The highest paying jobs go to kids who code
It's in your lights, your iPad, your smartphone. Any time we tap our screens or use technology we’re using code, and yet there’s a shortage of coders.
Michelle Sun learned how to code at 25 in Silicon Valley. She says that despite being good at math in school, programming was one of the most difficult things she’s studied. “If you look at the macro statistics of how Asian students perform in different subjects, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai have always ranked really high in math and sciences and whereas when you look at technology innovations, until recently most of the breakthroughs are happening in the West.”
She puts this down to a disconnect between technical and creative skills, both of which are essential to being a good programmer. She returned to Hong Kong, where she founded First Code Academy in 2013, with the goal of not just teaching programming to young people, but of bridging the technical side of coding with the creativity to solve problems.
Students at the Academy range from 6 to 18 years old, and all of them start by learning App Inventor, used by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students before moving on to the more complicated Game Salad and then to the languages Oliver kidsplained to me. But Oliver isn’t content to stop there, he’s asked the staff to give him private lessons in Java, something they’re not yet teaching. “Java you see everywhere, your lights are probably made of Java, iPhone is made of Java, basically everything made out of tech uses Java,” says Oliver. He wants to use it to make more “cool stuff” like robots.
At the ripe age of 10, Oliver knows what he wants to do when he grows up. “I play games a lot and I really like the thought of being able to make my own game or my own website. There’s all these great games out there, imagine if one day I could be responsible for one of them,” he says, his eyes lighting up.
The Academy is run on a trimester schedule with each semester costing about HK$6,000. They also run summer programs which range from HK$5,000 to HK$8,000.
“We actually spend a lot of effort educating the parents as well, to explain what we have been teaching in the classroom,” says Michelle. They even have workshops for interested parents.
Jayson Chi is a partner at McKinsey who specializes in Gaming. His 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter go to the Academy. “When I heard about First Code, I decided to give it a shot at the very get go. I think kids need to learn programming early these days, it’s a critical language they have to learn as they grow up and it’s a critical skill they have to develop as they grow up in society,” he says. He adds, “Learning coding not only helps them with their careers but definitely helps them in problem solving and thinking about issues structurally.”
Kitty Tam didn’t even realize her son was learning to code on his own when he finally asked her to find classes for him.
“One day he told me ‘Mom, I want to learn some kind of coding.’ I said ‘what kind of coding?’ And then he told me that actually he had self-learned two languages by himself, I didn’t know that before.”
Seventeen-year-old Sarah, who is heading off to study computer science at university this fall, has been at the Academy for several months now. “I get to make apps and show them off which is really cool. Before I was always thinking, ‘Oh I wish I could do this and I wish I could do that’ but now I actually can since I started here,” she says. Self-reported surveys by large tech companies like Google and Facebook show females make up less than 20 percent of technical employees while the larger tech community shows that number in the single digits.
But Sarah isn’t fazed by this. “As a girl I know I have to work twice as hard as a guy to get to the same place but I’m prepared to do that. And the more girls learn to code the less unequal it’ll get.”
Michelle points out that many apps have a wide female user base. “If you think about apps and websites like Instagram and Pinterest, a lot of these users are actually women, and women need to be part of the voice in creating this technology to serve the users better.”
Even at 17 Sarah feels like she’s getting a late start on coding. “Growing up if I had something like that, that would have just advanced me way further than where I am at now.”
Two years ago, representatives from tech giants including Microsoft, Facebook, and SAP appealed to European Union education ministers, to tackle the skills gap in ICT, saying an estimated 900,000 jobs in Europe would be left unfilled by 2020 if not addressed. The UK has since implemented computing into the national curriculum.
In Hong Kong, tech startups lament the lack of local talent. George Harrap, founder of Hong Kong fintech startup Bitspark explains, “Universities are producing graduates who understand programming languages suited for banks, but startups use something much different and more modern,” something he and other tech companies want to see more of.
Michelle says that "creative ability in a coder is highly sought after. A great coder will solve problems and think of multiple solutions for the same problem, they can see the pros and cons for each of the solutions. They’re able to challenge their own assumptions in each of these solutions.”
She says the starting salary for a good coder who is a fresh graduate in Silicon Valley is US$100,000. In Hong Kong the range for coders is about US$18,000 to US$53,000 annually, according to PayScale.
For now, 10-year-old Oliver already has requests to create apps and websites for friends and neighbors.
“The main request is from my neighbor, he’s starting to host these yoga classes on the beach and he would like me to make a website to advertise it,” he says.
I ask if he’ll get paid for it, and he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I don’t know.”
Get your young 'uns coding this summer at fun STEM-based workshops around the city:
CIIT College of Arts and Technology
-2D Game Design
-3D Animation Character Design
Engineering for Kids
-Power Up Camp
Galileo Enrichment Learning Program
-Digital Summer Camp: Computer programming for kids
Power Mac Center
-Basic Electronic Engineering
-Robotics Programming with Sphero
This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.