Decoding Early Coders With Ian Lam

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 11 February 2016. )

Coding is no longer merely a pastime of geeky hobbyists; in recent years it has fast become an extremely valuable skill-set in various communities and industries. Websites, smartphone apps and game consoles all work because of code, a virtual soup comprising a vast multitude of machine languages which are employed to deliver precise instructions on how functions and displays are implemented. Without Mark Zuckerberg's crazy passion for coding since he was a kid, we probably wouldn't have Facebook today. If Bill Gates hadn't gotten his hands dirty by learning to debug the operating system of the local PDP-10 timeshare as a teen, the world would still probably be fawning over typewriters and chalkboards instead of efficient computer operating systems.

On 1 September 2014, the British government made it compulsory for coding basics to be taught to all children (between the ages of 5 and 15) in school as part of the rolling-out of a new computer-science learning initiative. Even our own Singapore Prime Minister sat down to write a Sudoku solver in C++ (okay it was later revealed to have been written in C, but that's besides the point). Coding is the future, nothing more, nothing less.

Enter Early Coders. Founded by Ian Lam and Kong Yu Jian, this Singaporean start-up strives to impart the knowledge of coding to youths in a technological landscape where the demand for competent programmers far outstrips its supply. Young as it is, Early Coders has garnered a fair bit of positive attention in local circles, even being featured by the Singapore Management University (SMU) and Vulcan Post. By a stroke of luck, we managed to get in touch with Ian himself, who was most generous in granting us this opportunity to obtain greater insights about the establishment-the pretty and not so pretty, the victories and challenges experienced, as well as ambition(s) for the coming years.

QN: Good day Ian, allow me to first express my gratitude to you for obliging to this interview. Why Early Coders? Any specific event/instance in life which spurred you to jump into the business of grooming programmers?

ANS: Yujian and I have participated in coding competitions called hackathons before with Yujian being more actively involved in that scene. We noticed that there is an increasing trend of younger programmers signing up but there is still a lack of schools providing formal programming education. We wanted to do something for this industry and hence Early Coders started.

QN: What developmental speed bumps did Early Coders hit, and how did you overcome them? Any "memorable" one which had a particularly significant take-away lesson? Anything you would have done totally differently in hindsight?

ANS: We had a tough time having to find the best place to conduct our lessons. Fortunately one of our teachers interned at a coding company before and allowed us to use it during the weekends. Apart from that, we had to scale down our curriculum to make our lessons approachable for kids. The whole process helped us in reaffirming our passion for teaching and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

QN: Teaching kids to code-now that's one seriously burgeoning industry. Other competitors such as Coding Indonesia and Saturday Kids have joined the market of late-how do you seek to differentiate yourselves from the rest of the pack?

ANS: We believe in practical applications of code and one of our strong points is that our teachers are both well connected as well as proven in the industry. Our teachers have won coding competitions as well as worked on large scale projects for corporate companies and hence have the experience that comes with real world application. In addition, we are well networked with computer science professors as well as coding companies which allows us to organise events such as coding competitions in the future. Our students should expect not just to learn the theoretical approach to coding but have the pride of programming their own applications.

QN: On the other hand, some may argue that online setups such as Code Academy and Khan Academy (which are completely free btw) are already good sources of self education for coding amateurs . So why even pay to attend coding courses?

ANS: We feel that while these courses are beneficial, they should serve as a complementary source of learning. We do know of successful programmers who have learned solely from these resources alone. However, to get the fullest potential out of the child, it takes a teacher to guide and mentor a beginner coder.

QN: Let's talk a bit about your classes; how many are held per year in all on average? What are the class sizes like? How do you handle instances of students signing up when the slots are completely filled?

ANS: Our class size holds around 10 kids and we currently only have 2 slots available every Saturday. There is one class in the morning and another in the afternoon. We would have to place students on our waiting list for the start of the next course as it can be disruptive and unfair to the other students who have already advanced in the current course cycle. Our courses are weekly and lasts for around 20 weeks on average.

QN: Then again, we noticed a section of the online application (to enrol at Early Coders that is) requires the applicant to state his/her level of proficiency in the area of programming. How does that reconcile with the other rationale of yours which only accepts learners who are aged 13-17 years old?

ANS: As there are some schools who already offer programming courses, we seek to complement their learning by offering more advanced courses. Kids who have already undertaken our beginner courses often will opt for our more advanced courses developing them into proficient programmers. In this way, our filtering system helps us find the best programme suitable for each child.

QN: How exactly is the curriculum designed to reduce the intimidation factor of being exposed to programming jargon for complete noobs? Are they actually taught how to script technical lines of code, say html or java for example? More importantly, what is the concrete take-away for learners at the end of it all?

ANS: It is indeed agreeable that programming jargon can get intimidating. What we've done to mitigate that, is to abstract away the more complicated layers of programming, by specifically tailoring our course material to be as simple as possible. Of course we take pride in the fact that we review the way universities teach programming, and we emulate the best practices while ensuring that we are able to tailor it to our target group. Noobs needn't be afraid, because us veteran programmers were once noobs as well, and understand the misconceptions commonly committed.

It is always important to question the language being used :) and in our case, we will be teaching JavaScript in order to impart computational thinking, algorithms, CRUD functionality, to name a few technical course materials we will be going through. On top of that, we wish for our students to be able to build upon that coding knowledge, and be able to embark on their own projects, which is why we will be teaching HTML to enable them to create web applications. I believe for programmers, the most important takeaway is the mindset of “Learning how to learn”. Programming is a tough business which is ever-changing: new languages, new frameworks, new technologies are some of the challenges programmers have to face. “Learning to learn” will enable these students to adapt in the current landscape of programming and technology, which will continue to morph and change for the better :)

QN: To a certain extent, whether an education outfit can be deem as one of great repute is seen from the caliber of prodigies it has nurtured. Do you forsee a protege or alumni of Early Coders eventually coming close to building a blockbuster app rivaling Rovio's Angry Birds or Facebook’s Whatsapp?

ANS: This is an interesting question. Us founders, have ever contemplated this issue of the quality of students we wish to have graduate from our course. Ultimately, we do wish for our students to be able to graduate from our course, to be able to move on to greater things. Facebook, WhatsApp are some of the applications mentioned. Yes, we do believe that what we are teaching our students are relevant in helping them make a step towards that direction. And yes, we are confident of building an alumni of Early Coders which possesses the technical know-how to create applications of scale as per aforementioned.

QN: We understand there are ongoing plans to conduct your own coding competitions and hackathons in the months to come. Would you be able to reveal some exciting details about the (above mentioned) events that hasn't been made known to the general public yet?

ANS: We do have sponsors who are willing to collaborate to conduct hackathon. What these means for our students is that, they will have the opportunity to win a monetary prize, while being able to create creative products that will potentially be used by these sponsors. (I.e. their creations get deployed!) This opportunity is very enriching and invaluable for any budding programmer, being able to take a product from conceptualisation to deployment. In fact, students are able to attain a more desirable portfolio, heck, these companies may even be keeping an eye out to employ these students when they come of age!

QN: Summer coding camps in various parts of Asia are all the rage these days. Might Early Coders ever consider explore the feasibility of conducting these sometime?

ANS: We do have our considerations why we conduct our lessons over a long period of time. This is to provide a holistic education for our programmers, and to provide them with a strong foundation. In the event that we do conduct summer coding camps and the likes, it will be in all likelihood, be more like workshops, and less like full fledged classes.

QN: Peering into the future, how do you envision Early Coders? What is the next major course of action charted, as far as business strategy is concerned? Might there already be concrete intentions to export its offerings beyond the shores of the little red dot?

ANS: We wish for Early Coders to become one of the bigger players in Singapore’s smart nation push. In fact, we have many more programs lined up for our students. We intend to impart knowledge on newer technologies which will eventually be the trend, instead of obsolete technologies or languages. Yes, we have every intention of bringing our offerings overseas, primarily with our eyes set on the asian region currently.

QN: Before calling it a wrap, any parting words for our readers?

ANS: Us at Early Coders, envision the future where technology literacy becomes a necessity. Gone are the days of manual labour, or even high skilled labour, with talks of Artificial Intelligences being used to conduct accounting in firms, while having the odd one or two human accountants to review figures. No job is safe from being obsolete, with the future of technology heavily disrupting the current employment scene. “Just a degree” in any form of specialisation, will no longer guarantee a stable job. This is why there is a heavy emphasis placed on programming literacy, to enable fresh graduates, and workers to maintain currency. In fact, the trend has already been set in motion, with countries all over the world pushing for programming literacy and the likes.

You have been most patient and helpful with all the queries rendered. I wish you the very best in your endeavours, and may Early Coders make Singapore extremely proud on the global stage someday! :)