Computer science should be a core subject in all schools nationwide, from primary level, says the writer. Picture: Willem Law/ANA Archives
What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Nick D’Aloisio have in common, other than they are all phenomenally wealthy tech entrepreneurs? The answer: they started very young.

Gates coded his first computer game at the age of 13, way back in the late ’60s. He had had a lucky break: his school’s “Mothers’ Club” raised some money to buy a teletype machine, basically a dumb terminal consisting of a keyboard and a screen, that connected to a remote GE time-sharing computer. Gates took to the new device like a duck to water, and began writing his first code almost immediately. Seven years later, he went on to co-found what was to become the world’s largest software company, Microsoft.

Zuckerberg’s dad began teaching him to code using the BASIC language on an Atari computer before he was 10 years old. Like Gates, he found a passion for coding, and soon began writing some amazing programs. He created an instant messaging system which he called “ZuckNet” and a music player called Synapse Media Player with built-in artificial intelligence that could learn the user’s listening habits and recommend tracks.

All this he did while still in high school. This gave him the reputation as a computer programming prodigy.

Then, in his sophomore year at Harvard, which is equivalent to Grade 10, he wrote a program to help students to select which classes they should take based on a number of criteria. He called the program CourseMatch, and it was an instant hit with students, who struggled to select classes.

Soon afterwards, in 2004, Zuckerberg began to create a website that allowed shy young men to meet women by putting up a picture of themselves along with a bio and other personal information like preferences and hobbies. He called the site TheFaceBook. It was immensely popular among students, and he saw its potential as a social media platform and decided to take the concept to the world. Soon afterwards, he dropped out of Harvard and began working on an improved version of the website, which he subsequently called FaceBook. And the rest is history.

D’Aloisio began coding at 12, and at the age of 15, sold his app, called Summly, to the internet giant Yahoo for $30 million, making him one of the youngest self-made millionaires in the world.

All three stories have a recurring underlying theme: each learned to code at a young age. None set out to become rich or even to start a business; that happened afterwards. What they did do, was that they learned to code. Their new skillset allowed them to identify and solve some real-world problems that they themselves were facing. It just so happened that others were facing the same, and there was a ready market. In creating these solutions, they not only became fabulously wealthy, but also changed the world.

Coding skills are more relevant now than ever with the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where technology has pervaded nearly every aspect of our professional and personal lives. This is why I believe that every child should learn computer science and coding skills, whether they intend to get into a career in coding or not. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that computer science should become a core subject at all schools nationwide, from primary school level.

I have two main reasons for this: first, we all need a level of mastery over technology and computers, no matter our career. With rare exceptions, we all use computers and mobile devices at work or for personal reasons. Hence, it is essential that everyone, particularly children, learn how to make the most of this technology, while avoiding the pitfalls.

Second, the benefits of coding go far beyond just computers, technology and apps. It was proven via a number of studies that coding helps to develop logical thinking abilities, develops problem-solving skills and encourages creativity. When given a coding task, children were found to focus a lot more intensely than normal, and for longer periods, and they voluntarily persisted on the task.

Additionally, coding develops communication skills, because computers are a lot harder to communicate with than humans.

I think these are compelling enough reasons for every parent and school to seriously consider making coding and computer science an integral part of their curriculum.

There is already a drive in the US and in most European countries, and in many places it has already been implemented. In the US, this was given momentum by ex-president Obama, who launched the “Computer Science for All” initiative while he was still in office.

If South Africa is going to play a key role in the global digital economy, we will have to start providing our kids with digital skills from a young age.

* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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