Jack Dorsey, best known as the creator of Twitter and Square, was 15 when he wrote dispatch software which is still used by some taxicab companies. As impressive as that sounds, kids are now coding at half that age and raising venture capital before they are old enough to drink beer.
Consider London-based Nick D'Aloisio, now 16, who raised $250,000 last year for his start-up Summly from Horizons Ventures, the private investment vehicle of Hong Kong real estate billionaire Li Ka-shing, a backer of Facebook and Spotify. Summly simplifies the content of Web pages. Its modest mission? Build a better Google.
Then there is Shane Curran, a Dubliner who at age six installed Linux on a computer. He went on to create Libramatic, a cloud-based application for smartphones, tablets and other Internet-enabled devices that automates a library's tracking system by scanning books' ISBN numbers. “My school spent a large sum of money on a system that didn’t do much to help librarians,” says Curran, a scheduled speaker at Dublin Web Summit. “I figured it could be more modern and web-based so I decided to create Libramatic.” He’s now 12 and teaches other kids to code.
It is little wonder then that Irishman James Whelton, a co-founder of CoderDojo (pictured on Informilo's home page), a global network of not-for-profit computer clubs that teach kids to code and develop websites, apps and games, feels like he is over the hill. “My youth is gone,” says 20-year-old Whelton who has been writing computer code for more than a decade. “It’s a scary thought. I see these really, really young kids come in to the clubs and it just freaks me out.”
CoderDojo, which celebrated its first anniversary this summer, attracts would-be coders who are as young as six (though the average age is 10-13). That is not to say that the club is closed to those over 21. Meetings are often attended by parents, who serve as chaperones.
The Dojos, as the individual clubs are called, are run and taught by volunteers, who also organize tours of technology companies and talks by guest speakers. There are now over 100 clubs in more than 20 countries, some in far-flung locations such as Uganda and Indonesia.
“It all started quite unexpectedly,” says Whelton, who is scheduled to speak at the Dublin Web Summit for the third year in a row. “I was a very nerdy kid. When I was around nine I started teaching myself how to code on the Internet because as I went though the educational system I realized there was nowhere in school for me to learn," he says. "I won an award and got some notoriety for hacking the iPod Nano so a few guys came up to me at school and said, 'that’s cool; can you teach me how to do that?'”
An impromptu get-together attracted 40 kids. Whelton got permission from his school in Cork to have twice-weekly meetings for “a fight club, but with keyboards.” Kids told friends who went to different schools. Word quickly spread, Whelton got calls from people at other schools who were interested, and soon families were driving as much as three hours each way to attend the club.
“A friend of mine wanted to bring the classes to Dublin and pretty soon people from all over Ireland were asking for clubs,” says Whelton. International expansion soon followed.
A special session of CoderDojo was held at the Irish parliament in July, recognition of the club’s popularity in Ireland and the fact that it has been churning out some highly-successful Irish pupils. Chief among them is another Dublin Web Summit speaker, Harry Moran, who last November created PizzaBot, a game that he uploaded to the Apple store, quickly shooting to the top of the charts ahead of popular titles such as Angry Birds and Call of Duty. At the time, Moran, who was 12, was thought to be the youngest person to create a game uploaded to the Apple App Store. PizzaBot, which evolved from an assignment given to Moran at a Cork CoderDojo, is similar to Space Invaders, the famous arcade game created in the late 1970s. The difference is that rather than shooting at aliens the player controls a slice of pizza that guns down evil pepperoni.
Other CoderDojo alums include Jordan Casey, a 12-year-old app developer whose success with the Alien Ball VS Humans game for the iPhone and iPad helped earn him an invitation to speak at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June.
“There are many ways to judge the success of CoderDojo and it’s not necessarily about some kid creating a massively successful app,” says Whelton. “It’s about getting other kids interested in programming and having fun creating things.”
Twelve-year-old Casey gets that: in addition to creating Alien Ball VS Humans he has established his own CoderDojo branch, which just might be the breeding ground for an even younger creator of an Apple app.
While Ireland is full of talented young coders, plenty of tech prodigies can be found everywhere on the globe. Arfa Karim Randhawa, a native of Pakistan, was nine in 2004 when she became the youngest Microsoft Certified Professional, which means she had the skills necessary to manage Microsoft networks. Impressed by the precocious Randhawa, Bill Gates invited her to visit Seattle, where she met the Microsoft founder and toured the company’s campus. Randhawa continued to develop her skills and was programming in several complex computer languages before dying this year at 16 from heart problems.
Then there is Sujay Tyle, who was 14 when he co-founded a charitable organization called ReSight in 2008 with the aim of democratizing eye care services for the underprivileged. He was accepted into Harvard the same year. While studying there, Tyle, a scheduled speaker at Dublin Web Summit, worked at the Blackstone Group in Tokyo and conducted malaria research in Dakar, Senegal. Now 18, he is on leave from Harvard. A recipient of one of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s 20 under 20 Fellowships, Tyle has opted for a role as vice-president of business development at Scopely, a venture-backed social gaming company in Los Angeles.
While there are no clear rules on what it takes to become a tech prodigy, perseverance is a required quality. Moscow-based Efim Voinov and his twin brother Semyon, the co-founders of ZeptoLab, the company behind the wildly popular Cut the Rope game, started creating digital games when they were just eight years old. They launched more than two dozen before they had a solid success. “We were lucky enough to have friends who also shared our love for making games from childhood, so we just thought it was normal,” says Efim, now 30, a scheduled speaker at Dublin Web Summit.
Turning a love of coding and a successful 79-cent app into lasting fame and fortune is, of course, not so simple. Just as the music charts are stocked with one-hit wonders, there are hundreds of thousands of young coders and very few grow up to become a Bill Gates, Sergey Brin or Jack Dorsey. But one thing is for sure. With kids as young as two playing with iPads, the median age of tech prodigies is likely to drop even lower.