Kids Who Code

Founder, Thulani Matyeni (right) with Director, Kylie Roebeck (left)

Teaching kids to code is a passion for Thulani Matyeni and Kylie Roebeck, who believes that this vital skill should start entering the primary education arena.

With digital platforms permeating most aspects of modern living, learning coding skills is one area that is becoming popular as corporates and small businesses start head-hunting individuals with this particular skillset.

KidsWhoCode is a non-profit organisation which aims at empowering children from both affluent and underprivileged communities by increasing their skillset through teaching them how to program using various programming languages. Achiever spoke to Thulani Matyeni (founder and CEO) and Kylie Roebeck (director), who heads up the organisation, about the importance of coding and their love for teaching it.

Matyeni, originally from Gugulethu, says: “Coming from the township, coding has never been a popular skill to acquire, let alone knowing what it is, seeing none of us have ever seen a computer at home or even had the privilege to at least learn how to use it. So when I was in grade 10, I would go to the computer lab after school and play around teaching myself how to use it. I then went on to run a typing school when I was in grade 11.

“After grade 12, I got a bursary and studied IT and I heard about computer programming there for the first time. Shortly after that I taught myself how to code while I was still running the typing school and working as an IT Technician at the Amy Biehl Foundation, where I won the first ever Youth Spirit Award in South Africa. Lunch time was my best time to code, which led me to resign from my job and let go of the typing school and start KidsWhoCode.”

Roebeck, who runs the logistical aspect of the organisation says she has always had a fascination with how we as humans think and learn. “My fascinations with the various ways we process information lead me to complete a BSc in Human Life Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch. After completing my degree, I pursued a path in business, with a strong base in facilitation. Sometimes learning and education can be implemented very rigidly. I have strived to develop a system, ‘The Learning Revolution’, that is grounded in inclusivity, making learning not only easy and accessible, but also fun,” she says.

As Matyeni explains, “I have always been burdened by the need to bring a skill that will greatly impact the townships and then I got the idea to teach kids to code. I collected a number of kids; some from the school that allowed me to use the computer lab on weekends and others I took from the streets while I was training some of my friends. I wanted to test if this would work. Because nobody have done it before, I could not copy anyone, so I had to run it as a pilot for three months and lucky enough we caught some attention and got a contract from the Bandwidth Barn to teach 20 kids from Crossroads how to code during the holidays. Today, we still do holiday programmes with the Bandwidth Barn and other institutions.”

For Matyeni, coding is like teaching a child to fish, opposed to giving them fish to eats. “When you can code you are able to build apps or you can build websites and make a business out of it, and you can even pursue a career in computer science. Coding is something that can never be taken away from you once you have it and it opens so many opportunities,” he says.

Roebeck says after conducting a survey with students and parents, they were pleased to find that learning coding skills had an overall positive effect on pupils. Not only did they find an improvement in concentration and academic success at school, but students reported being focussed along with added levels of confidence. “Coding does more for a person than giving the ability to build apps and websites, it also develops one’s brain in problem solving skills, your logical thinking, and enhance ones mathematical abilities,” he says.

According to Matyeni the need for coding skills in SA is big. He says corporates are looking for these skills and that too often, vacancies for programmers and developers are left unfilled in absence of this skillset. He believes now is the perfect time for our youth to learn coding skills, given that we face a digital future. “If you don’t learn to code now, you will in the next 10 years wish you have learnt how to code”, Matyeni says. 

“Much like the way smartphones and PC’s have become common place coding will soon be as mandatory as being able to read. Being on the forefront of this wave, will help today’s youth to empower themselves in this very lucrative field.

“The IT field can be very profitable and there is a great demand. Some coders work for businesses, while others go on to express their genius in the form of application and game development, making them millions,” Roebeck says.

In terms of the education backdrop needed to enter the field, maths and science at a primary education level is important. Matyeni believes both science and maths at a school-level can benefit by taking hands with technical skills such as coding. “This is why we have made it our mission to impose the idea of teaching coding as part of the national school’s curriculum,” he says.

Roebeck points out that coding can be linked to nearly every profession. “While mathematics and science are important when considering a career as a programmer, it is still possible to learn to code without these subjects. Coding can even be linked to art when designing the aesthetic appeal of websites, apps and games. If one looks close enough you will find coding is integrated into just about every subject,” she says.

Roebeck explains that their core function is to provide world-class education to all, regardless socio-economic background. She says they have courses designed for everyone, ranging from primary school to social adult courses and that the environment fosters learning; a channel for creativity and platform to build social skills.

For Matyeni and Roebeck, stressing the importance of an inclusive learning environment ties in with ploughing back into the community. “Since the beginning of KidsWhoCode, we have been giving kids the opportunity to come and learn how to code during school holidays, sponsored by the Bandwidth Barn and now that we have partnered with the Cape Town Science Centre as well, we have managed to have Barclays ABSA sponsor 20 children from farms.

“It is very important that we keep sponsoring these underprivileged children because I was once in their position and I always wished someone would give me such a chance but never gotten one until I went full force to tame it myself. Therefore I want to make it my sole responsibility to do this for these kids because I know exactly how they feel and the desire to be empowered but never able to communicate what you feel inside. It is even more important for KidsWhoCode to embrace this culture because it was through walking into empty computer labs all throughout the surrounding schools from my home that the idea of teaching kids to code came about and most of all that’s what it means to be a South African brand, you give back with cheerfulness,” Matyeni says.

Roebeck adds that, “by building a brand that strongly promotes inclusivity and an environment that fosters hope, we believe we can create a sustainable platform to uplift to communities, thus providing a means to break the cycle of poverty and unemployment. We regularly work with children who come from tough socio-economic conditions. Most of them have a very limited view of what they think is possible to achieve. Suddenly, when exploring this new world that coding brings, these same children seems to light up.

“It gives them the confidence to dream, and empowers them to believe they can do anything they set their mind to, regardless of current situation. The impact that this form of education has had on students has been so wonderful, but it has also highlighted the lack of this sort of stimulation within our younger generation. One of the most testing aspects is seeing astonishing potential go untapped, especially in underprivileged communities, to due restricted funds.”

In March this year, they will be collaborating with Silulo Technology to teach kids in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Phillipi and all the neighbouring townships how to code. According to Matyeni, brand association has been a key to their success and have been involved with the 2015 Year and Beyond programme, as well the Bandwith Barn. “With that we are still offering courses at the Cape Town Science Centre and will be doing holiday programmes with The Year and Beyond project,” Matyeni says. “We look forward to bringing this form of IT education to schools across South Africa. KidsWhoCode has been selected as a technology partner by The Western Cape Government, to take part in the 2015 The Year Beyond Programme,” Roebeck adds.

Roebeck says going forward, they would like to expand beyond South African borders, as they believe every learner should have the opportunity to learn the art of computer science. They plan on making KidsWhoCode an international organisation and look forward to the day when they will be teaching coding as a subject to every school in South Africa.  

Michael Meiring 

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This edition

Issue 58