What I learned in a weekend of coding with 110 kids
August 21, 2015

A few weeks ago, I helped organize the Great Arizona Code Challenge. It is the largest computer programming competition ever held for kids in Arizona. Here is a video from the event:


Given the inaugural nature of the event, there was a lot to learn. Here is a list of large and small lessons learned, in no particular order.

  • The future is bright. Fortunately, the kids that did show up were amazing. Not only are they equipped with some exceptional technical skill (internet, iphone, android,¬†video games, computer vision…), but they are also incredibly broad in understanding about the world, they possess a strong work ethic, and they are delightful human beings. It was an honor to associate with these young people.
  • A lot of people don’t show up. We overbooked the teen portion of the event, expecting about 20% of the registrants to fall through. With really high interest in the event, we had to turn kids away the last week. This made it all the more disappointing when half of the kids did not come for the teen portion (40 out of 80 registered).
  • Young people need mentors, not teachers. Maybe it was this specific group of kids, but the adults that helped at the Code Challenge (amazing people, all of them) did not do a lot of formal instruction. Many of the adults did not have strong technical expertise, and there was very little time planned for transmitting information. That was a little scary for us as we organized the event, but the reality was that the kids did not need or want lectures (with the exception of a few optional, short group sessions introducing select technologies). What they did need was encouragement, guidance, and a sounding board to solve tricky problems. They needed mentorship.
  • Anyone can code. I say this all the time in my meetings with librarians, but it was still surprising to see so many kids from such diverse backgrounds and experience levels, all coming together and creating amazing things. Some of the kids drove hours from their less populated cities; others came from down the street. Some had published iphone apps; others were just starting with html. Ages ranged from 8 to 18. Boys and girls. All major ethnic groups…you get the picture.
  • Energy! I have spent a lot of time around software developers, from hackathons for professional programmers to Code Clubs filled with tweens. But never have I seen the enthusiasm and excitement of 110 young people coming together to write code. At midnight, they were exploring the legendary Infusionsoft Cereal Bar. At 2 am, they were building block fortresses. At the closing ceremony, after long hours of thinking hard, they were laughing and cheering and seemingly ready to start all over again.

Overall, I was floored by the talented, delightful young Arizonans that came to the Code Challenge. The world is in good hands, so be on the lookout for world-changing innovation from this group. Also, I can’t wait to do it again next year!

Additional Resources

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