Head of Labs at comparethemarket.com, BGL’s price comparison site, Alex Shaw believes our current technological generation has a responsibility to inspire children with STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths). This is achieved by supporting schools and local communities in the development of engineers, helping to safeguard the digital future of the UK whilst building a generation of technologically literate people that don’t just consume, but create.
Alex, has been working hard with the support of the Group and various charitable organisations, including Young Rewired State (YRS) and Code Club, to equip future generations with the digital skills needed to kick start a career in tech.
How did a career working with code, start for you?
I began by playing with a Spectrum - writing code for games, shifting sprites about, reading books, getting free cassettes from magazines - just learning code by trying to realise the things I could imagine. I didn’t think of it as learning to code back then. Computers didn’t really feature in schools during my education, I taught myself. It wasn’t until university I realised how much I might enjoy it professionally.
Alex Shaw, Head of Labs, comparethemarket.com
Why is there a need for future generations to learn to code?
There is a digital skills gap, one that is challenging all industries and as society relies more on technological solutions there is a greater demand to deliver all aspects of the digital world faster and smarter than ever before. The need for people who can operate in this world is increasing at a significant pace. We’ve previously relied too heavily on self-taught developers and tech enthusiasts to fulfil these roles, which has created a shortage of people entering the industry with the right skillsets.
What is BGL doing to help fill this skills gap?
There have been exciting and significant changes to the UK’s technology curriculum in recent years. The new curriculum is brilliant, it teaches children to create as well as consume technology. As a business, it’s important that we help support this education by engaging with students to show why we think a career in technology is a great choice, full of creativity, opportunity and learning.
It starts with the Code Clubs we run in primary schools, BGL supports our commitment to these clubs by encouraging flexible working hours. Helping eight and nine year olds learn about the internet and showing them how easy it can be to build wonderful things, from websites to physical devices, really captures their imagination.
As well as being given the time and flexibility to run Code Clubs across several schools within the local area, we have been working closely with University Centre Peterborough
(UCP), who have seen a significant growth in Computer Science recently. We have been working closely to help them improve and refine their syllabus, introducing them to modern techniques and helping give real examples of opportunities where they can apply their knowledge.
Our developers often give lectures and talks to classes at UCP. We currently employ a number of people that have graduated directly from the university. One of our existing Software Engineers, who graduated from UCP, used to be a window fitter, and wanted to retrain so put himself through university but was finding it hard to envisage where a career in tech might take him. At the time, a member of our UX team gave a talk around the processes compare
.com had taken in building and trialling, through muti-variant testing, a new navigation and this inspired him to carry on with his degree, apply for a summer placement with us, and ultimately work for BGL. He is still here years later, still learning and part of the team that powers our business.
BGL also run a dedicated, technology focussed, graduate programme
aimed at encouraging graduates with a passion for all things tech to join our scheme. It’s an 18-month programme that offers exposure to different areas including delivery, software, data and operations across our brands. We integrate our graduates into real business challenges, it’s not just about letting them see what goes on, it’s about encouraging them to help, giving us their often-unique opinion and helping us deliver great results for our customers.
What do you think to Computer Science now being taught as part of the curriculum in schools?
Computer Science has only recently become part of the curriculum, compared to traditional sciences like Maths, Physics and Chemistry.
Recently there has been a paradigm shift in thought, started (at least in part) by one of the UK’s renowned computer scientists Simon Peyton-Jones. Simon has helped to redefine the curriculum into one of creativity rather than consumption.
Traditionally, education has taught us how to operate computers and use software. To read and not to write. As a discipline, Computer Science is about taking the best of technology and using it to empower society, change people’s lives for the better and solve problems. For me, it’s a return to the days of learning how to build great things, science is the enabler, creativity the fuel. Teaching how to write code will help enable future generations to imagine and build solutions to challenges we can’t even begin to imagine yet. I think it’s a great thing and as an industry, it’s in part, up to us to help inspire those future generations.
Our computer science curriculum is world leading, we were the first country in the G20 to ensure that every child aged 5 – 16 is schooled in coding. Teaching algorithms to primary school children at the age of five as a subject, it’s completely unique. Other countries are starting to catch up, but they are looking at what we’ve done in the UK.
Students learning to code
What are the challenges facing teaching children to code?
We have great teachers in our schools, who care deeply about their students and are incredibly motivated. They understand teaching, how to inspire and get the best from children, but they have been given a curriculum for a subject that is still new and evolving.
We need to make sure we help support the education system by sharing digital advances and changing practices to ensure the syllabus stays relevant to industry. There are kids I’ve met at 15-16 who are as good as, if not better, than many of those I’ve seen in professional teams. The only thing they lack is confidence, soft skills, and some experience. They come, in part at least, from having a job in a great company. The enthusiasm they have to learn can be infectious.
When an inquisitive student asks their teacher how an application works it would be great if they had access to a support channel or network of industry experts. They could ask an engineer to come and give a short talk, demonstration or even help build a working example, to take that journey together and relish the enjoyment of finding out.
What encouraged you to get involved with Code Clubs and supporting young developers?
Programming is such a creative industry, every piece of software starts with a blank page that could be solved using hundreds of different languages – at an early stage, it doesn’t really matter what you write it in or how you write it – simply, that what you write solves the challenge.
It’s a combination of being really creative, using scientific approaches, and solving problems that makes coding fun. The curriculum is only the start and I wanted to share my love of creativity, help to demonstrate that a little knowledge can go a long way to building great products and tools. Every single year I learn new things from the children I interact with.
As a company, we support our communities and help grow talent within the local area, putting in place a long-term framework to help and inspire and in turn, identify and eventually hire talented people.
It’s our duty, as computer scientists, developers and engineers, to inspire future generations to become pioneering creative entrepreneurs, to help capture their imagination, enlighten them to a world where they are empowered to change all our futures – you can do that by running a Code Club. It is hard work, but there are moments you’ll never forget, it’s very rewarding and great fun too.
I’m proud to say the clubs we run have very quickly become one of the most popular after school activities. The limited places fill usually in minutes and the feedback we get from both parents and students is always encouraging.
What would you say to those interested in setting up a Code Club?
Do it! There are many challenges, finding a school, getting a few hours off work, learning the curriculum you want to deliver, not to mention learning how to work with and engage children, skills which are incredibly useful in professional life. It’s a lot of effort, but the reward is exponentially worth it, maybe one day one of those children will grow up to be part of creating things that we can only dream of now.
What techniques have you found that are most successful in teaching kids code?
The content/curriculum is key. Code Club do some really good off the shelf tutorials, they give you worksheets and they help show the kids how to make games and websites. The content isn’t the hard part, the challenge for me was learning how to engage with kids - it takes time and experience. There are some basics however, be honest, don’t try to pretend you know everything and when faced with a question that might not have an obvious answer go on the learning discovery together, show them how to use Google, how to find documentation, how to filter results and apply the knowledge. Learning how to learn. Those are the skills that will last a lifetime.
Aside from Code Clubs, what other organisations are you involved with?
Agile Peterborough and Open City are two organisations I founded to help build a local technology community. There are others too, Digital People in Peterborough is another superb example of a community focused group running some excellent events including the Peterborough STEM festival which BGL is sponsoring this year.
I’ve also involved been with Young Rewired State (YRS), a national charity founded to support older autodidactic (self-taught) kids (starts about nine but goes up to 17). This isn’t run through schools, it’s not worksheet based, children have to sign up for YRS as an event.
YRS ran a week of coding in the summer, kids registered and then were assigned to a regional centre. BGL registered as a regional centre in Peterborough, the only one in the local area. Students came to our Head Office for a week to work on an open challenge, to build a product that solves a problem they identified, using an open data source. Crime statistics, or weather data for example. Employees from within the business made themselves available to support and mentor in all aspects from writing complex algorithms through to simple presentation skill.
At the end of the week, everyone goes off to a national final, where all the centres, from across the country, come together and pitch their ideas in a Dragon’s Den style event.
The kids work on everything from wireframing and sketching, branding, website development, creating databases and handling the data. They do the whole thing and are given no direction. We’re there to help them, to guide, to get them over some hurdles but essentially it is down to them.
TechCrunch editor interviewing BGL YRS represetivite Tommy at the YRS Final Birmingham
Why should businesses care about helping to enhance the next generation of digital talent?
There’s a really simple answer to that - it financially makes sense - it’s expensive to recruit and retain staff. Both of those things are helped if you’re growing your own talent. At BGL we nurture talent, recognising that the students we’ve interacted with during their education want to forge a career and progress with the brand, becoming ambassadors for a happy workplace. If you engage with these children/young adults early on in their development, they will often want to join a company that has helped encourage, nurture and inspire them.
Secondly, there’s a massive cultural benefit - encouraging your staff be involved in educating others is a really rewarding activity. It helps them to grow and develop skills they maybe didn’t know they possessed. Kids are by far the toughest audience to stand in front of, and will question everything you say and have an ever-shortening attention span! I’ve seen members of my team develop in confidence and communication through running and supporting Code Clubs.
Finally, it’s amazing what we can learn from students of all ages. Children are way more creative than us, looking at the Torrance tests for creative thinking, at the age of four, 93% of kids are almost genius scale on this creative test and as they progress through life that decreases. We teach them patterns and rules and we insist everything has to follow the rules and that can block them from considering creative options. By the age of 11 its reduced down to 34% and by the age of 17 it’s down to 11%.
Engaging with kids at a young age helps to demonstrate that we need them to hold on to that creativity and along with a good education, they might one day be able to be part of creating a better future for us all.
You can find your nearest Code Club by visiting www.codeclub.org.uk