Calling all bedroom programmers – everywhere!

It is that time again, the beginning of the build up to the 6th Festival of Code!!

MainIt is an unbelievably exciting time for us, and we have really stepped up our game this year – just wait and see. But I can tell you that as well as code and community there will be poetry, art, skateboarding, laser graffiti and list of speakers so fine you will feel dizzy sharing the same space as them. On Saturday we will have heats, semi-finals and then an entire evening of music curated by Pixelh8 before the Grand Finale on Sunday – where the finalists will show and tell to a panel of judges I am just ITCHING to reveal, but we need a few more weeks before they will be completely nailed. You will be delighted, I promise.

For those of you who have never heard of the Festival of Code before, go and check out the site It is a week of coding that takes place across the country where people aged 18 and under, at all levels of digital skill, work with open data and mentors to build websites, apps, games or write algorithms. On Friday 1st August they all come together in Plymouth for a weekend of talks, show and tells, music and festivities, celebrating their skills and encouraging them to learn more.

Here is the story from one of our centres from last year in Manchester Digital Laboratory

This year we have young people taking part from around the world: the US, Singapore and Europe and we are really looking forward to bringing you all together and seeing what you are up to.

As ever, we run this all through sponsorship and it is all totally free, thank you sponsors!! But I have one ask left…

It is notoriously difficult to reach some of the young people who would benefit most from coming along to this. Many of whom are teaching themselves how to code in their bedrooms, who might not know that this exists. So we have this wish:

Please could every reader of this blog post download this poster from the Festival of Code website and print at least ten copies out. Then put them up in your work, your school, your local library or community centre, anywhere really. Parents, friends and family members may see the poster and pass it on to their bedroom programmer and completely change their lives. Tell everyone, and they can change the world.


The great gender divide: Girls don’t recognise tech as key

Today sees the launch of the Telefónica Global Millennial Survey which I have been really looking forward to. I have not had a chance to read all of the findings yet and am watching on Livestream the launch event today – full of interesting and clever people really talking about the importance of technology in education.

However, one set of facts that screams out at me from the whole thing is this:

gender gap

Why are only 29% of girls as opposed to 42% of boys identifying technology as a subject that is key to future success in work? This chimes with my own anecdotal experience from talking in schools that girls see technology and programming as more an art project than an -ology or an -acy, whereas boys identify is much more with science and business – well, money.

These research findings really have exposed a very interesting gender gap and one that I think would benefit from far deeper formal research. Is this just a fall out from social programming? Or this this something we can actively work on? If so will this impact on the likelihood of changing the ratio of girls getting into technology?

Do go and have an explore of the whole report, I shall too over the next couple of days to see if there are any further interesting points or explanations.



How to put girls off from all forms of programming/tech by Emma der Mulqueeny

I am a bloody idiot.

This year, as every year, I decided that I would have one major focus for Young Rewired State in addition to the general idea: introducing young programmers to open data. This year I decided I would try to really focus on the issue of the pitifully small number of girls in tech and specifically girls applying to join in YRS2012.

In previous years we have struggled enough trying to find any child under the age of 18 who could programme, let alone deal with the girl thing. Yet every year I come under heavy criticism for not having enough girls there and no matter how many times you say: ‘it is not for want of trying‘, there is only so much defending you can do before really trying to *do* something.

Cue me in 2012.

Every media event, every radio broadcast, every TV split-second and every speaking opportunity, blog post or “fireside chat” this year I have bemoaned the fact that so few girls sign up for Young Rewired State, and indeed how many of those who do sign up, tend to pull out at the last minute and called for more girls: welcome the girls, I cried – loudly! With a view to increasing our number from 5% to 30%. I wanted to draw the girls out, let them know about this, let their parents know – showcase and applaud them on the YRS platform – this year bigger and shinier than ever before…

I hope you can tell by now where I am going, but I am going to drag you through every painful penny-dropping moment so that you never make this mistake yourself, dear reader.

About a month ago, whilst on an hour-long telephone conference call with some well-meaning people helping me ‘get more girls’, I found myself nodding along as ideas were discussed such as: you need to find some more “girly data”… like nursing, is there anything like that in I *actually* found myself questioning my data for pink subjects, oh my god, even I knew this was a spectacular low for me. At this point I began to question my focus and modus operandi for getting more girls. The MO being: shout more loudly in forums where girls and their parents might hear – that’ll work, that and pink data.

At this point I allowed myself the special treat of discovering how many girls we had this year. I had put off looking, focusing instead on the drive to get more girls, trying to build and extend the amount of time I took to do the percentages, so that I could give myself a little pat on the back when I saw the fruits of my work.

Guess what? The number of girls applying to YRS this year have… dropped

Completely bamboozled as to why my monstrously massive effort to encourage girls into programming was failing, I even took boy photos off the new YRS website (yet to be launched, but coming soon) jic it put girls off, I began wringing my hands at public events. Not only were my efforts failing to increase the numbers, it was actively reducing the numbers who signed up – please help me, someone. Audiences chuckled and looked awkward, and I grew ever more concerned about this – what on earth was I doing wrong? Maybe I should wangle a slot on Woman’s Hour.

Through this trojan effort to get more girls I had the benefit of meeting lots of amazing people trying to redress the male/female balance in all sorts of walks of life – it had not ever been a raison d’être of mine, I have been lucky enough to never really be bothered by this personally, and I have worked in many *male* jobs, I just do my thing…

(:) sorry had to work that one in… I digress)

Yet I do not mean to detract from the people who do so, it is an issue, yes, a worldwide issue and especially in programming/tech.

Through a charity we had worked with: Refugees United, I was introduced to the wonderful Kristen Titus, based in New York and running Girls who code. An ambitious programme and something I support hugely and wish we had here, big time. Kristen and I arranged a skype chat and riffed for an hour about how the UK and US were dealing with the broader issue of programming skills in a digital world with analogue schools and inevitably came back to my baffled moaning about how the number of girls had dropped this year – could I blame the Economic Crisis? Could Kristen find some anthropological reason why no girls were signing up? I mean… I made such an effort *sigh*

Kristen said this (ish, I cannot remember verbatim)

So you identified that the girls were not signing up in their teenage years as they have a greater need to fit in. You identified that the girls dropped out the closer the event got as they were concerned about being showcased and ‘outed’. You know, as a mother of two girls, that identity trumps everything… yet you chose to publicly out this problem, to use your public platform to draw a big red ring around the issue and then essentially dared girls to sign up – after you took your sweet time to turn that massive spotlight directly on them and them alone – in advance of the week? Hmm… I can’t think why… maybe you need more pink data…

I have to say that I lie quite appallingly here, Kristen was very kind in her gentle admonishment and practical advice, but this is what my brain finally said to me as she spoke. So thank you, Kristen, and sorry for completely bastardizing your observations!

’nuff said

The girl thing

I could respond to each and every one of you on twitter after today’s article in the Observer. And yes I know it is not just a girl thing, I was just writing in that instance about girls and coding, next week I would be happy to write about boys and coding. Several tweet responses were along the lines of: the girls I know just don’t give a sh*t, and some dubious responses about how this is/was/always will be the boy domain – but that is beside the point. All of it. And actually everyone has to stop banging on about the gender divide, the crisis is bigger than that.

The world is evolving, it is becoming more digital. Industry, every industry, is affected by this – and the economy is failing. The only jobs that have four job vacancies (av) to every skilled worker, are developer/programming jobs. The 2011 IDC Microsoft Economic Impact study found over 110,000 IT vacancies in the UK, and expects the IT workforce to grow by a further 113,000 by 2015.

Not only that but the market is changing with (amongst other things) Research and Development funds being slashed – hence the sudden boom in hack days – yet everyone needs to know the next big thing: low production cost, high return.

The world lies at the feet of those who know how to program it. Stop the rhetoric and the hectoring  just get on with it, it’s really not hard.

And before you lay in to me for hectoring, I have been trying to do something about this for years now and if you would like to support the latest effort, that would also be ace.

Year 8 is too late

Every time we run Young Rewired State, indeed pretty much every time Rewired State runs any hack, we are asked:

What is the male/female ratio?

The answer to this question is usually 5% max female.

Sometimes people then look at me expectantly for me to explain what I am going to do about this, and I usually look a little bit scared.

 To be honest, finding developers of any age or gender, willing, talented and happy to either volunteer their time or give up a weekend (even if it is paid) to help government or organisations as they emerge blinking into the open digital world, is challenging enough. But to answer the girl question – so far I have been at a loss really, and sometimes irritated by the question. Why is no one ever happy?

But yet… it is an important question; and pertinent to me, as the mother of two daughters, one of whom is crying out to code, counts down the days to come to work with me on a hack day – and often fills in the memory gaps where I have missed vital sections of presentations.

The answer

Kidding, I don’t really know the answer, but Courtney Williams (a mentor from the National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park, at Young Rewired State (YRS) this year) and Wendy Grossman (a freelance writer who followed and diarised YRS this year) have volunteered to look at some of the data we have and do some clever brainy things. This research will kick off in September 2011 and I will keep you all posted.

In the mean time, here’s my personal opinion based on a few years of working with developers of all ages, children of all ages and being a Mum of an aspiring girl-geek (9) (and a teenage daughter who has no interest whatsoever – she can be the ‘control’).

=========warning====personal opinion====not based on data====based on surmise and thinking=========

I find it relatively easy to understand and explain the lack of girl geeks, in YRS as well as in the grown up world. Here goes:

  • girls get self-conscious and socially conscious at around puberty/aged 12-14ish
  • coding and digital prowess is still niche at a young age, self-taught by the studious. Often considered a bit nerdy in senior school, where it is not (nor ever has been) taught as a part of the curriculum; therefore those who code have taught themselves. Teaching yourself something that should really be covered as a part of lessons, is a bit like doing extra homework – *why* (ask many teens) on earth would anyone do that?
  • there is no way the majority of hormonally challenged, desperate to find their place in the world, teenage girls would risk ridicule or isolation by doing such a thing – let alone be open and proud about it? (Boys of the same age have different social challenges and do not measure their societal worth so much by peer review aged 13/14)

This is why I reckon YRS gets a higher female sign-up but greater drop-out rate just before the event. They sign up because they want to, they drop out because they cannot face the potential embarrassment <- if only they knew how heralded they would be by the achingly cool. But even the achingly cool kudos doesn’t win against the female peer group pressure.

What’s the answer?

Well, I hate to limit this to just the girl geek question, but perhaps in solving the problem of a dearth of female coders we can make a big dent in the broader problem of the lack of teaching any coding languages in the National Curriculum – anywhere.

Forget enticing computer science degrees, or trying to encourage teenage girls to pick up Python…

Year 8 is too late

Start teaching coding as a part of the curriculum in Year 5. At this point the maths is strong enough in most kids. The IT curriculum has fostered a familiarity with computing and computers and the young minds are ready to start learning programming languages. Indeed they are creative, excited and have not yet developed any association, good or bad, with certain subjects.

I don’t suggest replacing the teaching of IT, that really helps kids get to grips with spreadsheets and word processing skills (yeah OK, Microsoft products, but hey). This is a new subject, an emergent but critical one – as critical as the traditional STEM subjects with which we are all so familiar.

If  it can be introduced as a part of the central curriculum in Year 5, I bet you my last penny that by the time those kids are drawn up through the education system, you would find far less of a disparity between the sexes – and maybe even an increased number of talented young people with an ability to manipulate open data, relate to code and challenging each other to design and build digital products that you and I have not even begun to imagine. Have a little imagine now… good innit?

Make one change: teach coding in Year 5 and thereafter, make it a part of the curriculum (as relevant and necessary as the traditional STEM subjects).

If you want to talk about this, share knowledge, do anything, then I will track what I can on twitter through the hashtag #yr8is2late

But I am only one person and this is not a personal campaign (yet) I want to do what I can, and I can share knowledge and experience, but it takes far more than YRS, Courtney, Wendy and myself to make a difference. And this difference would be for all young developers, not just female.