to assist with the organisation of any of these three weekends, please let me know


YRS UK local

We now have 42 centres across the UK, some slightly bamboozled, but those who are in their 2nd or 3rd year of being a centre are well-established and seeing a need to foster the local coding youth community beyond the annual event, both through the centre and with Ben (Nunney)’s community management offerings to all of the YRSers.

We are also looking at how these kids can work together on local community projects, or not – just things that interest them – and would like to see the centres be involved in this.

Please bear with us as we take our time to get this right. We have managed to nut years 1-4, we just need to work out year 5 and then we can rinse and repeat, for everyone.

YRS Worldwide

The idea has always been to find and foster every kid who is driven to teach themselves how to code, and this does not limit us to the UK. For a few years now we have received messages from people overseas keen to run their own YRS events. So in 2013 we are launching YRS Everywhere. We are going to run weekends (again for 50 kids using local open government data) in the following places:

  • Estonia
  • Berlin
  • New York
  • Amsterdam
  • Kenya
  • plus one other wild card (we have a few options here you see)

We will replicate the method of scale we used in the UK, moving from weekend to week, to multiple centres and finally hyper-local, year on year – all the time connecting these young coders to each other, in a very light way, maintaining the worldwide mentoring model used to date. We have no idea how this will work out, but we have begun chats with local developer networks who will act as foster networks for the youngsters, and open government data people in country, and the response has been wildly enthusiastic.

  • If any of you have contacts in any of these countries, please do hook me up with them, I would like to tie everything together as much as I can

Money – how are we paying for this?

Firstly it is important to clarify that my intention is not to build an organisation and flog it for millions. The idea is that this thing will be built and will grow and grow and grow, goodness knows where it will take us all but I would still like to be doing this when I am 90, and I would like to still be doing this with you all. I find that more exciting than being rich for a few years then sad and lonely…

We run YRS on a sponsor model, covering costs by trading what we actually have (access to young programming minds to test kit or raise brand awareness to a new generation) but not selling databases or IP. Obviously I have given up work now and we have a small team who run YRS and Rewired State (Rewired State being a profit-making social enterprise), we are paid through money made on RS hack days and through pieces of consultancy. YRS will continue to run on a NfP model, as we grow so we will need to raise more money to cover our ambition, but we are not shackled to a VC because we are not building a business to sell – we are creating a network that will continue to grow and hopefully gainfully employ more and more people and be rewarding and energising – because we have no flipping idea what is actually going to happen, and have the freedom to do this.

And so we work very closely with our chosen sponsors every year to both get the cash we need to run this thing and to get them the results they need in order to donate actual money to us. It is a fine line but we work hard to get it right (nearly there!).

We intend to find a single main partner for Young Rewired State: Everywhere, as SAP were for us in the 2012 Festival of Code. We will find a model that combines local, in-country sponsorship, combined with our main partner sponsor.

In addition to this we will continue to run ‘for profit’ Rewired State hack days to support central costs.

The only way we can scale to find every single kid driven to teach themselves how to code, is to avoid obvious limitations. There is not going to be any single group that rises to the top as an outright winner from YRS, everyone will benefit, but every person involved can choose how they shape their involvement in YRS – it totally will be what you make of it.

I know I am in it for life and I am going to dedicate myself to making it great and worldwide. Young developers will take the network and make friends for life, build businesses, create the next bazillion dollar thing. Mentors will become worldwide mentors helping young people from all backgrounds, maybe even working with them to create something world-changing. Centres will find their own local coding youth and will hold the ability to shape that relationship and hone those skills for the greater good, or for their own. The Rewired State team work together to boldly go wherever, to try stuff, test and be brave, with a small cushion (a very small cushion) of financial stability. It is what we all make of it.

But I do not believe in death by committee. I never have but flirted with it in the early days of this social enterprise and it failed. I plan to lead this thing and forge ahead with as much support as I can muster and see how far we get. A time will come when what we are doing becomes irrelevant, at that point I will get a new job.

  • if any of you know of any potential sponsors or partners for any of this, please let me know

 

Buy yourself something pretty

Earlier this week I wrote about the wonderful story of raising the £20,000 needed for the hardship costs for kids joining in with YRS2012, I was overwhelmed by the number of people celebrating and joining in with that success – love it.

This week also marks the six months since I received the following email:

CONGRATULATIONS!

You have been nominated by Mark Surman to receive a Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant to work with Young Rewired State.

It came out of the blue and was for $5,000. An amount that is enough to be excited about and feel like you just won something, but is not a scary sum with strings attached that adds to your endless list of deliverables.

This money came with no strings, I could do whatever I liked with it – so long as it was for Young Rewired State, of course, not red wine and taxis (well… ), I was to be open about the project (no change there!) and I was also able to use the Shuttleworth Foundation logo for the following six months on the YRS website. There was a request though that at the end of the six month period, receivers of this Flash Grant should write about how the grant helped them – so here I am.

Funnily enough the timing could not be more perfect. After raising the £20,000 for YRS2012 I have thought a lot about how exactly the right amount of money can be the difference between powering forward and screeching to a halt.

Meeting Mark

I had met Mark Surman, Executive Director at Mozilla, for the first time and for a very brief hour, about a month before this email from the Shuttleworth Foundation landed in my inbox.

I talked about Young Rewired State and Rewired State, he spoke about his plans for Mozilla and the education space.

We riffed about what really drove us, the passion we had for the potential for the open web, open data and open education. How young people were really growing up into an incredibly exciting world and that we were in the middle of that rennaissance period, it had arrived. We spent the hour we were speaking using everything we could find to draw all over, diagrams to show the patterns we were weaving in our minds of how this all fit together – all that lovely stuff.

[We did not write on bananas - this is just a brilliant picture]

But whenever Mark asked the more probing questions about how I thought I might achieve any of this, how YRS could scale, how my own personal enthusiasm could make any difference other than to those I directly affect – I was unsure. I could see the end game, I could sense the potential, it all felt right and I *knew* it was big – but I was not sure how I should play into that space and indeed if I should. I blustered and bluffed but I didn’t fool anyone.

I always knew that I would continue with YRS, regardless of anything, my heart lies in it, it is a wonderful thing, it will always benefit some people and I loved doing it – but was what I was doing enough?

Now I had never met Mark before, but I knew of him. I love Mozilla’s ethos and brand identity and Mark’s dude creds were formidable. I remember days and days of reading and following up on links he had recommended – it was just one of those moments, we all have them, a meeting where you come away just buzzing your tits off and with renewed enthusiasm and shutzpah.

The Shuttleworth Foundation

So then, a month (ish) later, I receive this Flash Grant and notification that Mark had recommended me for it. It was the combination of these two things that really turned things around, I believe, for Young Rewired State and its huge growth this year.

Since I received that email and proudly displayed the Shuttleworth funded logo on Young Rewired State I worked hard to focus my thoughts and plans. Because of the faith shown in me to really achieve something with Young Rewired State I felt almost like I had been dared to push the boundaries of what I hoped to achieve, to find a way to scale. For some reason this free money and this massive slap on the back gave me more motivation than anything in my entire life so far – I can’t explain that.

Scaling like a scaly thing

So this year Young Rewired State has grown from 100 young coders and 14 centres in the UK in August 2011, to 500 young coders and 50 centres.

This is an amazing jump but it is not the only change.

One of my favourite moments in YRS (and the same thing happens every year and makes me all emotional) is the moment the individual young developer walks into the centre on the Monday morning, not usually too much confidence knocking about and often used to coding alone in their spare time. They see ten other kids in the room. By the Tuesday they are shining, collaborating, learning, teaching, competing and getting excited. (At this point the emails usually start from parents, telling us how profound an effect even two days has had, the confidence, excitement and energy they see in their child – trust me, these emails floor us all, lots of gulping). Then on the Friday all of the centres come together for show and tell and they walk into a room of 100 other kids, exactly like themselves and their confidence and excitement shoots up to a whole other level.

By the time they finish watching and taking part in show and tell – a community is born and it is these moments that drive the YRS alumni to return year on year to foster and mentor the new YRSers.

Now I recognise that this is nothing whatsoever to do with me, this is just what happens when you create the right environment for this magic. That YRS does this, is happenstance, it was not concocted. But I also know that it is one of the most important things that happen during the week.

But what would happen if instead of only one crazy day of show and tell followed by a race for trains back to everywhere in the UK, these kids had more time together?

We did the only thing any sensible tiny organisation that runs on the smell of an oily rag could do and morphed that Friday show and tell into a weekend of coding and collaboration. A festival of code. We picked up the phone to the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park and asked them if they would mind if we camped on their lawns, and they were delighted, excited even!

The YRSers will pitch tents, code, have talks, eat pizza – they will also do their show and tells and battle to win prizes, fame and fortune – but they will be together from the Friday through the weekend.

What greater nod to scale can there be than finding that one thing that holds the magic in what you are doing, and making that better?

So whilst it is a huge thing for us to be hosting so many more young coders this year – the fact that at the end of their week of coding in centres across the country, the community gets two days instead of two hours together this year – that’s the proper win.

Finally, of course, the $5,000 has gone towards YRS2012 and I would like to extend an enormous thank you to both Mark Surman for recommending me in the first place, and to the Shuttleworth Foundation for awarding me the grant for Young Rewired State. You have no idea how much of a motivator that was – I hope you enjoy the show this year and that next year we can begin to scale the festival of code.

Social enterprise and the power of breaking stuff

I think we can pretty much accept that the traditional model of making the world work and surviving in it has broken, even for bankers. Whether this be the status quo for those on benefits, the funding mechanisms for start-ups, the charitable foundations, those looking to sponsor stuff and those seeking sponsorship right up to those who have done well for themselves – nothing is guaranteed and pretty much every system except celebrity is broken. So who can really blame the kids and adults for seeking a future through game and talent shows on TV – that’s basically the only model that has thrived and survived (dear Daily Mail commentors).

I think that I am a pretty odd person. I was odd at school: geek/nerd/books/computers/maths but I also survived. When I started relationships and breeding I guess I normalised – my weird edges were moulded into something vaguely resembling a mother and a worker – I never got the wife thing right and I am definitely appalling at school run outer-wear. But what I do have is a keen sense for survival – therefore I am what is socially classed as a serial entrepreneur. Yet I do not plan on retiring in five years having sold a business idea for millions – I plan on putting my talents to use doing things I can do and working with the very best of the best to making stuff I like doing happen. I think it is just happenstance that what I like doing is for the greater good – I wouldn’t champion me that much, there is an element of selfishness in there.

I also (as you might expect from the brief bio of my youth) am not excellent at networking and people. This makes my working life harder, but I can overcome that in a variety of brilliant ways – these do not include mass events with lots of people but definitely include my fabulous twitter family.

This is by the by…

OK so assuming we accept that traditional stuff is broken, but the broken society requires innovation and energy (as shown most successfully through TV talent and celebrity shows) – so how do we shred the tradition, without fear and look to what’s left.

I have been there and so I think I can help

I love Rewired State and Young Rewired State. Let’s be honest, Rewired State is probably about three years too early if it is to survive through hack days that pay developers for rapid R&D – we can survive, definitely – but we will have to do other stuff. Meanwhile we have a network of over 600 developers keen to help pretty much everybody – except recruitment agents and people needing code monkeys – the devs want to do strategy and innovation and in a digital world, you’d be bonkers not to let them; but in reality the world is not yet quite ready for that, it is broken and hack days are not traditional.

FACT: many want hack days because they have now become an OK way of dipping your toe in the water of  innovation, but they do not fit with traditional R&D and so there is no budget, therefore your hack days have to rely on the benefaction of developers willing to work on your problem/idea for free/FA so… you are pretty stuffed. Let me give you an extreme example. We are running a hack day, on a boat, in Cannes, at MIPCUBE, presenting to attendees of MIPCUBE and MIPTV and we are not awash with developers keen to do this. Why? Because of developer apathy, a whole other blog post. So if you want to actually engage devs in a hack day, for sod all and you can beat a boat in the South of France and one of the most high profile geekTV events in the world then you may have a chance of attracting a few – if you don’t, I would rethink it until the budget meets the ambition. Please do not believe the myth that devs will code in a garage for free on your stuff. They just won’t and why should they?

I digress…

Here is what I wanted to share with you

Knowing me as you do either in person or through blogs and twitter, I work relentlessly for the things I believe in. But paying for these things in traditional fashion means that I do not meet the demands of mortgage/tax/life for myself nor fair work for people I represent and the organisations I think can make a difference to, I refuse to accept this so I have had to be inventive. Here’s how to break the world and survive (I am only in stage 2, I have not yet officially survived but I think I can see the light, so come with me)

  • work with the knowledge you have to build a vision of what you want
  • social funding is there – benefactors have set up organisations to pay for stuff to happen if you can prove its worth – use them
  • talk to everyone and be honest – through doing this with Simon Peyton-Jones one day, he then introduced me to a retired man who was the ex CEO of Shell and BCS, who came to my house and learned about what I was trying to achieve and has since helped immensely from toilets at Bletchley Park to Scouts and tents to mentoring me and championing the work of YRS – you cannot buy that
  • I cannot tell you the people I have been exposed to though being honest and fighting for what I believe, I met Conrad Wolfram and had an hour on the phone with him after the fact chatting about how he could produce stuff to help YRSers get more maths out of coding
  • I had an email from Douglas Rushkoff – with advice…
  • through NESTA I discovered the peoplefund.it site and have begun crowdsourcing for Young Rewired State 2012
  • through tweeting pics of my dad’s BBC Micros and my old educational software I talked to Chris Monk from The National Museum of Computing who fixed the micros for free and then came to Learning Without Frontiers to showcase the old Micros and now they are hosting the show and tell for YRS2012
  • At my dining room table yesterday I had a volunteer and a YRSer working for on YRS2012 in return for a bottle of cold coke, tea, fruit and haribos
  • Rory Cellan Jones and Stephen Fry tweet about what we do – not because they happened upon it, but because we are relentless and we are good and we work hard – this is not an insurmountable problem for anyone, we can all be good at what we do and work hard

Make no bones about it, it is flipping hard.

It’s about 17 hours a day of hard graft and it depends on a massive slashing of social media and community (but not dependent on real life networking, thank goodness), creating fundable projects for charitable trusts to invest in and ultimately a massive dollop of finding people who have capacity and might welcome a chance to work on what you are doing.

This way we can break the world but make it sustainable. It takes guts and if the world was not so broken it would be much harder to fix, but quite frankly there are many of us in the same position – so carpe diem and do what you want and find a way to live through that thing – forget the traditional routes and benefits. It’s borked.

PS Do not be tempted to secure your foray into the future from the broken past by paying for advice from people who have no proven success in the future. There will be many who offer unique skills, telling you scary things like: “My skills are unique, I scale social businesses and there is no one like me” pay me xxx – these people will not really be worth much, Trusts will help you and guide you through their processes and needs – even if you start from a great idea with no idea. And finally, if anyone asks you for a % of your organisation PLUS a salary, walk away immediately – they do not believe in your success as an enterprise and are only in it for the cash. (Thank you @sleepydog for that gem!)

PPS I am funding Young Rewired State partly through crowdsourced money – yes because I have to but also because so many people get to be a part of YRS, which for me is the greatest thing on the planet. Pledge your hard-earned cash here, and if you can’t, tell your networks, someone will have a tenner

The dilemma of scaling a social organisation, with commercial bits…

(13/09/12 I have updated this post, see the final paragraph)

… and not becoming a complete dick

This post is a stake in the sand for Rewired State and Young Rewired State.

The problem (ish)

Rewired State and Young Rewired State are now entering their 4th year as a community and their second as a limited company (secured by guarantee). It has grown enough that we need now to scale, to get proper funding and separate the two organisations. Scary stuff.

But it is essential to retain the binding oaths that sit at the core of both organisations:

  • To keep the developer at the heart of everything we do
  • To be open

To this end I am having to begin conversations and apply for funding with people beyond the community. These conversations are necessary for us to secure the financial and business support required to grow, and make it something that is here to stay and not something that falters.

These external people and organisations are chosen for their fit and beliefs; but whenever money is concerned – especially *proper* money – there will always be expectations from the organisation or person and we will need to adjust how we do things to meet these needs.

The solution

We need to be careful. Having spent six months talking to a variety of people about potential ways of scaling and growing the organisations it’s obvious that we come to a point where it is necessary to get a back-up team, primarily to keep me on point (as Got To Dance judges would say).

After many sleepless nights and much ferocious cooking (it orders my mind and pleases my family) I decided that these decisions are not something I could do alone, and it would be totally impossible to get a group decision, seeing as Rewired State now counts over 600 developers in its hug.

To that end, I spent some time thinking about those closest to me and who I would happily trust, without question, with the future of both organisations.

Those people were the following (in no order):

Ben Hammersley

Sym Roe

Thayer Prime

Ben Nunney

Jemima Kiss

{the links in each name were chosen by me, feel free to Google them}

And so I proposed to them, in a their own personal capacity, on virtual bended knee that they act as a developer steering group for the organisations. Every single one has agreed and for that I am humbled and hugely grateful. The role of this group has not been formally designed, but the starter for ten is that they will:

  • approve all hack days in the pipeline
  • be a part of all major business decisions
  • be a point of escalation for RS/YRS developer concerns
  • approve appointments

In the coming weeks I will publish the agreed role of this group.

But I am writing this post really because I do believe in open organisations and I believe that by writing this, so I might help others who are suffering with sleepless nights over how they can scale their business and retain the thing that sits at the heart of what they are doing and why.

For Rewired State and Young Rewired State this means developers, for other organisations it will obviously be different. But I chose this steering group because I know that, come what may, they would stand firm by what we believe in but understand that we need to scale in order to support our commitment and the ambition of the community we have fought for, brought together and support.

I hope that this post helps anyone who is in the same situation as me, and I would like to use this post to publicly thank the YRS/RS developer steering group for agreeing so readily to keep us on track.

Update 13/09/12 unfortunately this Board has not worked, I have been rubbish at keeping my side of the deal and having it as a remote reporting board as opposed to a really engaged thing – which I had dreamed of – was just not working, for anyone. I am in the process of completing some strategy work with two advisers and as a result of that we will move forward with a plan and structure that will be different to the above but will reflect the needs of the organisation and community. I do not yet know what this is. In the mean time I would like to thank the people on the board who gave up their time and attention to help guide us through this year.

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