The tech entrepreneur and co-founder of Decoded tells Agnes Frimston why everyone needs to know how to write software — and you can do it in a day
Should we be teaching Coding to primary school children?
Why would you say to people, ‘If you want to study math, go and do it in your own time’? There might be thousands of young people in schools who don’t even realise that they have a proficiency or passion for technology or data-science or coding. You don’t know what it is until you’ve done it. It’s potentially very creative and very collaborative. There’s a lot of problem-solving and it’s about exposing people to this. They might have a genuinely amazing talent for it but at the very least they’ll grow up with an understanding of it.
Is education to blame for lack of tech knowledge?
It’s an issue of education and culture. Most digitally literate people are self-taught and that isn’t ideal, especially since these skills are so in demand. Every business is becoming essentially digital, so you need digital literacy and skills within entire organizations now. At the moment, that just isn’t the case.
What is the aim of your company, Decoded?
Our day courses, of which Code in a Day is probably the most famous, are highly accelerated learning experiences that aim to take away the jargon and the fear associated with computer coding. It is possible to empower people with digital literacy in areas perceived as ‘dark arts’ or skill sets that are the preserve of the very few. A chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, or someone wanting to start their own business, needs the ability to hold knowledgeable conversations and to discuss concepts through technology in a meaningful way. Then they can start doing some real business.
Is it ever too late to learn?
Most people, whether they are a project manager or just entering the professional world, are making decisions, or managing teams, projects or external partners where they use, at the very least, a technical or digital aspect. But increasingly more and more of the workload is digital. When the boards of companies hire chief technical officers or chief information officers, you could argue that there needs to be a level of proficiency across every member of that board if they’re going to make the right decisions about recruitment, or their products, or how they evolve their retail offering. And the same goes for the person who is working in the shop and interacting with customers on a daily basis. It makes you better at what you already do. I don’t think that young people get it any quicker, they are just more exposed to it: they are handier with an iPhone. But they are just as clueless when it comes to what goes on behind that screen as somebody who is 65.
Where does cyber-security fit in?
It is very important to have an understanding of the concept of ‘open’ and what that means. Being able to have a discussion while knowing the history and context of these issues is a requirement for decision-making. Companies are spending millions simply storing and managing their data, let alone deciding what to do with it. There’s the debate about businesses, but also the debate about individuals: are empowering businesses and empowering consumers mutually exclusive things or do they go hand-in-hand? When you talk about data and cyber-security, there is this intense fear that the power and the knowledge is in the hands of either the very powerful or the very few. Our vision is that the knowledge is there for everyone, and anyone can understand these things. If you empower the individuals and the consumer, they are then in a position to know what is happening to their data, know how they can protect themselves, understand when there are infringements of their privacy and when there aren’t.
How would you like the computer science set-up to look in ten years’ time?
It’s amazing to see how much has changed in the past three years. When we started there was still a culture of ‘it doesn’t matter if I don’t understand this stuff, I’ll just outsource it’. It didn’t seem to be important that you might actually be out-sourcing the very thing that makes either you, or your business, valuable. A lot has happened on the code front — it is coming into schools, it is becoming mainstream, people are seeing that it’s not just a sort of techy thing for young guys. But having spent a good year and a half launching our Data in a Day course, I understand that a huge awareness drive is needed around data and security, and I don’t think that conversation has really happened yet.
It seems this is still a very male environment. Are women locking themselves out of a lucrative skill?
We have 50:50 men and women that come and learn with us. It stands in stark contrast to the national statistics where there is still a shocking lack of young women opting into technology careers. The only differences between the men and women that come and learn with us is that firstly, there are fewer women on boards and, secondly, a confidence thing. By our measurements, the women are on average 20 to 30 per cent less confident than the men when they walk into the room.
What I will always hear from women is, ‘I could never do that, I’m too stupid, my brain doesn’t think that way’. I can’t think of many other things in the world where a woman would actually stand there and say ‘my brain is incapable of that because I am a woman’.
When you look at traditional businesses, they were built over hundreds of years, and the whole culture grew up in a time when it was much less female-friendly. The business culture comes from an era that no longer really applies. But in the world of technology you can actually grow global businesses relatively quickly, and it’s happened in less than a decade. Facebook is ten years old. So the opportunity to actually create your own culture of business, your own way of working is just brilliant.
And then on the skills level, programmers are in high-demand, well-paid and it is a profession which lends itself more to flexible working. I’m a huge fan of anything that gives women opportunities to earn more, have a more flexible lifestyle. From my experience it is a very vibrant culture of community, collaboration, creativity, innovation and learning, far from the myths commonly associated with this world.
How will that change?
Myths are not so hard to change. And if you think of all the products that are affecting our lives, whether it is Dropbox or Google, this is our history in the making and it’s being written in lines of code. And it is being written by men and used by women. It will be fascinating to see what happens when women start participating in that. It’s exciting to think that we will actually have a say in the digital world. At the moment, women aren’t claiming their digital vote, and they are being silenced in a future digital history. But there’s no law telling women they can’t do it, there’s just a myth, and that’s something we can change.