Q&A with Pamela Fox of GirlDevelopIt

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Pamela Fox started the Girl Develop It chapter in San Francisco where she runs events and teaching workshops. She’s also the brains – and voice – behind most of the Khan Academy programming courses. Claire Comins quizzed her on learning … Continue reading

Beyond the password

There comes a point in life where you have to start practising what you preach. And so it was that today I started to code. Not developing, not making apps, just fiddling about with code. And it was fun! Here’s a line by line account of how it went at Young Rewired State’s weekend coding event.

9.30am: Arrive with two daughters in tow. Marvel at the wonderfulness of the GitHub office a moment’s walk from AT&T Park on San Francisco’s Bay. Stripped wooden floors, chrome fittings, a state of the art kitchen, zinc bar, gigantic fluffy beanbags, sleek teak chairs. I could live here.
Also, there is fresh coffee on tap.

2013-11-09 10.20.4310.00: Sit on designer bench and watch my kids making themselves at home fooling around with the photo apps on the iPad. Start sketching out ideas for a virtual reality soccer experience game. Realise it could work. But I don’t know how to code.2013-11-09 10.20.51

10:30: Line up with the other mentors, introduce myself to the kids in the room, all under 18. Feel like a fraud. Walk around and hear the kids ideas. They want to stop petty crime, fix dangerous cracks in city sidewalks, highlight areas of pollution, find all the bookstores in a city. No one is building a game. Am I the only kid around here?

11:00: Eavesdrop on the kids who are now forming teams. The ones who aren’t brainstorming winning ideas around the ping-pong table are already writing lines of code. Can it really be that hard?

11:30: With my own kids hacking ideas with a developer mentor, I find myself on my third cup of coffee and looking at a blank iPad screen. The nine-year-old next to me has logged into codecademy.com. She’s writing code. Anything you can do….

11:35: Codecademy.com requires passwords. Twitter, Facebook or gmail. Realise I know none of my passwords by heart. The nine-year-old is laughing, but then confesses she has trouble remembering her passwords occasionally too. I change my email password.

11:40: I log in, password is rejected. Wonder what has happened to my short-term memory.

11:45: Long-term memory of 10 minutes ago kicks in. Remember password. Hello codecademy.com lesson 1!

11:47: OMG! I have written line of code. Ok, the nine-year-old helped.IMG_2337

12:00 The caffeine mingles with coding adrenaline and I mess up my second line of code. Decide it might be an idea to read the instructions codecademy kindly provides on the left-hand side of the screen. The nine-year-old sees what I am up to.
“Don’t waste time reading,” she says. “html is only interesting when you just do it.”IMG_2339

12:05 I delete the messy code and have another go. Of course, the kid is right.IMG_4340

12:25 I hack through to lesson seven of the 13 introduction exercises. Feeling pretty confident by now and even tweet the contents of my iPad screen. Who said girls can’t code?IMG_2342

12:30 Lunch! Join all the other young coders. I’m in the gang!

Claire Comins attended Young Rewired State’s first coding weekend in San Francisco. To find out about YRS weekends in other cities and the international Festival of Code in 2014, see youngrewiredstate.org

SF kids code for fun for free!

It’s official. Coding is cool and kids round the world want to learn. UK-based not-for-profit Young Rewired State (YRS) has just pulled off a Festival of Code for over 1000 kids across the UK and project coordinator Kaitlin Dunning is keen to promote the US version, launching this weekend in San Francisco.

‘The idea is to get kids across the world coding together,’ says Kaitlin, who works with her team in YRS HQ in the UK. From the British experience alone, it’s clear that YRS has tapped into a thirst for coding that is not being addressed in schools. And it’s all kinds of kids who flock to the weekends that provide mentors for aspiring developers from as young as six years old.

Beyond the nerd
‘A YRS weekend is not just for geeky coders,’ laughs Kaitlin over her coffee in the cafe where we’ve met right by London’s Tower Bridge. ‘It’s just like learning anything else. A lot of kids have other interests, especially the girls.’

The pre-teens and teens (the cut-off age is 18) work together over the weekend to make apps. They arrive with varying levels of developing skills – no experience is required to attend – and leave having had a lot of fun creating a working version or demo of an app. No fancy laptop needed – when you’re working in a team, an iPad can work as well as the latest software on a MacBook Air.

Going for global
With no shortage of willing mentors or enthusiastic kids, YRS is well on its way to fulfilling its mission: to find and foster every young kid to driven to teaching themselves to code. Weekend coding festivals have been held across Europe from London to Berlin and there are plans to launch weekends across America and Europe, as well as South Africa, Singapore, and Korea in 2014.

First up, though, is the programme’s expansion to the US with a weekend of free app making support for kids in San Francisco. Ironically for a city that gives birth to so much innovation on a daily basis, Kaitlin says this weekend (November 9th-10th) has been the hardest in terms of media attention. ‘Maybe it’s because it sounds like so much else that’s going on,’ says Kaitlin. ‘However, that’s not the case. We are different, we aren’t just another start up. We involve youths, who are the future of the tech industry.’ With the tech industry not only providing role models for wannabe entrepreneurs but also real jobs for college grads, it’s clear supporting kids coding is crucial.

‘We’re not so much about teaching, but bringing together people,’ says Kaitlin, explaining how what the kids learn from each other is just as important as the training they get from the mentors, a mix of university students and full-time developers who recognise the need to ‘give back’.

Community matters
‘We’re trying to make YRS more of a creator community than a user community,’ she adds, explaining how YRS is setting up post-event support for kids through meet ups and encouraging online communication between attendees. YRS relies on sponsorship and partnerships to cover the costs of venues and marketing and so far has had no trouble in pulling in the big names: Facebook, SAP, and Google in the UK Festival of Code, and Github, Sendgrid, and Keen.io the weekend in San Francisco. But what the program really needs, says Kaitlin, is regular European and American partners so the small team can focus on expansion rather than fund-raising.

‘The ideal is to have to this huge network of like-minded kids supporting each other,’ expands Kaitlin. Without a technology curriculum that includes teaching code or a solid network of coding clubs, learning to code has traditionally been an isolating hobby. Online resources like Team Treehouse, Codecademy and in person Coderdojo and Code Club meetings, along with Code Now and Code for America programs, have made a big difference to this, and by supporting online tuition with real events, YRS is making coding a social experience.

‘We see kids working together across the globe via Facebook and Twitter with our hashtags, they also communicate via the IRC on our YRS site, and subsidise in person meetings with Google Hangouts and Skype sessions’ says Kaitlin, describing how the kids who had attended the UK events mentored the American kids at YRS New York, the first YRS event outside of the UK.

Next up
In a world where education and creating job opportunities for the next generation is a hot topic everywhere, you can’t help but applaud this not-for-profit with a big global mission. For details on attending, supporting or sponsoring YRS, check out the links below. The big plan for 2014 is an international coding week called the Festival of Code in August, a step up from the previous UK only Festival of Code. Sounds like an opportunity waiting to be captured.

To register https://youngrewiredstate.org/yrs-everywhere/yrs-san-francisco

Watch a 5 minute video all about Young Rewired Statehttp://youtu.be/rP33dwTRFGM

T: @youngrewired #YRSSF
F: YRS Facebook

Kidscontent Founder Claire Comins is a volunteer mentor for YRS
T: @clairecomins

App-solute beginners

App makers need to be masters of many disciplines to be successful. A quick guide to get your app on the right track using lessons learnt at Renaissance

Define your audience
You’ve got a clever idea for an app. But who is it for? Write a description of the one person who typifies your target audience. For kids apps, you have a double market – the person who holds the iTunes password and the little person who’s going to go crazy for your app. List their age, sex, where they shop (online and high street), their passions and interests, and use it to work out the ‘digital world’ they inhabit – apps they will probably be using and websites they visit regularly. This will help you focus your app and is useful to refer back to as your app develops and you write the all-important description for the App Store.

Know your industry
Sounds obvious, but check someone else hasn’t created an app like yours already. If so, do you still want to go ahead? Decide how yours will be significantly better. Freemium with in-app purchases is the norm but if your app is highly targeted, charge for it and cultivate a ‘fan club’ who help promote your app when you offer price promotions etc. Your app is more likely to succeed if it can do one thing brilliantly.

Be social and tell your story
Where is your target market hanging out? Get involved on social networks like twitter and Facebook. Be part of the debate; join a campaign your target is championing. Find out what apps and websites they recommend. Attend events, chat to people. Don’t wait until your app has shipped to get your story out. Create a simple website and facebook page for your app, let people know what you’re doing and collect email addresses as long before your launch as possible. The more you make people feel part of the action, the more likely they are to be early adopters.

Do a demo

It takes two to test Toca Boca Birthday Party

Before you write or outsource one line of code, make a demo. It’s great if you’ve got some graphics, but a demo can be as simple as pieces of paper for each ‘screen’ or ‘character’ using the words, numbers or pictures you plan to use. Give your test user a very simple instruction (e.g. ‘feed the fish’) and see how it goes. Sit quietly and observe, ideally with a camera positioned to record how they interact with your demo app. Make notes for any screens that prove confusing. If your app is for more than one person to share (eg parent/child, child/child), you’ll need more testers – playing the game yourself is not a fair test!

Get design savvy
The App Store has trends just like fashion. App design dates. Keep an eye on what’s new. What style will appeal most to your target? Fonts reflect the character of your app and sound effects are a great addition and economic alternative to actual animation. Your app’s icon is the digital equivalent of a shop window. Make the icon match the design you’ve used within the app and keep it simple. It’s a mantra that has worked famously well for Apple.

Choose your words carefully

Clear instructions from Duck Duck Moose

Take out the mobile devices and apps you use every day and look at them critically. What are the words used for the calls to action? Some of the most successful kids apps have no words at all. Games apps only need instruction when a user gets to the next level. If your app is looking too wordy, you could follow the journalist’s rule of thumb: ‘if in doubt, leave it out’, just giving enough guidance to make sure your user is never confused.

Test your app
The hottest kids apps out there are like best-selling toys. They were only launched after a lot of testing, both before they were manufactured and at the final stages. Selecting only one App Store territory as your testing area allows you to iron out problems or bugs before your real all-territories launch. Canada and the UK are popular choices for select testing English-language apps. Always include an easy way for users to contact you and expect most comments to be negative, highlighting problems with the app. If this is the case, fix problems fast. Listen to your audience and your app will have all the more chance of success.

Claire Comins was at the Renaissance iOS app makers conference in San Francisco, January 2013