National Coding Week helps plug critical digital skills gap

SCOTTISH businesses may struggle to fill crucial IT roles in the future if a growing digital skills gap is not addressed, experts have warned.

Dr Martin Goodfellow, Scottish amabassador for National Coding Week, with young coders Megan McArthur and Isabella Herbert. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS
Dr Martin Goodfellow, Scottish amabassador for National Coding Week, with young coders Megan McArthur and Isabella Herbert. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

As more sectors of the economy embrace new technologies there has never been a greater demand for experienced computer programmers. But despite a renewed focus on the subject in recent years by schools, not enough pupils are pursuing careers in the sector - despite the often substantial rewards that top tech firms can offer.

Encouraging youngsters to learn coding in a fun and friendly environment is the job of Dr Martin Goodfellow.

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The 30-year-old has an PhD in software engineering and a burning desire to encourage more people to take up the subject. He was hired by Glasgow Life last year to become the Mitchell Library’s in-house coding expert, helping to organise classes across the city.

But his remit for the next week expands far wider.

Dr Goodfellow is also the Scotland ambassador for National Coding Week (NCW), an annual event with the aim of encouraging people of all ages to improve their digital literacy.

Running from September 19-25, free introductory sessions to the subject will be offered at events nationwide.

“What we’re seeing in the UK is a skills shortage,” said Dr Goodfellow. “We need more coders. It’s coming around as so many more sectors of the economy are embracing technology. We need more people with the right skills.”

NCW was established in 2014 by Richard Rolfe, a former head teacher from Jersey. From humble beginnings it now organises events across the UK, US and Australia.

“We are a group of volunteers who want to create taster sessions for parents, teachers, business leaders, school leavers, the unemployed, people with autism or those who have retired,” said Rolfe. “It’s open to everyone.”

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Dr Goodfellow was asked to become the event’s Scotland ambassador in recognition of his work with the Coder Dojo, a highly popular coding taster session for children.

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“The traditional routes into the industry have changed since I went to university in 2004,” he said.

“Back then, you really needed a degree to be considered for a job. Now kids are embracing the subject at a young age and by the time their 18 they have enough skills to be employed as programmers.

“Coding is really just a different way of thinking. Many people presume it’s difficult, but everyone I sit down and encourage to try it for the first time remarks on how much easier it is.

“It’s like learning another language.”

The perceived difficulty of computer science is still a problem. But learning the basis is easier than many people imagine.

“Visual programming languages have really been pushed in recent years and are a great place to get started,” Dr Goodfellow continued.

“The popular Scratch language shows the code as blocks - it’s almost like Lego - and you can slot it altogether.

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“Computers are very literal. So if you misspell something in written code, or don’t use the correct characters, the command won’t work - but these visual languages get around that.

“They allow you get programmes working fast, while at the same time teaching you the core concepts of programming. They act as a lead on to the more powerful languages.”

Dr Goodfellow hopes that as the public image of coding changes, so to will the industry’s male-dominated demographic.

“It’s something people have been trying to change for a good while,” he said. “One of my remits is to encourage more girls into computer science. I think a lot of girls still think computing is for boys - which of course it’s not.

“Coding is becoming as important as reading or writing. It’s a fundamental skill that should be taught as young as possible.”