Hello Ruby — teaching children to write code

Ruby, with a wise penguins, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.
Ruby, with a wise penguin, a green robot, and lonely snow leopard. Drawing by Linda Liukas.

A few years ago I remember reading a book advocating that all school children should be taught to program computers. It’s a great discipline for anyone, the author argued, especially children. It teaches patience, persistence, problem-solving, the importance of planning; it can help children improve their maths and logical thinking, and it’s hugely rewarding to see something that you’ve been working on suddenly come to life and work as expected. I wish I still had that book.

A couple of stories about teaching children to write code have caught my eye over the last few weeks.

Year of code

On Newsnight, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesday 5 February 2014, Jeremy Paxman presented an article about the Year of Code campaign, an independent, non-profit campaign to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time.

One of my first experiences of using a computer was in primary 7 when the headteacher brought in a Commodore VIC-20. I took computer studies in high school through to higher level, and half of my university application form was to study computer science (the other half to study divinity, which is what I ended up doing).

I loved coding as a kid. My friends and I would gather around each others home computers, whether a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, or BBC B, and we’d design or amend games and programs together.

People are often amazed when I say that I taught myself the web skills that I use now in my day-to-day job in the web team at the University of St Andrews. Except, that’s not entirely true: I do have the experience of those seven or eight years of coding on 8-bit computers as a child and as a teenager. That was a brilliant headstart.

It seems that today ‘computer studies’ in school is more about learning how to be a consumer and user of existing software (how to use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint) rather than creating your own software.

I was appalled to learn how some youngsters are being ‘taught’ to code in schools today. A couple of months ago a friend of mine phoned me asking for my help. Her daughter is studying computer studies and she is being ‘taught’ to code using… Adobe Flash!? And I say ‘taught’ because it sounds like she and her classmates were essentially shown the application, given a book and told to get on with it. It sounded like the teacher didn’t know to code either.

Compare that with my own experience in the mid-80s. I had three years of hands-on coding BASIC and machine code by someone who understood how computers worked and what the programs were being asked to do, who could tell a CPU from an ALU from a RAM. And then in my sixth year a group of six of us took ourselves off and taught ourselves Pascal in what would otherwise have been free periods for us in our timetable.

We need to be teaching our children to code so that they can contribute to the next generation of computer applications. Technology has never been more exciting than it is now. I remember my dad (who worked in the electronics and communications industry, who delivered the Faraday lecture on fibre optic communications) telling me in the early 80s that one day televisions would be so thin we could hang them on our walls. It seemed like a space-age dream, it is now reality.

My main concern about that Newsnight piece, however, is the interview with Lottie Dexter, the executive director of Year of Code (at 5′ 32″ on the video).

It’s not her admission that she herself cannot code—good on her for admitting that straight away, and even better that she is committing herself to learning this year, alongside those she is encouraging to take it up. No, it’s comments like,

“You can do very little in a short space of time. For example, you can actually build a website in an hour […] completely from scratch.”

Well, you know. That’s true. But it’s not going to be a particularly good one, if this is your first. Erm… practice?

Paxman then asks her, “How long does it take to teach to code?”

“Well, I think, you can pick it up in a day.”

My heart sank. I was speechless. In trying to make coding sound more accessible she immediately undervalued programmers everywhere. It really isn’t quite that simple. I’m going to be bold here and state: you simply cannot learn enough about programming in one day to be competent enough to teach it. Is it not comments like that that result in school pupils being ‘taught’ how to program using Adobe Flash?

Hello Ruby

Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas
Hello Ruby, a Kickstarter project by Linda Liukas

Which is why projects such as Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby are so exciting.

Linda, a founder of Rails Girls, wants to create a children’s book that teaches programming fundamentals through stories and child-friendly activities.

She asked for US $10,000, as I write her total is at US $336,203. (There are currently three days left to get involved.)

I think it’s a hugely exciting project. This is what Linda has to say about it:

Ruby is a small girl with a huge imagination. She stomps and stumbles around her own little world while her dad is traveling. On her adventures, Ruby makes friends with the lonely Snow Leopard, visits castles made of windows, and solves problems with the wise penguins. She bakes gingerbreads with the green robots and throws a garden party with… well, if you like to hear the rest of the story, I need your help.

Ruby’s world is an extension of the way I’ve learned to see technology. It goes far beyond the bits and bytes inside the computer. This is the story of what happens between the ones and zeros, before the arrays and the if/else statements. The book and workbook are aimed for four to seven year olds.

I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. Everyone has a book that made the world seem beautiful and full of possibility. My book is about little Ruby.

It’s due out in August. I’ll report back when I receive my copy, and we’ll see how Reuben, Joshua and Isaac engage with it.

The job interview

View of St Andrews town from the pier
View of the Royal and Ancient town of St Andrews, taken from the pier.

Start date

Having spoken on the telephone this morning with the Unit Director of Business Improvements at the University of St Andrews, I now have a start date for my new job: Monday 1 May 2006.

I would have wanted to start much sooner than that, and so would they. Had we not been approaching Lent and Easter, and had I not have been covering at St Ninian’s, Comely Bank, and had I not been committed to getting as much of the Scottish Episcopal Church website done before I my appointment ended at the end of April then I would have said that I could. But I felt that I wanted to see my commitments here through to the end.

It’s now beginning to sink in that I got the job. I’m really getting quite excited about this new post, in what is a fairly new discipline — most people I speak with ask me “What is an Information Architect?!” I’ll explain that in a well-structured post soon, but if you can’t wait there is an article about Information Architecture on Wikipedia.

The interview

So, a few people have asked me about the interview on Wednesday.

Before I write about that I’ll just say a quick, presumptious hello to any members of the Business Improvements Unit who now may be following my blog with interest. Here’s how it was from my perspective.

As it happened my interview date coincided with my good friend Peter Leeming visiting from Aberdeen. I was at St Mary’s College with Peter from 1989-1993 and we’ve remained firm friends ever since.

In fact, Peter is the only person I remember from my open day visit to St Mary’s and I remember thinking how clever he must be while we visited the main library because when the group were asked for the name of a theologian he suggested “Karl Barth”; I’d never heard of him — Bart Simpson, yes; Karl Barth, no. Anyway, kindly Peter offered to change his plans for the day and travel up to St Andrews with me; I took him up on his offer.

The first part of the interview consisted of a two-part written task. Part one was to write out — on paper, with a pen — the HTML code for a web page. On the way home Peter asked me why, given that St Andrews is The Finest Academic Institution in Scotland™, they do all their Web coding on paper! It took me ages. I only had 30 minutes for both tasks, and writing out HTML in long-hand took me about 20 of those. Give me a PC and a copy of Notepad and I’ll tap it out in about a quarter of that time. Give me a PC and a copy of WeBuilder 2005 and I’ll do it in 2 minutes!

As it was, I couldn’t remember the exact tags for ensuring that the code would validate as XHTML 1.0, so I simply explained that I knew the code should be there, even if I couldn’t remember if from memory. If you’re interested it is:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">

Which is partly why I found the final cell of yesterday’s Dilbert cartoon so funny.

The second task I ran out of time for, but managed to scribble some ideas down. Scribble being the operative word. I’d forgotten just how much I rely on my PC for writing and organising my thoughts. I write, edit and re-edit, which is fine on a PC because the delete key doesn’t leave the same trail of squiggles and cross-outs that I left on that sheet of A4. On reflection I should just have been bold and used a mind map.

University of St Andrews crestTime up, I was accompanied to another building for the interview itself. What I remember most about the interview room itself, apart from the three people who interviewed me were the blue sofas complete with University of St Andrews crest embroidered on them.

The interview I guess went well, because I got the job. But I remember coming out of the building afterwards thinking “Aww… I’m sure I’ve blown that!” I was still feeling quite washed-out having had that 24 hour bug the day before, and so wasn’t entirely myself, but the three who interview me welcomed me warmly and helped me to relax as much as I could.

I enjoyed delivering my PowerPoint presentation, with not a bullet-point to be seen, almost as much as I enjoyed writing it. When we gathered back around the table — which felt good that we were around the table rather than a ‘them vs me’ arrangement across the table — I struggled a bit with getting out what I wanted to say. It was like there was so much information that I wanted to share it was hard to get it all out coherently.

There was one point where I misunderstood — or misheard — the question and tried to explain the difference between XHTML and XML when I’d in fact been asked to differentiate XHTML from HTML. D’oh!

Still, despite my fearful response after leaving the interview room, I had enjoyed the meeting. But then, what isn’t there to enjoy about meeting new people and talking about a field that I have a passion for?

Getting the news

After an enjoyable lunch at PizzaExpress — I had the Pollo con Funghi, thanks for asking — we drove back down the road to Edinburgh. Reaching Kirkcaldy at about 16:40 I realised that I was very near my brother Eddie’s new place of work. He now works as a Health and Safety Officer for Fife Council, seconded to their Fire and Rescue Service.

I gave Eddie a quick call and went to pick him up. Shortly after passing Thornton railway station on the way back my mobile phone rang. I threw it to Eddie on the back seat who answered it chearfully.

“Hello! Gareth’s phone. Gareth’s brother Eddie speaking…! Ok … well, he’s driving just now … ok … ok … Gareth, it’s Heidi from St Andrews.”

Checking the rearview mirror I stepped on the brake and parked at the side of a long, straight road, with the hazard lights on and took the phone back from Eddie. This is it, I thought, thanks but I’m sorry you were unsuccessful. But to my absolute delight (and pleasant surprise) I was wrong: I was the successful candidate. We arranged that Heidi would telephone me on Friday morning to arrange a start date and salary and then she checked that my contact details were right.

Heidi: Would it be easier to phone you on your landline or mobile on Friday?
Gareth: Either is fine. I should be in, though.
Heidi: Let me just check I’ve got your home phone number correct: 0131 …
Gareth: That’s right.
Heidi: Alright, I’ll telephone you on Friday.
Gareth: Have you got my mobile number?
Heidi: I’m phoning you on it right now.
Gareth: [Slightly embarrassed pause.] Oh yes. Well noticed!

Meanwhile Peter and Eddie were killing themselves laughing, quietly in the background. I hung up the phone and turned to them, “I got the job,” I said simply.

About half a mile further down the road I pulled over again. “I’ve got to phone Jane!” She was at the Gyle with her Mum. “Are you sitting down?”
“No. Just tell me!”
“I got the job!”
The phone went silent. “I think I’m going to cry. I’m so proud of you.”

For the next couple of miles down the A92 whenever I looked in my rearview mirror all I could see was Eddie smiling wildly, his face held between two hands giving me the thumbs-up.

And that was it — or at least part of it, the rest I’ll keep to myself to treasure if you don’t mind. I feel a new sense of confidence about myself. And I have no doubts that this is the area I want to work in. Because even though there is a good helping of geeky stuff in this field and this job, at the end of the day it’s still all about caring about people: presenting information in such a way that anybody can access or update it easily and simply. Because if it’s not arranged in a user-friendly way, if it’s not organised in a way that people can find it it might as well not be there at all. Put another way, what is the point of hiding your light under a bushel? As someone famous once said (Matthew 5: 15).


Leather chairs arranged around a board room meeting table

Jane and I got back from London last night, to discover amongst the mail on the doormat a letter from the University of St Andrews inviting me to an interview. On Wednesday. That’s right: this Wednesday; the day after tomorrow!

The interview is for the post of Assistant Information Architect/Web Manager, which would be such an ideal job for me, combining my love of Web design, usability, accessibility, content management and organisation.

Information Architecture (IA) is the discipline of combining the aesthetics and mechanics of Web technologies to create usable, accessible and attractive websites. IA is about helping create websites that can easily be used — how frustrated do you get when you can’t find something that you know is on that site? — updated and expanded.

The interview on Wednesday will begin with “a task”, probably something like bringing the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, Cerberus, to the surface without the use of any weapons, followed by an interview that includes a 10 minutes presentation about a website that I’ve developed.

If it is your discipline, please pray for me as I prepare for the interview, travel to St Andrews on Wednesday morning and for the interview itself. I’m really excited about what the post could offer me, and what I could offer it. Please pray that between the interviewers and I we discern whether this is what God wants for me next.

Computer says no

Last Friday (14 October) I went for a job interview at Heriot-Watt University. Yesterday morning I received a letter thanking me for attending, saying that the standard of applicants was high, but that I hadn’t got the job.

The job was for the post of Web Editor, initially a task of dealing with the backlog of site updates, but potentially moving into more in-depth PHP/MySQL database backend coding. I knew that my editing skills and my XHTML/CSS knowledge was certainly up to the task, but I felt that it would come down to how much they needed someone with solid database skills.

Since first meeting with the bishop a couple of months ago to explore my future beyond April 2006 — which is when my current appointment ends — I’ve been trying to think widely about what to do next. As far as full-time ministry is concerned, as I think I’ve blogged before, I don’t really want to ‘run’ a parish. Being a priest doesn’t have to equal being a rector or priest-in-charge.

I’m also a little uncomfortable with the idea of one person ‘running’ a church congregation; it can potentially lead to a temptation of feeling a little self-important. Which is a naturally human response: wanting to feel significant and important. But it’s not what priesthood is about for me. Priesthood is a bit more subversive, working in the background, encouraging others, building them up so that they can exercise their ministries and gifts. And I feel that ‘running’ a congregation would get in the way for me to do that effectively. That’s one thing that I’ve enjoyed about working in this team at St Salvador’s and the Church of the Good Shepherd: the admin side of the job has been shared between the congregation and the team.

Stipendiary (full-time paid) ministry is about giving the minister enough money to live (a stipend) which releases them from having to find paid employment work to support themselves and their family so that they can exercise their ministry more fully. Ironically, I’m now at a point where I suspect that I need to go out into the ‘secular world’ (another phrase I don’t like) to find employment so that I can exercise my ministry more fully.

But then maybe I’m reflecting something of where the Church is too. My future is uncertain right now; the future of the church is also unclear. And I suspect that the path the Christian Church also needs to take is outwards, towards the general population. We need to leave our quickly-emptying safe houses and get back into the community, whichever way that we can. During the last couple of years, the best conversations I’ve had, the deepest, most spiritual conversations I’ve had are with friends (mostly Joinees) in the pub. Or while sitting with people in hospital. Significantly, not in church buildings.

So many of my friends are leaving the Church — or have already left. It’s not that they are no longer Christians. It’s not that they have no interest in God, or developing their own spirituality. It’s that they no longer feel that the Church as it is today is meeting them where they are. (To be honest, I feel that most of the time too, so I’m not surprised that they do too.)

I’m left today with the disappointment of not getting the HW job, but encouraged that I got an interview at one of Scotland’s best scientific universities. That has to say something positive about my having the skills to compete in that market. I’m also disappointed that I currently can’t see a way forward to exercise my skills and ministries within the Church in a full-time capacity, and also that the Church currently doesn’t see reaching out in new, dynamic and simple ways to the general population as a number one priority. And again I find myself finding comfort in the story of Abraham called out from his comfortable life in Ur to be lead by God into the unknown.

I don’t know what’s ahead. At times it terrifies me, to step out into the unknown, to return to employment outwith the Church. But it’s also terribly exciting. All I want to do is to follow God, be obedient to God, and to use my gifts in a way that helps others and also fulfills me in a creative way.