“Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

We are fast-approaching the point when a lack of some basic coding skills will be likened to being illiterate. If you are unable to modify a web page or use an HTML text editor, it will be like not knowing how to create a Word document or edit a PDF file. Coding does appear on some school curricula, but it is primarily taught in the context of maths, computer programming or IT skills. Whereas, if we look at coding as a language capability (part of a new literacy), it should be seen as an essential communication tool in itself.

quote-William-S.-Burroughs-language-is-a-virus-from-outer-space-92713First, I am aware that a number of programs for children are trying to teach coding and maths in more relevant ways, and having talked to some of their creators, I admire their ambition to place these skills in a broader context. Coding might be described as the “4th R”: alongside reading, writing, arithmetic we have reasoning”. So a program like Creative Coding HK (as it name implies) focuses on students making things; in the USA, KidsLogic is placing as much emphasis on contextual learning as on robotics; while Australia’s Machinam is re-writing the maths curriculum to teach practical, everyday problem-solving skills.

Second, as we know, learning the foundations of coding is like learning the syntax of a foreign language. However, while Latin and Greek can provide the basis for learning the structure (and many words) of many European languages, it’s not much use when learning character-based languages (Chinese, Japanese) – although there are common grammatical elements. But if we understand that a line of any code has to be structured a certain way, contain essential elements, define key attributes and run in a particular sequence or order, we may come to “read” and interpret what the code is saying or doing.

As an aside, I’m struck by the comments made by the founder of AssignmentHero during a recent pitch night. Although he had studied computer sciences at Uni, he did not use any of the formal computing languages he had learned when building his product. This highlights the downside of learning specific languages, which can become obsolete, unless we have a better grasp of “which languages for which purposes”, or find ways to easily “interpolate” components of one language into another (just as languages themselves borrow from each other). Or do we need an Esperanto for coding?

Third, even if I don’t want or need to learn how to program a computer or configure an operating system, knowing how to define and sequence a set of instructions for running some software or a dedicated program will be essential as more devices become connected in the Internet of Things. For myself, I have dabbled with a simple bluetooth enabled robot (with the original Sphero), acquired a WiFi-enabled light bulb (the programmable LIFX) and experimented with an iOS music app that incorporates wearables (the MIDI-powered Auug motion synth).

Finally, just like a virus, coding is contagious – but in a good way. At a recent event on Code in the Cinema (hosted by General Assembly as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival), there were three demos which captured my attention, and which I will be investigating over the coming months:

I think they show why, where and how many of us “non-computing” types will want to learn the benefits of coding as a new language skill. If nothing else, getting comfortable with coding will help mitigate some of the risks of the “digital divide”.

Next week: The arts for art’s sake….

Another #pitch night in Melbourne…

If there is one basic theme emerging from Startup Victoria‘s monthly pitch nights, it is this: whatever market you are in, regardless of your business model, and however disruptive you are trying to be, if you don’t know how to engage or reach your customers your idea is far less likely to succeed. This message came across loud and clear during last week’s event where four startup hopefuls pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges in front of a packed audience.

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

Picture sourced from Startup Victoria Meetup page

So let’s look at this specific issue in respect to each of the pitches:

First came JobPokes, an online recruitment service designed to help candidates match job opportunities to their career preferences. Because it claims to be addressing the hidden job market, candidates aren’t applying for specific roles – instead, it’s a form of reverse enquiry, where recruiters target potential applicants via their registered profiles. I applaud the focus on the non-advertised job market, but while it may well offer an additional channel for recruiters, I’m not sure there was a clear strategy to reach job candidates who need to create a user account, and who are probably already using platforms like LinkedIn and Seek.

Next was Airly, which is sort of “Uber for private aircraft”. The business model involves signing up a minimum number of customers (who pay a monthly subscription fee, entitling them to unlimited flights), and securing sufficient seat capacity via scheduled charter contracts. There is no doubt that the idea of flight flexibility, and an element of passenger exclusivity met with audience approval (Airly took out the people’s choice vote on the night). Also, the PR around Airly has generated in-bound enquiries, suggesting there is demand. But how does this market interest convert to individual customers, when many corporate travel policies rely on wholesale and bulk-purchase models (i.e., aggregation, consolidation, vendor discounts, agency rebates, preferred airlines) rather than catering for individual travel needs or preferences? Unless the target customers are business travelers that manage and pay for their own tickets?

If Airly was about the Uberisation of air travel, RagRaider revealed another aspect of the shared economy model. Squarely aimed at fashion- and budget-conscious women, RagRaider offers a peer-to-peer service whereby customers can hire clothes for one-time use. No doubt there is a market (high school formal, spring carnival, wedding reception…) but the question is how to connect with actual lenders and hirers? We know that the per customer cost of acquisition for 2-sided markets is a key metric, and it wasn’t clear how the founders were addressing this, other than a pre-launch website and some social media. As one observer has commented, the “model is focusing on the ‘product’ part first which is the reverse of how it should be”, and another commented that despite a defined market, the barriers to entry are considerable. The judges also questioned some of the proposed pricing, commission rates and logistics.

Finally, Rounded is another FinTech startup looking to service the SME sector, specifically sole traders, freelancers, sub-contractors and tradies. Another spin on the invoice solution when suppliers need to get paid efficiently, Rounded does not claim to be a full-service accounting software – but, as one attendee commented, key to success will be reaching and educating the end-user market.  Also, they are entering a competitive space, where a new entrant like Xero has already disrupted incumbents like QuickBooks, Reckon and MYOB. I wasn’t able to stay for the pitch, but I did have the opportunity to speak with the founders beforehand. Clearly driven by their own experience and needs, there is a solid but simple idea here – but as Xero and others are increasingly able to serve similar customers, Rounded will find it really difficult to compete.

If anything, these latest pitches showed how hard it is to compare apples with oranges, although the voting criteria (market traction, product viability, team composition, pitch presentation, and responses to judges’ questions) are designed to deliver a consistent evaluation. It was also apparent that these pitches divided audience opinion more so than previous contestants – which is probably a good thing as variety is the spice of life….

Acknowledgments: thanks to Graphican, Marlene M., Cornell and Dale G. for their input.

Next week: Re-Imagining Human-led #Innovation