Skip to main content

The kids code alright: Inside Young Rewired State's Festival of Code

I had a relatively privileged upbringing when it comes to technology. Way back in the prehistoric 90s, my school had dedicated IT classes and we learnt a number of key skills. Mavis Beacon helped me become a reasonably adept typist and I acquired an average level of competency with Microsoft applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I even stuck my head into basic HTML and built an Angelfire page dedicated to the New England Patriots. Coupled with a fondness of Sierra's fantasy RPGs and the advent of Sid Meier's early strategy games, you had the makings of a veritable geek.

But as I was cruelly reminded earlier this week when the 10th anniversary of The OC came to pass, time moves fast. Gaming aside, the skills I was lucky enough to acquire as a spratling are now the bare minimum expected by many employers. As the technology world progresses apace, expectations of today's youngsters are greater still. Word processing simply doesn't smear the brown sauce anymore - the need now is to arm contemporary kids with the coding and development skills necessary to power the UK's digital economy of the future.

Enter initiatives like Young Rewired State (YRS). An off-shoot of Rewired State, YRS was set up by Emma Mulqueeny in 2009 and has grown from a modest core of 50 budding coders into a dynamic, 1,000 strong network of young programmers. And while the organisation now runs numerous satellite events throughout the year as well as recently expanding into New York, the highlight of the YRS calendar remains its annual Festival of Code. A week-long challenge that culminates this weekend at the Birmingham Custard Factory, it will see youngsters presenting the apps, websites, and games that they have created over the last few days under the banner of "coding a better country."

So what can we expect? Last year, one participant - (then] 16-year-old Isabell Long - came up with GovSpark, an energy monitoring league table now utilised by various UK government departments to help them meet their green commitments. This year, the bar could be raised even higher. To get a better idea of what the UK's most promising young coders have been up to over the last week (other than noshing down on pizza), I ambled my Zimmer frame over to TechHub, where lead mentor Kyle Hudson introduced me to some of the kids out to code tomorrow's Britain. Saying that I was impressed by the enthusiasm, ingenuity and level of skill on display would be a cataclysmic understatement.

To start, 14-year-old Alice and her graphic design-savvy friend Greg (that's them at the top of the article) took me through the open source game coding and tutorial database they were beavering away on. For Alice, the key feature of the educational site was its crowdsourced, social nature.

"You can always update your skill level so if you get better at JavaScript, your bar will get higher and then you can teach other people. It's a cycle - that's the idea," she said.

Then there was Freddy, a precocious programming talent that knew "everything about everything," according to Kyle. Now, I can't strictly vouch for whether that's true or not, but this young man certainly knew what he was doing. He was also alarmingly articulate for his age - when I was 13, I would have been far from comfortable openly engaging with a journalist. But Freddy was clearly cut from a different string.

"I'm building a weather app that not only displays the weather in a nice format - very easy to read and no unnecessary information – [but] can also send a simplified forecast to your phone every morning. The SMS script that sends the messages is currently being built. At the moment, it displays the weather but not in an engaging format. I'm building the code that will display in a nice, easy-to-use format," he said of his project.

"The code is written in PHP. Because of our time limit, we had to use Twitter Bootstrap as our user interface - it's easy to use and it has a grid system that's responsive. I'm using the output from a script that gets data from OpenWeatherMap API and I'm now writing the script that lays it out in columns and rows for each day."

Quite an undertaking whatever your age, and one that seemed like it could require a fair amount of time to see to fruition. Not so for Freddy, who shared his ambitious deadline with me.

"Lunchtime..." he said, before turning back to his laptop to make his next tweak.

Freddy also told me about some of the longer-term aims for his idea: "When it's built, we are attempting as a stretch goal to build a fantasy weather thing where you predict what you think the weather will be like and you earn points if you get it right. We might not get that implemented by the end of the Festival, but I may implement it in the future."

Ultimately, one of the main purposes of initiatives like Young Rewired State is to illustrate what's possible when investment in the digital skills of Britain's youngsters rises to the top of the agenda. So as my time with some of these budding developers and designers started to wind down, I asked Freddy how he got into coding and what kind of support he received on a day-in, day-out basis. He spoke with the kind of brutal honesty that us (occasionally) jaded hacks swoon over when conducting interviews.

"I originally got into coding because, for some reason, we had Microsoft FrontPage on our old computer. I started messing around with that and I kind of learnt code from what it spewed out. [Then] I used Codeacademy to learn Python and PHP and stuff like that. More recently, I've started using Treehouse to learn more complex things like Rails," Freddy told me.

"Our school is supposed to be a maths and computing school. It's not really. To be honest with you, most IT lessons it takes most of the lesson to get people logged in. We only do very basic things – we only did web site design earlier this year."

"It's mostly inadequate. We haven't learnt any code – zero code. It's not really the school's fault. Trying to teach Python would take a very long time. You need to start early with the mentality [of] 'I don't use programmes, I make them.' But up until secondary school, no coding is learnt."

A startlingly sage insight from such a young lad, but then, by the end of my visit to Young Rewired State's Festival of Code, I had come to expect nothing less from Freddy and his peers.