The Joy of Junior Hacking

I think I might be in trouble. My ten year old son has started learning HTML and in the first 24 hours he made as much progress as I did in my first month of learning it.

I started coding in 1982 (yes, that’s how old I am), when I asked for a Sinclair ZX Spectrum for Christmas and my parents got me a Radio Shack TRS-80 instead (or trash-80, as the cool kids called it). It had about one good game which meant I had to learn to create my own. So I learned BASIC. In my school lunch hour I would go to the computer room, a cupboard-like space under a back staircase, and practice coding while also getting the chance to play the games other kids had made, saved as they were on a huge floppy disk.

Remember those?

Back in 1982 coding was an activity none of my teachers understood and was sternly frowned upon. But things are very different now. My ten year old is a Scratch master, is now learning HTML and CSS, and is desperate to learn how to create Minecraft mods. This is all strongly encouraged by this teacher,who lets him and his friends showcase their work in ICT lessons and at the end of the school day (including work they’ve done at home).

This weekend I took my son and two of his friends to a hack weekend organised by the BBC as part of Birmingham Digital Week. They were set a challenge to create a Mother’s Day-themed app over the course of the weekend. They teamed together with some other kids and created the Child Creator, an app to design your perfect child. Better than a bunch of flowers any day!

My son was one of the youngest kids at the event, and the apps produced by some of the older kids were truly awe-inspiring. One group created an Android app to help you learn about the history of Birmingham as you move around the city, using geolocation and tapping into various APIs. They used a language they’d never worked with before and weren’t the slightest bit daunted by the idea of doing something new with a tool that was new to them too.

This got me thinking about the future of the web and of web development, and the fact that us oldies run the risk of going the way of the dinosaurs when these kids grow up. Kids are coming out of school now with a toolkit of programming languages which is five times as varied as the one that I use. These kids have no distractions to keep them from experimenting with new ideas and new technologies, and they don’t have the hangups that stop them from trying something new and learning from mistakes. They don’t have a mortgage to pay so needn’t worry about focusing on something that earns money, which gives them the freedom to keep learning and developing.

People like me who have been working with code for years need to find our own USP if we’re still going to have a place in the digital world. For example, if all you do is build websites, there’ll be an eighteen year old doing it just as well as you for less money. If you create apps, there’ll be a graduate with ideas that are more innovative than yours. And if you work with small business, you’ll find that over time all those entrepreneurs will be able to create their own basic site.

So what can we do to keep afloat, and to beat these kids at a game we define? Well, I think that there are two ways – by trading on your experience (by which I mean not just technical experience) and by finding, developing and ultimately adapting a niche for yourself. Your experience isn’t just about the languages you’ve learned – it’s about the real world experience you have of working with clients, providers, employees and projects. Finding a niche isn’t what it once was either – find a niche, dig it deep, but be prepared to fill it in and dig a new one as things move on. Get too firmly entrenched in one specialism and you run the risk of being left behind when no-one wants people with that skill anymore.

What are you doing to keep ahead of the game as an experienced web professional? Do you think your experience gives you an advantage? Have you found a niche, or developed multiple niches over time? I’d love to hear people’s experience in the comments.

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