Cork Student Starts an IT Movement That Goes Global

March 7, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
James Whelton, at Dogpatch Labs Dublin (Martin Murphy/The Epoch Times)
James Whelton, at Dogpatch Labs Dublin (Martin Murphy/The Epoch Times)

DUBLIN: The Change Nation ‘Festival of Solutions’ is due to take place in Dublin this March, and the organisers promise attendees “a unique opportunity to discover 50 proven solutions from around the world that can change our nation, to meet the social innovators behind them, and to explore opportunities to get involved.”

In a statement, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has welcomed the Change Nation initiative. “Social innovation is especially valuable because it can create radical new alliances between communities, government and business to address fundamental social and economic challenges,” he said. 

One of the projects that will feature at the ‘Festival of Solutions’ is CoderDojo, a not-for-profit coding club for young computer enthusiasts that is the brainchild of 19-year-old Cork student, James Whelton. 

The Epoch Times spoke to James at Dogpatch labs in Dublin last month to find out where the idea came from.

James explained that CoderDojo is a network of free computer clubs for young people. The idea is that young people can come along to a club and develop web, iPhone or whatever type of apps they wish at sessions run on a regular basis. 

The idea initially came about when James was in his final year of secondary school in Cork in 2010, when he won an award for web design.

“The school called it out of the intercom like all proud schools do…so I had a couple of student come up to me saying “that’s cool, how do I make an iPhone app, or how is a website made?”, so I asked my school if we could get a computer room and host a computer club and see what happens.”

James said he didn’t think much would come of it: maybe a couple of his friends would turn up and they could re-enact The Breakfast Club. However, 40 students signed up, and for the rest of the year, twice a week, James taught the basics of HTML, CSS, some C programming, and JavaScript. “It got to the point where people from other schools were e-mailing me asking if they could come to my school after class.” 

The idea has taken all involved by surprise, with 11 Dojo’s now located around Ireland and more in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Berlin. “I was out on Arainn Mhor off Donegal last Friday opening one there,” said James. 

The project really came to life after James met up with Eoin Jennings who in turn introduced him to Bill Liao, an Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist, at the 4th Dublin Web Summit last March.

James said he and Bill spoke about the idea behind the club and the socioeconomic benefits it could have. 
Mr Liao told The Epoch Times that he got involved in the project because he and James could both see that a generation of kids were growing up to be users instead of creators.

“James is now focussing full time on the initiative, and he has the potential to become the next Jimmy Wales. CoderDojo is an Irish movement…that is returning a modern day type of enlightenment across the world,” explained Mr Liao.

James started developing websites from the age of 9. At that time there was nothing like CoderDojo for school children. There are also many technology vacancies in Ireland that remain unfilled, and James’ and Bill’s CoderDojo’s could certainly help to rectify this issue.

The two teamed up and decided to set up a computer club; they got a space in the National Software Centre in Cork, and came up with the name CoderDojo because a dojo in karate is a place of learning. “We thought it was a cool title and we had a really good response when we first opened,” said James.

“The really stunning thing to us was we hadn’t really advertised it, yet we had people travel from all across Ireland to it and shortly after we got requests from other parts of Ireland on how they could replicate the CoderDojo.”

“We have now created a system and infrastructure, a kind of framework and model, and we are going ahead and opening them up all around Ireland,” explained James.

The Coderdojo phenomenon is not just relevant to Ireland. James explained that after it was setup here, he started to get a lot of interest from other countries via twitter. “This morning on twitter I had people from Bangladesh contacting me who are interested. It is just an idea that a lot of people wished they had when they were younger…there are a lot of young developers doing their own thing and they are on twitter and they want something like this,” said James. 

“We are just going where the demand is, we have a lot of locations in the States and a lot of companies are being really passionate about it like twitter, Github, facebook and google, they are all fantastic guys. The guys here in Dogpatch labs, Polaris Venture Partners, they have been incredibly supportive, they brought me over to America before Christmas and I got to meet all these different companies…it was just a mind-blowing thing. So we are really poised now to go international with this. Pretty much become like the boy scouts of coding,” said James, positively boiling over with passion and excitement. 

The Young Coders

On whether the children’s interest in the project are parent or child-driven, James says that if a child is below the age of 13, then they try to get the parents to hang around while the project is running, mainly because the service is free and they don’t want parents to use it as a baby-sitting service!

“We get kids who really pester their parents to stick around for the two or three hours, it’s handy having them there too because they can help out, some help their children with the coding, but primarily it is driven by the children.”

James also believes that the social interaction for these children is very important. “When you see the children in this environment, they are bouncing ideas off each other, and they are then coming up with new solutions, it’s almost like a big think-tank … every single dojo there have been slight variants of things happening, people come up with new stuff and they define their own path, the social side is becoming quite important.

“With CoderDojo we are creating a greater social impact, it won’t be a profitable venture but it is a really worthwhile cause.”

On starting your own dojo, James explained that they have guidelines on how to do it on their website, and they actively encourage people to contact them (more details on www.coderdojo.com) so they can walk you through the process.

The medium term plans for the project are to make sure there is a dojo in each county in Ireland (32 counties north and south) as well as getting set up in more states in the US and more cities in mainland Europe like Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, and London.

“We want to establish this really strong network of young developers, to have an absolutely stellar next generation of young developers and creators. At the moment the current generation are being brought up as consumers, not creators…we need people to be creating more content, so it’s about creating more creators than consumers.”